#YNaijaEssays: Feminism is radically different today from its predecessors, and that’s a good thing


It is important to note that women have always fought against oppressive social structures. It is the very nature of humans to rail against perceived injustice and to act accordingly to liberate themselves from the sources of such injustice. However, women’s struggles for equity and equality wasn’t always called ‘feminism’. 

The movement as it is formally known today began to take shape from women emancipation movements across the United States and Britain before the First World War and during the Second World War. Most instructive in this regard are the events that led up to the 1918 Representation of the People Act which kicked off the start of female suffrage in Great Britain.

In June 1892, on the establishment of the Colored Women’s League (CWL) founded in Washington D.C. under their president, Helen Cook, the CWL realised that if the plight of women was going to change in their country, then women would need to have a say in politics. Politics was a matter of who got the right to vote and who was voted for, suffrage as a shorthand term. Helen Cook and the CWL fought for suffrage specifically for black folk, holding night classes to enable the largely formerly enslaved black working class attain literacy. In 1896, other groups joined together to form the National Association of Colored Women under the leadership of Mrs. Mary Church Terrell who was the first president and a college educated woman. This group did a number of things to fight for the suffrage and betterment of black women, as well as many other smaller groups who are not named.

Prior to this time, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) movement had marginalised many African-American women through an idea known as the “educated suffragist. They had come up with the notion that being educated was critical to being granted franchise and since many African-American women were uneducated, it simply meant exclusion from the process.

The resultant event was that these African-American women became more emboldened and their movement equally gained momentum in the North as in the South where it started from, thus increasing their campaign aggressively in finding equality with men and other women.

More women as a result of these developments, mobilised themselves to achieve suffrage for the African-African women and as such resorted to focus on educating them and the African-American community in general on local government issues, an initiative that gave rise to the birth of the first African-American women’s suffrage association in the United States in 1913, the Alpha Suffrage Club which used among other methods, newspapers to voice their opinions.

The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 further helped the plight of the African-American women, but they still faced a number of issues especially in the south even up until the 1960s. These issues stemmed from the fact that white southerners having noticed how the women organised themselves and participated actively in politics, influenced the introduction of various methods to disenfranchise the African-American women following fears of their ability to wield political power, such as having to wait in line for up to twelve hours before voting, payment of head taxes, and other pre-qualification obstacles to voting, in form of ability to read and interpret the constitution as well as false charges, all in a bid to land them in jail if they made an attempt to vote.

Prior to this act, the move for women to have the vote had started in 1897 when Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage.

Millicent Fawcett and her movement believed in a peaceful struggle, anchored on the feeling that violence would persuade men to think that they (women) could not be trusted to be given the right to vote, hence she resorted to a strategy of patience and logical arguments.

One of such arguments was that wealthy mistresses of large manors and estates employed gardeners, workmen and labourers who could vote, yet the women could not regardless of their wealth.

Other unions that came up afterwards, were the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 also known as the Suffragettes who though had similar objectives but employed a more radical approach as they were less patient in their quest for women suffrage and were even prepared to deploy violence in achieving same.

The Suffragettes went on to carry out violent acts in response to pressures from the authorities, “They burnt down churches as the Church of England was against what they wanted; they vandalised Oxford Street, apparently breaking all the windows in this famous street; chained themselves to Buckingham Palace as the Royal Family were seen to be against women having the right to vote; they hired out boats, sailed up the Thames and shouted abuse through loud hailers at Parliament as it sat; others refused to pay their taxes. Politicians were attacked as they went to work. Their homes were firebombed. Golf courses were vandalised.

More so, as a way of bringing to fore the unjust system, they gladly went to prison where they observed hunger strike, against the wish of government and which whipped up public outcry, especially when government introduced forced feeding and temporal release whenever they sense they were weak to forestall their death in prison and eventual martyrdom. These measures turned out to be effective against the Suffragettes as they were either too weak to take part in violent struggles or were re-arrested at the slightest offence committed and a continuation of the entire process.

What was however witnessed afterwards was extremism on the part of the Suffragettes part of which led to the death of Emily Wilding Davison in 1913, making her the first martyr. But this time leading to questions especially from a good number of men who further questioned why they should be given suffrage, as they were bewildered that an educated woman could go to the point of throwing herself under a horse and getting herself killed in the process.

The tone changed however with the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 when the Suffragettes halted their violent campaign in support of Britain and Europe up until the end of the war in 1918 and the subsequent promulgation of the Representation of the People Act by the British parliament.

Elsewhere, feminism as a theory asserted that “women are different from men because they are raised differently and have a different social experience, psychology and history altogether, but must not be interpreted to mean unequal.”

In this regard, as it was observed during the First World War, women were called into the workforce as a way of keeping the war effort going, but were fired after the war and sent home to continue in their roles as housewives and mothers which they complied with.

This development gave birth to the philosophy of an ideal family setting that had women relegated to the domestic sphere, though it has also been argued that that the idea of the 1950s with mom at home and dad at work was more of a myth than reality, as most families had both parents working outside the home owing to huge family responsibilities that had to be taken care of.

