African women’s history embraces a wide variety of societies in more than fifty countries with different geographies, social customs, religions, and historical situations. Despite that range, it is possible to discuss some common threads, beginning with Africa as a predominantly agricultural continent where between 65 and 80 percent of African women are engaged in cultivating food for their families. The centrality of agriculture influences the control of land and of labor by kin groups and clans, usually represented by male political and religious leadership.
Africa had a high incidence of matrilineal descent, a social system that placed a woman and her female relations at the center of kinship and family, though male clan leaders influenced the arrangement of families through marriage. Women used a variety of routes to exercise authority—through women’s organizations, as spiritual leaders, and sometimes as queen mothers, advising male rulers and serving as co-rulers or regents.
Europeans first arrived at coastal communities in Africa at the end of the 15th century, and their written observations offer some of the earliest documentation concerning African women, though more likely to include information on elite women. Along the West African coast, female market traders acted as arbiters between local societies and European traders.
Slaves within Africa were more likely to be women, a reflection of their productive and reproductive contributions to their communities. Women were more vulnerable to enslavement, and women could be integrated into a new society while men were more likely to be traded away or killed as enemies. Women were also slave owners, especially in areas where they had the opportunity to accrue wealth through trading.
The presence of European missionaries, traders, and officials increased throughout the 16th to 19th centuries, with many women losing power and economic autonomy with the arrival of cash crops, while continuing their work growing food for their families. Women’s formal political activity was generally ignored and denigrated by colonial authorities, and they lost ground with colonial legal systems. Simultaneously, they found new ways of working and initiated new family forms as Christianity spread and urbanization accelerated.
As nationalist movements gained strength in the early 20th century, women’s involvement was essential to the eventual success of those movements, contributing in a variety of ways, including their status as spirit mediums. In areas with more entrenched White settler populations, Africans turned to sometimes protracted armed struggle, and women were centrally involved, though generally not as actual combatants.
The 21st century finds women continuing their primary responsibility for agricultural labor and facing ongoing hindrances to gaining education and employment equal to African men. Women still have serious problems in the areas of polygyny, divorce, inheritance, and widowhood.
Since the 1980s, the scourge of HIV/AIDS has inflicted untold hardships on women. The late 20th and early 21st centuries have been marked by localized wars in more than a dozen countries, with women frequently the victims. Yet the last half of the 20th century also brought expanded opportunities for education, new job possibilities, increased political involvement, and improved family expectations.