Aspects of Elite Women's Activism in the Gold Coast, 1874-1890

Article excerpt

A spate of studies has gendered Ghanaian historiography and mainstreamed women's history in recent years. The emerging corpus of literature encapsulates both precolonial and colonial themes, including marriage, family, and kinship; ideology, religion, and rites of passage; social change and the diffusion of innovation; and economic transformation and political evolution.1 Enriching our understanding of women's struggles, advocacy, and achievements, the trajectories of this feminized historiography have been fruitful in framing new questions and demarcating terrains of syntheses. Overall, historians of the Gold Coast (modern Ghana) have done remarkably well in overcoming the lack of sources that had impeded the reconstruction of women's history. As a result, they have succeeded in centering the struggles and achievements of women in the historiography. However, the inadequacy of written sources on women's history -the result of the patriarchal distortion of information in the colonial period2 -still poses challenges to the reconstruction of women's history. One area that has been clearly delineated3 but still lacks adequate empirical studies is the activism and agency of elite women who sought to improve women's lives. Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch has aptly pointed out that while men's activism in the Gold Coast "has been much studied, women's probably comparable role has been less so."4 Commenting on the writing of colonized women's history, Clare Midgley asserts that the "quantity of research is uneven, reflecting the differential access to resources for research and publication which is one of the legacies of British imperialism."5

This study is a contribution to the literature on the agency of elite women in the Gold Coast, their active participation in a colonial society in flux, and their efforts to better the conditions of women in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Due to the paucity of sources, this article will not attempt to construct a precise chronology of women's agency and activism but will focus on piecing together the available primary sources to provide a cohesive account of elite women's political, social, and educational struggles. I use the concept of activism here as a paradigm to explain organized, structured advocacy and activities, which the elite women hoped to use to improve the position of their group and that of Gold Coast society as a whole.

The article is divided into three sections. The first examines the contributions of the Native Ladies of Cape Coast (NLCC) to the success of the British-led armies in the course of the Anglo-Asante War of 1873-1874.6 I suggest that these contributions point to pro-colonialism, but also enabled the elite women to gain important political concessions from the incipient colonial state. It also offers a critical assessment of the NLCC role in generating petitions against the abolition of slavery in the Gold Coast in 1874-75.7 Economic self-preservation may have been involved, but their efforts show that women were part of the overall African elites' vigorous negotiations with the colonial state. The second part looks at a special column in The Western Echo, published and edited by James Hutton Brew at Cape Coast between 1885 and 1887.8 Legitimating women's concerns, the column served as an agency of women's empowerment. The final section examines elite women's involvement in voluntary associations and communal festivities, which enriched women's lives and facilitated networking and dissemination of ideas.

Elite Women: Comparative Historical Perspectives

The term "elite women" in this article broadly refers to women who belonged to the upper strata of society. As a group, the elite women were literate, wealthy, influential, and heterogeneous.9 Conceptualizing elite women as the "daughters of imperialism," Ifi Amadiume states that European imperialism "taught [them] not to challenge patriarchy."10 Certainly, the "daughters of imperialism" had visceral attachments to the imperial ethos," were subjected to patriarchy, and benefited from its nepotistic distribution of resources and favors through the structured processes of social relationships, achievement, and ascription. …


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