Every 31st day of July is celebrated as African Women’s Day across the continent. This is a day that has been earmarked to recognise and affirm the role of the African woman in the evolution of a strong Pan-African identity.
In this article, in no particular order, I bring to your reading pleasure 10 African Women Who Shook the 20th Century.
Huda Sha’arawi (June 23, 1879 – December 12, 1947)
Huda Sha’arawi was an Egyptian feminist leader, suffragette, nationalist, and the founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union.
Sha’arawi founded a number of organizations dedicated to women’s rights and is widely regarded as the founder of Egypt’s women’s movement.
In 1908, Sharawi assisted in the establishment of Egypt’s first secular philanthropic organization run by Egyptian women, a medical dispensary for underprivileged women and children. She and her husband were staunch supporters of Egypt’s independence from the United Kingdom, and Ali Sharawi was a founding member of the nationalist Wafd party. In 1920, she founded and served as president of the Wafdist Women’s Central Committee. The open participation of Egyptian women in the nationalist movement marked a watershed moment in Egyptian society. Never before had there been such a large number of women publicly engaged in political activism.
Following her husband’s death, Sharawi shifted her focus from the nationalist movement to women’s equality. She founded the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923, with the goal of achieving woman suffrage, reforming personal status laws, and expanding educational opportunities for girls and women.
Huda Shaarawi’s heart had long been subjected to inhumane strain, and she died on December 12, 1947. In line with historical studies that are no longer only interested in “great men,” several books and dozens of journal articles about her life have been published in recent years.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (October 25, 1900 – April 13, 1978)
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti was born in Abeokuta, now Ogun State Nigeria, at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1914, she became the first among the six girls to enrol at the Abeokuta Grammar School, where she later taught. In 1919, she moved to Wincham Hall School for Girls in Cheshire, England, to further her education. By the time she returned to Nigeria in 1922, she had dropped her Christian name, Frances Abigail, no doubt, in response to the racism she had encountered in Britain.
Ransome-Kuti quickly became associated with some of the most important anti-colonial educational movements in Nigeria and West Africa, and she fought diligently to improve women’s access to education and political representation.
In 1944, she founded the Abeokuta Ladies’ Club (later the Abeokuta Women’s Union), which was dedicated to defending women’s political, social, and economic rights and went on to become one of the most influential women’s movements of the twentieth century. Her unwavering commitment to cooperation, solidarity, and unity compelled her to participate actively in politics, most notably in the 1946 pre-independence constitutional negotiations.
Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, one of the most prominent leaders of her generation, served with distinction and was awarded the Vladimir Lenin Peace Prize in 1970.
When her son, Fela’s compound, a commune known as the Kalakuta Republic, was attacked by armed Nigerian soldiers in 1977, Funmilayo was thrown from a second-floor window, where she fell into a coma and later died on April 13, 1978. She was 77.
Miriam Makeba (March 4, 1932 – November 10, 2008)
Popularly known as Mama Africa, Zenzile Miriam Makeba was a South African singer, songwriter, actress, and civil rights activist who campaigned against apartheid and white minority rule in South Africa.
In 1954, she began her career as a professional vocalist, primarily in Southern Africa. Her singing and recording had made her well-known in South Africa by the late 1950s, attracting the attention of Harry Belafonte and other American performers.
With their assistance, Makeba relocated to the United States in 1959, where she launched a successful singing and recording career. She sang a wide range of popular songs, but she excelled at introducing Xhosa and Zulu songs to Western audiences. She was also well-known for her anti-apartheid songs.
She was denied re-entry into South Africa in 1960, and she lived in exile for the next 30 years. Her records were banned and her passport was revoked by the South African government in 1963.
South African Black activist Nelson Mandela, who had just been released from a long prison sentence, encouraged Makeba to return to South Africa in 1990, and she performed there for the first time since her exile in 1991. Despite her health issues, she continued to perform in the years that followed, and she died of a heart attack, at the age of 76, shortly after giving a concert in Italy in 2008.
Wangari Maathai (April 1, 1940 – September 25, 2011)
Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She was also the first female scholar from East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate (in biology), as well as the first female professor in Kenya. Maathai was an active participant in Kenya’s democratic struggle and a member of the opposition to Daniel Arap Moi’s regime.
In 1977, she launched a grass-roots movement to combat deforestation, which was threatening the agricultural population’s means of subsistence. The campaign encouraged women to plant trees in their communities and to think about the environment. The so-called Green Belt Movement spread throughout Africa, resulting in the planting of over thirty million trees.
Maathai’s mobilization of African women was not limited to working for sustainable development; she saw tree-planting in the context of democracy, women’s rights, and international solidarity.
