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History: ‘Unruly’ African women who made their mark on the continent

From the 1930s onwards, several African women who were ahead of their time made their mark in a fiercely male-dominated society. In her remarkable essay, Géraldine Faladé Touadé revives the memory of these pioneers who have been unjustly forgotten by history for far too long.

Madeleine Ly, Marie Madoé Sivomey, Jeanne Martin Cissé, Sita Bella… Do you recognise any of these women’s names? You probably don’t, though you should. These are women who worked as doctors, mayors, teachers and journalists; professions which, prior to the 1930s, had been exclusively held by men. Géraldine Faladé Touadé, a former journalist, paid tribute to them in an essay published last September by Présence Africaine entitled Turbulentes! Des Africaines en Avance sur Leur Temps (Unruly! African Women Who Were Ahead of Their Times).

86-year-old Touadé, who describes herself as a ‘passer-by of memory’, tells the stories of 17 determined, non-conformist ‘fighters’ who challenged the status quo despite the numerous obstacles and risk of death on numerous occasions.

What these women from different backgrounds have in common is their love for the continent. All of them dreamed of a united Africa and took advantage of the slightest opportunity to try to give it substance, convinced that they would only succeed if they joined forces,” says Touadé.

Although the former journalist does not necessarily present them as role models, she would like the younger generation to discover these women who have been forgotten by history and learn about the struggles they went through, which paved the way for future generations.

At the forefront of the natural-hair movement

The first warrior that Touadé talks about in her essay was a ‘simple beautician’ called Josepha Jouffret, who was known as Josepha. “In the 1960s, black Parisian women who did not straighten their hair hid their hair under a scarf. Unconsciously – or perhaps not – they tried to deny their Africanness. Josepha taught them to love it and to own it. She made us want to be ourselves,” says Touadé.

She then tells the success story of this woman who was born in Martinique, but who always said she was Guinean-Senegalese. Josepha dared to open, in the heart of the Latin Quarter, the first beauty shop entirely dedicated to black women. The shop on Rue Gay-Lussac was extremely popular and was highly recommended by those in the fashion and cosmetic industries.

Josepha put her culture, confidence and creativity into all her products. For example, she sold blue and amber rather than scarlet lipstick, which looked bold against dark skin. She sold foundations that she had named after famous African ethnic groups, such as Bambara and Peul.

“She brought us glamour and style and we stopped being Africans in pain,” says the former journalist. According to Toundé, Josepha was at the forefront of recognising and celebrating black women’s beauty as well as some other modern movements such as the natural-hair styles.

One of the first midwives in French-speaking Africa

Another striking individual is Aoua Kéita, who was a woman of many talents and had a fiery personality. She was strongly supported by her father as well as her husband, who encouraged her interest in politics. They eventually separated, no doubt due to pressure from her husband’s mother, as Kéita couldn’t have children. She was born in colonial Bamako in 1912 and was destined to become a housewife. Her father secretly enrolled her in school, despite his wife’s objections.

In the 1930s, she became the first midwife in French Sudan (now Mali) as well as the first in French-speaking Africa. And in 1976, she was the first woman to win the Grand Prix Littéraire d’Afrique Francophone, for her autobiography Femme d’Afrique. Toundé used her book to retrace the career of this relentless activist, who was one of the leading figures of the Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA).

The colonial authority, which classified her as a communist, tried to stop her involvement in politics by means of disciplinary measures and assigning her to more and more remote locations. She eventually got fed up and decided to set up a female branch of the RDA in Gao.

She also discovered that the colonial authorities were depriving Sudanese women of many of their basic rights, including the right to vote. Kéita eventually renounced her French citizenship in order to fulfil her civic duty. She was then expelled from Sudan in July 1951. While in exile in Senegal, Kéita continued her activism alongside Guinea’s Jeanne Martin Cissé, who the colonial authorities also viewed as a bête noire and who had been transferred to Dakar because she was ‘unruly’.

Pan-Africanist activists

Cissé’s name alone symbolises the fight that women have waged against the bastion of the male world since the first half of the 19th century. The woman who became president of the United Nations Security Council in 1972, belongs to the generation of women fighters who worked to convince their sisters to take part in building of their countries.

Others include Caroline Faye Diop, a member of Senegal’s parliament from 1963 and later a cabinet minister; Angie Elizabeth Brooks, the only African female president of the United Nations General Assembly and Maria Ruth Neto, who was the sister to Angola’s President Agostinho Neto.

These women, alongside Cissé and Kéita, were among the ‘founding mothers of the Pan-African Women’s Organisation’. In 1962, they brought together French-, English- and Portuguese-speaking Africans for a conference in Dar es Salaam and created the Pan-African Women’s Organisation, which was based in Bamako. They created this organisation one year before the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was founded.

While many of these pioneers actively campaigned for women’s causes, Touadé sees them more as pan-Africanist activists than feminists. “What these women from different backgrounds have in common is their love for the continent. All of them dreamed of a united Africa and took advantage of the slightest opportunity to try to give it substance, convinced that they would only succeed if they joined forces.”

The colonial administration made them pay for their activism

According to Touadé, most of these women did not get the positions or career paths they deserved. The colonial administration always made them pay for their activism.

As an example, she cites her sister Solange Faladé, who was the first female psychoanalyst on the continent. Faladé was a student who closely collaborated with Jacques Lacan and then partnered with Françoise Dolto, both French psychoanalysts. After completing her doctorate, she applied for the hygiene professor position at Dakar’s faculty of medicine, as she wanted to serve her continent.

However, the colonial authorities decided to appoint a Frenchman to the position rather than a woman who had been described as an ‘ardent nationalist’ during her time as president of Fédération des Etudiants d’Afrique Noire en France. “This treatment is all the more unfair because these women were not thinking about their careers; they simply wanted to serve,” says Touadé.

After independence, their lot did not improve. Patriarchy – which had been inherited from colonisation – meant that prestigious positions were given to men. “The journalist and film-maker Sita Bella, who was an adventurer and an aviator at heart, was pushed around throughout her career by the Cameroonian administration and was never able to fully exercise her art,” says Touadé, who knew her very well.

Bella’s story is certainly less tragic than that of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Fela’s mother, who died a few months after she was wounded in a military raid. “The happiness of ordinary women was her happiness.” This English-educated intellectual created Ladies Clubs to introduce young Nigerian women to the Western way of life.

In his novel Aké, Ransome-Kuti’s nephew Wole Soyinka summarised her work as follows: “The movement […] began over cups of tea and sandwiches […] to solve the problems of young brides, who lacked societal manners. […] It turned into a struggle to end white rule in the country.” Ransome-Kuti lost her life because of her refusal to accept the abuses of a post-independence military regime.

According to Touadé, many other unruly women remain to be discovered, such as the actress Lydia Ewandè. The former journalist of the Office Français de Coopération Radiophonique (RFI’s predecessor) is already preparing the second volume of her essay.

International African Women’s Day

One date that goes continuously unnoticed on the continent is 31 July. This day marks International African Women’s Day, which is often eclipsed by 8 March, International Women’s Day. This holiday was created in 1962 in Dar es Salaam, during the first Conférence des Femmes Africaines (which later became the Pan African Women’s Organisation in 1974.) It is recognised by both the African Union and the UN. In 2012, during its 50th anniversary celebrations that were held by UNESCO, the only African first lady that was eager to join in on the celebrations was Antoinette Sassou N’Guesso, the event’s patron.

Turbulentes! Des Africaines en Avance sur Leur Temps, by Géraldine Faladé Touandé, published by Présence Africaine, 270 pages.


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