African Women Frontrunners


The idea that the contributions of African women can be quantified simply because they make up the minority of historical accounts is another form of erasure. Instead, it is the role of historians and memory collectors to continue to uncover the still untold stories of women frontrunners. That we may finally get to know them and commemorate the shifts they made towards the world we live in today. That we may finally learn at their feet in real time or posthumously. That we may finally stand on their shoulders and build a better present and future. 

This Women’s month, we at ADH want to give flowers to our female icons, both known and under-reported. Who witnessed the disruption of our continent, the effects of this disruption, and now the reformation and reclamation of what was lost. We hope to amplify a collective celebration of their efforts and offer personal accounts of why they inspire us.

The Queen of Taarab

Bi Kidude, the queen of Taarab named Fatma binti Baraka at birth, was born in Zanzibar’s Mfagimaringo village around 1910. She was a henna artist, herbalist, healer, and master of melody and rhythm.

In the latter, this petite marvel wove expansive worlds with her music, dancing barefoot on stage, her performances were known for their intense energy; often beating a large drum and dancing fervently before her audiences.  

A rebel from the start she is rumoured to have run away from a Koranic school at the age of ten, she sang without a veil at a time when it was customary for female singers to perform covered, she smoked and drank openly in heavily conservative environments, had multiple husbands and remained childless throughout her life. She defied age, gender, and social conventions and was ahead of her time. 

Throughout her life she not only helped to maintain Zanzibari cultural heritage but also reinvented it, infusing it with local rhythms and matters of everyday life. In fact, her second album, Machozi ya Huba, which introduced her use of traditional drums influenced Zenji Flava (local hip-hop music). A cultural repository and a leading exponent of Swahili culture, she passed away on 17 April 2013, but her music, legacy, and spirit still carry on.

Wairimũ Nduba, “Bi Kidude inspires me to stay true to the things I am called in my heart to do. She inspires me to take up space unapologetically.

The Lioness of Lisabi 

Chief Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, also known as Funmilayo Aníkúlápó-Kuti was a Nigerian educator, a trail-blazing suffragist, and a political leader. 

According to reports she was given the traditional title of “Beere”, usually bestowed on female leaders, and translates as ‘first of equals’ for leading the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU). She formed the AWU in 1946 to “defend, protect, preserve and promote the social, economic, cultural and political rights and interests of the women…” Over time through a trans-regional, trans-ethnic structure, it later transformed into the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Society (FNWS) with the mandate of articulating women’s position in Nigerian society.

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti gained the name ‘Lioness of Lisabi’ in the press after the “Great Weep” of 1943 and the tax revolt of 1948. Despite the heavy taxation on women specifically (oftentimes a combination of several existing taxes), women had neither the right to vote nor any representation to plead for their plight. Both these events fought against the unfair taxation of women and mobilised large numbers to push for substantial changes. 

“In 1918, tax policies had been introduced that required women as young as 15, (the age at which they were considered marriageable) including those who were unemployed, to pay three shillings a year as income tax. Men, on the other hand, did not have to pay it until they were 18.”

Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti also pushed for female representation during British indirect rule under the slogan “no to taxation without representation”. Through this campaign, she hoped the region would revert to pre-colonial systems in which women were included in decision-making and leadership roles. She went on to be one of the most influential people who negotiated with British authorities for the independence of her country.

Throughout her activism she was met with open hostility from the male population, who viewed her as a threat to society, resulting in a refusal to renew her passport (to avoid her sharing her damaging ideas with other women), several court cases, and political sabotage when she went onto vie for parliamentary seats. 

Although she died at 77 after succumbing to injuries from a military raid on her family property, her fearless challenge of colonial and post-colonial power structures, left an indelible mark on Nigeria’s history. Furthermore, her efforts in organising women’s movements laid the groundwork for generations of feminists across the continent and proved the power of grassroots activism and mass solidarity in effecting positive change.

Audrey Hazel, “Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’s legacy resonates deeply with me! Her fearless advocacy for women’s suffrage and social justice inspires me to stand firmly in what I believe, regardless of the obstacles in my path.”

The Crusader for daughters of the continent

Ghanaian author, poet, playwright, politician, and academic, Ama Ata Aidoo was a central voice in the post-independence era. Born as Christina Ama Aidoo into a royal Fanti family in 1942, she began writing when her country was at the cusp of independence, and her literary works and intellectual musings reflected the concerns of the times. 

While she was a student, she wrote her first play, The Dilemma of a Ghost, which was staged in 1965, and published the following year, making her the first published African woman dramatist. Her first position, immediately after graduation from college, was as a junior research fellow at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana. She has also served as a visiting professor and distinguished visiting professor to the English, African, and American Studies departments of several universities and colleges in the United States, including, most recently, Brown University.

