African Women: A Modern History

By Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch; Beth Gillian Raps | Go to book overview

4
Powerful Women

Women's reproduction and agricultural work are often linked in fertilitybased religions. Procreation not only gives women prestige but through rituals fosters their identification with vital forces. Because power was defined in Africa by authority not over inert, limited factors of production such as land but over one's own life and that of others, women's power depended greatly on their children. A woman without descendants was by definition powerless. In contrast to men, whose identity came from their ancestors, women's identity came from their children. Among the Nuer and elsewhere, a man was called "son of so-and-so," while a married woman was called "mother of so-and-so" (normally her first-born son). Even today, the value given to procreative capacity and motherhood (female identity linked to fertility) is probably a major difference between concepts of women's emancipation in Africa and the West. In Western society to associate woman with nature in opposition to man, the symbol of culture, is to condemn her to inferiority. 1


Women Chiefs

In subsistence societies, where women's role was key to survival, men certainly asserted their political supremacy, but women always retained opportunities for power. These were particularly clear in matrilineal societies. Offices and wealth were passed down through the female line. Men's power was more diffuse as a result; life was organized around the mother. The maternal line was so important that real power sometimes fell into the hands of women. Even among the Tonga, where women's submission was great, there were women chiefs who had power over very limited units of production in this area of widely scattered homes. One woman chief, Namulizili, divorced her husband and established her own village around 1900 with five of her unmarried children, a married daughter and her husband, a sister and her son, another sister and her husband, her daughter and daughter's husband,

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