Historians and political scientists had claimed through the 1980s that African women had chosen to disengage from the state and to withdraw from formal politics. They had suggested that “with the prevailing public-private distinction, women's issues are not conceptualised as political, thus rendering politics of little use to them”,1 and that “the victimisation of women by the state had fuelled a conscious assertion of independence”.2 Kathleen Staudt had very pessimistically asked if the state could “ever accommodate women's comprehensive gender concerns” and she doubted that it could be sufficiently transformed to “be part of the solution to women” (Staudt 1987:208). In 1991 Chris Allen had charged that such interpretations were loaded with conservatism since they denied the possibility of democratic struggles, particularly by women, which would represent neither withdrawal nor incorporation but a remaking of politics (Staudt 1987:208).
Allen was proved right with his suggestion that in the 1970s and 1980s African women were not so much withdrawing from politics but rather being excluded from political decision-making and from using politics as a forum to pursue their own struggles, feminist or not. In fact, unlike other subordinate groups women were not excluded from politics per se, since they gained the franchise together with men. Uneducated urban women with middle-class ambitions and rural women, for example, had formed the majority of party members and the backbone of political parties in both democratic and one party post colonial states.
The wave of democratisation in the 1990s and the promise of a re-making of politics that it carried with it inspired different women with different expectations and ambitions to engage in political activities and to seek political office. That it encouraged women who had previously appeared to have consciously withdrawn from formal politics, such as young professionals, suggests that they were not opposed to politics or the state as such but to specific political systems that excluded them and their concerns.
In all the countries surveyed here women had forced their way into the politics of anti-colonial movements against male resistance, and they had done so with the expectation of gaining a better society, and bettering their own position within it. That women meant to come out into the public arena was evident by the insistence they placed on public positions, be it as party mobilisers in Zambia and Botswana or as combatants in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. There and elsewhere in the region women entered the public arena____________________