In 1982 she was appointed minister of education in Ghana, making her the first woman to hold that position. In her role, she helped to earn greater respect for female teachers.

In her academic and literary work, Aidoo fought against the one-dimensional view of African women and sought to illustrate their conflicting position given the complexities of class, education, politics, culture, neocolonialism, and westernisation. 

She was one of the first to vocally reject the western media-created idea of African women as downtrodden breeding machines that contribute nothing to society’s progression- especially considering that “Africa over five centuries produced countless women soldiers, military strategists (and community leaders) that… helped to create part of the theoretical basis for the political emergence of modern Africa.”

“To a certain extent, African women are some sort of riddle. This is because, whether formally educated or not, ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’ they do not fit the accepted notion of them as muted beasts of burden. And they definitely are not as free and equal as African men,” from her ESSAY: The African Woman Today, Ama Ata Aidoo, 1992.

In 2000, recognizing the needs of women writers, Aidoo established Mbaasem (which means “Women’s Words”), a foundation dedicated to promoting the work of Ghanaian and African women writers.

Her life-long analysis of the social and political lives of women remains unmatched and increasingly relevant in today’s gender-based discord. It has served as a pillar of the African feminist and social justice movements

Mũthoni Mwangi, “Ama Ata Aidoo insistently occupied space through her writing and her life. She managed to write her world into being through her activism and feminism. She is important to me because of her insistence on writing as a necessity for African women and her acknowledgement that writing is necessary in feminist organising and activism. She reminds me always to imagine and build new worlds with my writing and academic exploration.”

The Mother of Pan Africanism

Alice Victoria Kinloch was a South African activist who was born in 1815. When she went to Britain in the late 1890s, she co-founded the African Association, an achievement usually credited to men- Henry Sylvester-Williams from Trinidad, and Thomas John Thompson from Sierra Leone.

The association would go on to convene the first Pan-African conference, a major event where the term ‘Pan-African’ used to mean black transatlantic collectivism helped gather and unify people from all over the diaspora. Although she could not attend the conference after moving back home, her contributions to its realisation are now acknowledged in niche historical accounts. 

She was an influential figure in British politics when not many black women operated in this field- likely the reason she’s been ‘written out’ of the historical events she was fundamental in. She is said to have campaigned against racial oppression all over Britain by writing and giving public lectures, determined to reveal the brutality of the diamond mining industry in South Africa. In a paper on Significant Black South Africans in Britain Before 1912, it is detailed that her passionate condemnation of the Kimberley Compound system appeared in a nineteen page pamphlet entitled “Are South African Diamonds Worth their Cost?”, published by the Labour Press in Manchester under the pseudonym ‘A.V. Alexander’.

The Liberator of Sons

Wangari Muta Maathai born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940 was a giant among men. She is the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate. Her undergraduate degree was in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College, then earned a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh and finally pursued doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, where she also taught veterinary anatomy. 

She was also the first woman in the region to hold positions as chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and as an associate professor. When Wangari Maathai served in the National Council of Women, she introduced the idea of planting trees with the people. Which grew into the Green Belt Movement, through which she assisted women in planting more than 20 million trees on their farms, schools, and church compounds. Of course, her environmental activism expanded over time, leading to countless international awards, appointments, and accolades, including winning the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. 

But outside of her amazing contributions to greening and motivating mass environmental responsibility, her less-known political activism had some monumental repercussions as well. One in particular gets her the title ‘liberator of sons’. 

The political atmosphere in Kenya in the 1970s and 1980s was characterised by governmental repression and state-sanctioned terror. Eventually, the government succumbed to global pressure to move towards a multi-party structure. This provided Kenyan mothers (between the ages of 60-70 years, an important fact), led by Wangari Maathai, an opportunity to secure the release of their detained sons. The mothers set up camp at Uhuru (Freedom) Park, where they staged a hunger strike to agitate for the release of their sons- whose torture accounts remain a terrifying reminder of Kenya’s past. The government responded by forcibly dispersing them- beating them with batons, firing gunshots in the air, and hurling teargas into the tented areas. To stop the onslaught, the protesting mothers stripped down and flashed their top halves shouting, “Kill us! Kill us now! We shall die with our children!”

It was extremely effective, and the protest only grew in size, impact, and visibility. They changed tactics, garnered support, and after a long battle approx. 52 political detainees were set free. 

Mutanu Kyany’a, “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before or thought possible. Here was a group of older women fighting against a violent, oppressive regime as if it were nothing. They were fearless, unwavering, and remained- not to be too on the nose- but yes unbowed! I will remember it always.”

Editor’s note: Images used in the article’s media have been sourced from- Medio Oriente e Dintorni, Gender in African Biography, Culture Review, Large Norwegian Encyclopedia,

Keep an eye out for our last addition to the list.

But in the meantime can you guess who it is? 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.