Historical Influential Women of Africa

Winnie Mandela

When it comes to talking about influence and the influential women in the world, not much has been said about the influential women that have shaped Africa. Written history has depicted women in African societies as dual minors. And for the most part, the story of African women and girls has been told through the shadow of the father and then that of their husband, but this is not a true reflection of the African society that I know. I come from a background of very strong, powerful, assertive and influential women. Women who have defied gender dynamics for centuries.  On my mother’s side, a woman rules the Kingdom, and women of that Kingdom never ever take up their husband’s name nor the father’s surname. This gives each woman of that Kingdom, ownership over her own person, as each girlchild is given her own name from the time of birth, which she carries throughout her lifetime, even if she gets married. Although my father’ side of the family is patriarchal, this did not stop one strong, powerful influential woman to start a movement that shook the political establishment of my country Zambia.   

Long before the rest of the world embarked on moves towards gender equality, most African women already carried influential leadership roles in their communities. The historical heritage of many African countries is rich with strong, powerful, influential women. These women fought hard for the rights of their people and that of women and girls. And yet these influential women continue to be ignored in the history books. For thousands of years, African women were equal, if not superior, to their men. For thousands of years, many African societies were matriarchal. They were led by strong, powerful, influential, assertive women. And these societies prospered.

Mama Maria Nyerere

As we approach the UK’s Black History month, I would like to celebrate influential African women who have made invaluable contributions to Africa’s governance and political leadership with their brilliant personalities, ideas and achievements.  As an African woman, I would like to pay homage to some of the most inspiring women from Africa whose influential actions promoted equal rights for women and girls in Africa.

The historical heritage of many African countries is rich with women of influence, and the Continent’s history is permeated by individual and collective women’s struggles, illustrative of a long tradition of women’s influence and involvement in their society battles that still resound in some oral traditions. African women from various backgrounds have for centuries engaged in influential acts of resistance and in liberation struggles. They have made major contributions to the development of the Continent through their influential political and economic activity.  

To commemorate Black History month, I would like to highlight some of Africa’s influential and iconic women, such as Yaa Asentwa of Ghana, the Queen of the Ashanti people of Ghana, who fought and defeated the British in the war of the Golden Stool; Hatshepsut, first female Pharaoh of Egypt, who obtained full power as ruler of Egypt and built the greatest army in the world during her lifetime. Hatshepsut also expanded trade outside of Egypt and improved the economic status of her entire kingdom. Amina Queen of Zaria, Nigeria’s Warrior Queen, who had great military and leadership skills and conquered much of North Africa for the Hausa people during her 34-year reign.  Amina overcame traditional gender roles by refusing to marry or have children and became the inspiration for the television series “Xena the Warrior Princess”.  Nandi Mother of Shaka Zulu, of South Africa was the power behind the throne, who helped Shaka Zulu grow his kingdom as his trusted advisor and mentor. Nandi single-handedly raised Shaka Zulu and was in charge of the Zulu Army; and of course, The Dahomey Warriors, also known as the Amazon Warriors, an all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey, present day Benin.

Mama Obote

The pages of history are filled with records of great leaders, whose achievement may be traced directly to the influence of women. Most of the men in history and to date who have accumulated great fortunes and achieved outstanding recognition were motivated by the influence of a woman. There are scores of men in the history of Africa who have climbed to great heights of achievement because of the stimulating influence of their women or their wives. I want to celebrate those women who stood behind the founding fathers of Africa and include, Taytu Betul, Empress of Ethiopia and wife of Menelik II.  She was a co-equal with her Emperor husband and was always consulted prior to making important decisions.  Taytul was a military strategist and persuaded her husband to declare war against Italy at the Battle of Adwa to stand up for independence against Italian aggression; Mama Ngina, widow of Jomo Kenyatta, founding father of Kenya, who supported her husband through out  Kenya’s struggle for Independence as did Mama Maria Nyerere, widow of Julius Nyerere, Founding Father of Tanzania; Mama Maria Obote, widow of Milton Obote, Founding father of Uganda; the late Mama Betty Banda Kaunda, wife of Zambia’s founding father, Kenneth David Kaunda; and Mrs Helena Ritz Fathia Nkrumah, wife of Ghana’s founding father, Kwame Nkrumah.  And of course, not forgetting Mama Winnie Madikizela Mandela, who held the fort for over 27 years while Nelson Mandela was in prison.

Without the influence and contribution of these great influential women, Africa would not have had its political, social and economic advancement as we see it today. 

Justina Mutale
Founder & President, Justina Mutale Foundation