Maathai was an elected member of Kenya’s Parliament who served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in President Mwai Kibaki’s administration from January 2003 to November 2005. She was a member of the World Future Council’s Honorary Council. Maathai, an academic and author of several books, was not only an activist but also an intellectual who contributed significantly to our understanding of ecology, development, gender, and African cultures and religions.
On September 25, 2011, Maathai died as a result of ovarian cancer complications at the age of 71.
Thérèse Sita-Bella (1933 – 27 February 2006)
Thérèse Sita-Bella, born Thérèse Bella Mbida, was a Cameroonian film director who became Africa’s and Cameroon’s first female filmmaker.
She was born into the Beti tribe of southern Cameroon and was educated by Catholic missionaries. She went to Paris in the 1950s to further her studies after receiving her baccalaureate from a school in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé. Her interest in journalism and film was sparked in France.
Sita-Bella began her career as a journalist in 1955. Later, in 1963, Sita-Bella became Cameroon’s and Africa’s first female filmmaker. Sita-Bella worked in France for the French newspaper La Vie Africaine, which she co-founded, from 1964 to 1965.
When she returned to Cameroon in 1967, she joined the Ministry of Information and rose to the position of Deputy Chief of Information.
Sita-Bella directed the documentary Tam-Tam à Paris in 1963, which followed the Cameroonian National Ensemble on a tour of Paris. Sita-Bella was regarded as a trailblazer and one of the few women working in the male-dominated film industry.
Sita-Bella died of colon cancer on February 27, 2006, at the age of 73, in a hospital in Yaoundé. The Sita Bella film hall at the Cameroon Cultural Centre was named after her.
Angie Elizabeth Brooks (August 24, 1928 – September 9, 2007)
Angie Elizabeth Brooks is best known for becoming the second woman and the first and only African woman to serve as President of the United Nations General Assembly in 1969, a position she held with zeal and contributed significantly to the United Nations drive to maintain global peace and security. Despite the fact that she inherited numerous challenges, including South Africa’s occupation of South-West Africa (later Namibia) and South Africa’s apartheid policy – two major and interconnected conflict-causing situations. This is just one of the many outcomes she achieved as the council’s leader.
Other resolutions, such as 276 and 283, had been adopted by the time Angie Brooks took office as President of the General Assembly in 1970, reaffirming the Council’s position. The Council also passed Resolution 284 requesting an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the legal implications of South Africa’s continued presence in Namibia, and the ICJ ruled in 1971 that South Africa’s continued administration in Namibia was illegal because it violated the UN Charter and other relevant rules and principles of international law. The extension of its apartheid policy to Namibia was also found to be a flagrant violation of the UN Charter’s purposes and principles.
Angie Brooks was a key figure in all of the processes that eventually led to the Republic of Namibia’s independence on March 21, 1990.
Brooks passed away on September 9, 2007, in Houston, Texas. She was 79.
Jeanne Martin Cissé (April 6, 1926 – February 21, 2017)
Jeanne Martin Cissé was a Guinean diplomat who was the first woman to be appointed as the United Nations’ permanent representative.
Cisse began her career as a teacher in 1945 and served as a school director from 1954 to 1958 before entering politics. Cisse joined the Democratic Party in 1959 and worked in the Federal Office of the Kinda Region. She was the National Assembly of Guinea’s first African secretary, second vice-president, and first vice-president. Cisse also served on the National and Regional Women’s Committees of the Assembly before becoming secretary-general of the Conference of African Women from 1962 to 1972.
Cisse was the first woman to be appointed as a permanent representative to the United Nations (1972–76), and she also presided over the UN Security Council for the first time.
She served as Guinea’s minister of social affairs from 1976 to 1984. Cisse was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1975 for her contributions to improving the lives of African women. Her work has focused on empowering women to become politically, economically, and socially active citizens in their own countries.
Martin Cissé died on February 21, 2017, at the ripe old age of 90.
Aoua Kéita (July 12, 1912 – May 7, 1980)
Aoua Keita was a Malian anti-colonial activist and midwife. She was born in Bamako and was accepted into the city’s first girls’ school in 1923. She later went on to study midwifery at the Dakar School of Medicine, where she graduated in 1931. As a member of the African Democratic Rally (RDA), she helped to establish women’s wings within the party and was in charge of electoral campaign literature in the various posts to which she was assigned as a civil servant and a midwife.
She was appointed as the RDA’s Commissioner for Women in 1958, and the following year she was elected to Parliament, becoming the first woman from French-speaking West Africa to be elected to her country’s national legislative assembly.
Parallel to her political activities, Aoua Keita established a women’s trade union in 1956, and later assisted in the formation of a Panafrican women’s organization.