The decades that followed saw a growing number of girls hoping to be like their role models who were women of the wartime or other independent women but were faced with discriminatory laws that kept women from achieving their potential in career-related endeavours, as well as the rise of Civil Rights Movement who refused to accept unconstitutional laws that promoted second-class citizenship, alongside the Anti-war movement both of which impacted women significantly and ultimately birthed the Women’s movement, resting on the fact that women’s right is a civil rights concern.

Also inspired by Betty Freidan’s study of the discontent among housewives contained in her 1964 book ‘The Feminine Mystique’, the Civil Rights legislation included women and gender in anti-discriminatory laws.

All of these brought about rapid opposition from the men who felt threatened in diverse ways especially for the women population, thus creating fresh issues for the struggle as women who desired to have their dreams fulfilled had to choose between actualising their potentials and personal relationships.

Since the eighties however, feminism has assumed a new dimension which many refer to as political feminism, defined largely on the basis of equality as humans including the aspects of political, economic and social rights, a development seen as a core reason for the 1982 defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment in the United States, as it bothered majorly on issues which many say took the rights of women away and that once women legally became equal with men, there would be a shift in access to power, to the economy and to privilege, again leaving many to believe ultimately that the Second wave of Feminism had run its course.


The concept – Feminism – is an import in Africa, just like every other supposed language upgrade and culture Africa has experienced as a result of colonialism. The process of opposing patriarchy and agitating for spaces for women in culture and politics in Africa is as old as civilisation itself and before African culture was destroyed and remade in the image of prudish Victorian ideals, we had achieved surprising levels of social acceptance for women and other minorities. So pervasive is the colonising effect of Western culture, even when research has shown the instances of gender equality that existed in pre-colonial cultures, it has been disregarded by African men citing African ‘culture’ and ‘religion’ as an excuse to continue to subjugate women through oppressive norms and restrict them from living full, expressive lives.

Feminist activism has always been a part of African society with women actively agitating to uproot patriarchy, imperialism and human injustice to themselves and other minorities.

However, contemporary African feminism can be traced back to the early 20th century with women like Adelaide Casely-Hayford, who contributed widely to both Pan-African and feminist goals, Charlotte Maxeke who in 1918 founded the Bantu Women’s League in South Africa and Huda Sharaawi who in 1923 established the Egyptian Feminist Union.

However, there is an ongoing debate that African feminists were only retroactively called so because they fought primarily against colonialism and because colonialist ideals were entrenched in Victorian ideals which were inherently patriarchal, their fight encompassed it as well. Although they were feminist as a result of the consequence of their actions, the first wave of self-defined African feminists — ideologically and politically — appear later. We can ably say that it was from the 1960s onwards, inspired by Black and Third World feminisms elsewhere, that small groups of African women started labelling themselves feminist.

African feminism as a movement stems also from the liberation struggles especially those in Algeria, Mozambique, Guinea, Angola and Kenya where women fighters fought alongside their male counterparts for state autonomy and women’s rights. African feminist icons from this period include Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti among many others who fought against colonialism as well as patriarchy.

Kuti was an activist who rose up in the global consciousness just before the second wave of feminism began to take form in the West.

Her feminism and democratic socialism led to the creation of The Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) and later Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), organisations and movements that aided Kuti to promote women’s rights to education, employment and to political participation. When the Alake of Egbaland, Ladapo Ademola wanted to impose taxes on women, Kuti and the AWU clan went to protest using the slogan ‘no taxation without representation’. They were not equal members of society and were strongly opposed to paying taxes until the injustices were rectified.

Feminism, as we have it today, or called Modern Feminism was solidified during the landmark UN decade for women 1975 – 1985 which resulted in feminist activism and scholarship spreading widely across the continent and diaspora. Since then, the African feminist movement has expanded in policy, legislation, scholarship and also in the cultural realm.

It is in this sphere that we have Nigerian women like Chimamanda Ngozi-Adichie and the Nigerian/Ghanaian feminist activist, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi who once said:

“I am a feminist because I have hope. I have hope in the love, brilliance and creativity of my sister feminists, who rise and rise again.”

With these women, including Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta and a host of others, there is no denying the fact that some forms of feminist struggles existed in Nigeria before what was clearly celebrated and identified openly as a feminist movement: Women in Nigeria (WIN).

Feminism as an organised political platform for the emancipation of Nigeria women emerged in 1982 after the first Women in Nigeria Conference in Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria. WIN is a political interest organisation founded in 1982. The organisation’s interest concerns women’s liberation, equality and social justice in Nigeria. WIN is different from early women’s groups in Nigeria because it affirms the belief that women’s rights cannot be secured without addressing the broader issue of human rights (for both men and women) in an oppressive society. At its inception, the organisation had male members.

WIN’s feminist and militant publications and activities were notable in the 1980s and 1990s. From the onset, WIN engaged in research, policy advocacy and activism aimed at transforming the conditions under which women and other under privileged classes in Nigeria lived. WIN’s further uniqueness was its consciousness of both class and gender in the struggle for the emancipation of women.

Since the emergence of WIN, Nigerian feminism and the Nigerian women’s movement have continued to develop side by side, frequently over-lapping and working together to achieve legislative, political and policy objectives but never merging.

Yet, we must point out that Nigerian feminism in the real sense of it has never been about ‘women over men’, but ‘women and men climbing up the ladder simultaneously’. Just as we see in the activism of women like Margaret Ekpo, Funmi Falana, Josephine “Joe” Obiajulu Okei-Odumakin, Olufunke Baruwa and a host of others.

The concept has come to mean different things to different people, with many misplacing the concept altogether. While some writers use the word Other to define how men see women, some use gender and/or sex to define feminism, some others simply follow the trend, and unfortunately, some others – not quite understanding what Kuti and the early feminist activists fought for – have misplaced the struggle.

The debate will indeed continue for years to come.

“On February 18th I lost my grand aunt – my grandmother really … This incredible woman, May Kyomugasho Katebaka left us at the age of 97. We last met in 2014 when I visited her. She’s a fierce woman. Fierce in her religion but also fierce in her knowledge of what she wanted from the world. And that is what moves me. Moves every time one claims feminism is foreign and for the educated, un-african. She always came to mind when I met such arguments. I would tell myself that if only they could hear half her life story, then they would understand why I am such a rebellion.” – Rosebell Kagumire

Change is difficult and privilege such an intoxicating, heady drug it’s really not surprising that its beneficiaries, men (and women too, no thanks to decades-long social conditioning) baulk against women taking back their power, recovering their agency, owning their choices and toppling the status quo.

Long before Nigeria became a country, there were ethnic groups and tribes and most of these tribes had deeply entrenched misogynistic practices like female genital mutilation, girl-child marriages and marital rape. Boys were picked over the girls for an education and the ‘lucky’ girls who weren’t married off got to learn a trade along domesticated lines – sewing, cooking and sometimes nursing. What’s more, child-care and rearing were considered the exclusive preserve of women and the kitchen and bedroom their only domains. More than a century after exposure to western education, these sentiments still retain their strongholds across large sections of society. 19-year-old Noura Hussein is facing the death penalty in Sudan for stabbing her husband to death as he raped her while his relatives held her down. She had previously run away from the marriage after being given away at the age of 16. Her father tricked her into returning, only to be raped twice. After she killed her husband and ran back to her family, they handed her over to the police. Interestingly, the husband’s relatives have refused any form of financial compensation, insisting on her head on a platter.

Social media, western media and Whatsapp groups in Sudan have erupted in outrage as people are urged to sign a petition that would get the attention of international human rights organisations.

Herein lies the beauty of 21st-century feminism: it is radical in operation; no more reliant on processes our ancestors were compelled to employ to be heard. Thanks to the power of the internet and social media, in particular, modern women have circumvented the process, created new and powerful channels of communication that hurts governments and corporations where they are weakest, finances and are exercising that power with every fibre of their being. It’s explosive and wild and is getting unprecedented results. Systems are being torpedoed along with the powerful men who run it. Think Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby – and hopefully, Noura Hussein. Men are learning about consent, slut shaming, intersectionality and the complexities of transwomen in largely heterosexual movement.

It is just the tip of the iceberg really, still, the times they are changing and this is possibly the biggest cause of insecurity for men. Important societal questions of gender identity, masculinity and the economic interactions between both sexes are yet to be resolved and since feminism threatens to redefine these paradigms, people who do not share that same urgency have assumed the role of restating age-old positions, sometimes forcefully through populist rhetoric, but often through inaction, especially on the policymaking front. Add to that the “feminism is a western import” brouhaha and you can understand why a member of Nigeria’s House of Representatives can dig in his heels, adjust his ignorant hat and loudly declare this about women:

“If you give them more chance, one day they will overthrow us. If women understand this thing, they will vote us out. If in my constituency I have somebody like Nnenna (Elendu), she will gather women and vote me out. We should not give them too much opportunity. They will mess up.”

He can be forgiven for merely affirming a variant of his Commander-in-Chief’s assertion two years before: My wife belongs to my kitchen, living room and the other room. Buhari’s denigrating utterance about his wife before the most powerful woman, Angela Merkel effectively validated the notion of many men back home that women are to be seen, not heard, thereby entrenching social injustice and male dominance.

To be sure, advocates of feminism can go off the rails sometimes like this argument on classism  that had no bearing on the original discussion or Emily Lindin who proposed that innocent men going to jail to make up for all the women who have suffered sexual abuse is just fine, as it would take such radical measures to undo patriarchy. However, it does not and should not undermine the fact that our legislature, justice system and society, in general, is stacked against women and this inequality needs to be done away with.


The work of feminist writer Minna Salami was referenced in our article about feminism without due citations. We have corrected this error and apologise for the erasure of her work. You can read more about her work here.

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