Fighting for better living conditions for African women, she was instrumental in the drafting and eventual enactment of the Marriage and Guardianship Code (1962), which granted women in Mali new rights. Her autobiography, published in 1975 and awarded the Grand Prix littéraire d’Afrique Noire a year later, is a remarkable account of an African midwife’s professional and political commitment during the colonial era.
Asnaketch Worku (c. 1935 – September 14, 2011)
In addition to being Ethiopia’s first actress, Asnakech Worku was one of the country’s most popular and controversial singers and harpists.
Worku was born in the Addis Ababa neighbourhood of Sidist Kilo around the year 1935 and raised there. Her parents divorced soon after she was born, and she never met her father. Worku was raised by her godmother, whom she disliked, after her mother died when she was three. She later moved in with her older sister and the two enjoyed attending plays and concerts together. Asnaketch Worku began performing in small bars and cabarets after purchasing her first krar for only 25 cents.
She was a divisive figure in the 1950s due to her beauty and performances in romantic dramas. Despite her long and distinguished stage career, Asnaketch is best known for her abilities with the krar, as well as her quick wit and inspired improvisations. Her musical career really began in 1963, when she played Desdemona in Othello.
Her first album, “Krar songs by Asnaketch Worku”, was released in April 1974 under the Philips-Ethiopia label. It was moderately successful, but it was removed from the market after the revolution began. Her songs were popular on the radio during the 1970s. Asnaketch spent 30 years at the National Theatre before retiring in 1989, though she continued to act in the 1990s.
On September 14, 2011, Asnaketch Worku died at Bete Zata Hospital in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia.
Maria Mutola (b. October 27, 1972)
Maria Mutola debuted in international athletics at the age of 15, and she remained at the top for over two decades, competing in six Olympic Games and winning Mozambique’s first Olympic gold medal in the 800m in Sydney in 2000.
Mutola, who was born on October 27, 1972, in a shanty town in Chamanculo, a Maputo suburb, showed great promise at football from an early age but switched to athletics at 14 on the advice of renowned writer and poet José Craveirinha, who saw her huge potential as a middle-distance runner.
After months of preparation, she won a silver medal in the 800m at the African Championships, which qualified her for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, where she competed at the age of 15. Though she did not advance past the first round, the experience served her well in the future.
Mutola is regarded as one of the greatest 800m female runners of all time by many track insiders and fans due to her consistent good results in major championships and her exceptional longevity, which saw her compete at the highest level for two decades before retiring from athletics in 2008 at the age of 35.
She is also the only athlete in history to have won the Olympic, World, World indoor, Commonwealth Games, Continental Games, and Continental Championships in the same event.
The former world champion, known as the Golden Girl of Africa, runs the Maria Mutola Foundation for women and girls in her country, encouraging entrepreneurial skills and other empowerment projects.
There are other amazing African women who shook the 20th century that I haven’t written about here. You can share in the comments other ones you may know of.
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Cagnolari, V. (2022, March 4). Miriam Makeba, and the fight goes on. PAM. Retrieved from https://pan-african-music.com/en/miriam-makeba-and-the-fight-goes-on/
Ethiopia Observer. (2018, November 10). Memories of Asnakech Worku. Ethiopia Observer. Retrieved from https://www.ethiopiaobserver.com/2018/11/10/memories-of-asnakech-worku/
Frängsmyr, T. (2005). Wangari Maathai Biographical. The Nobel Prize. Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2004/maathai/biographical/
Jaffer, J. (2021, December 8). Huda Sharawi. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Huda-Sharawi
Mensah, G. (2019, March 27). Dr. Angie Elizabeth Brooks. Angie Brooks International Centre. Retrieved from https://angiebrooksintlcentre.org/dr-angie-elizabeth-brooks/
Nkandu, M. (2020, September 1). Maria Mutola former World 800m Athletics champion appointed WaterAid Global Ambassador. Water Aid. Retrieved from https://www.wateraid.org/media/Maria-Mutola-Appointed-WaterAid-Global-Ambassador
Onajin, A. and Ofoego, O. (2014). Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti: and the Women’s Union of Abeokuta. UNESDOC Digital Library. ISBN: 978-92-3-100056-0
Tande, D. (2006, March 19). Sita Bella: The Final Journey of a Renaissance Woman. Dibussi. Retrieved from https://www.dibussi.com/2006/03/sita_bell_the_f.html
The Presidency Republic of South Africa. (n.d.). Jeanne Martin Cissé. The Presidency Republic of South Africa. Retrieved from https://www.thepresidency.gov.za/national-orders/recipient/jeanne-martin-cissé
UNESCO (n.d.). Aoua Keita. UNESCO Women in African History. Retrieved from https://en.unesco.org/womeninafrica/aoua-keita-0/quiz