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  • Becoming Classic:"Sitting on a Man" at Forty-Five
  • Judith A. Byfield (bio)

In 1972 when Judith van Allen's article, "'Sitting on a Man': Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women," appeared in the Canadian Journal of African Studies, she had no idea of the tremendous impact it would have.1 It was subsequently expanded and included in the path-breaking collection edited by Nancy Hafkin and Edna Bay, Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change.2 The article was originally conceived for a graduate seminar and even though Van Allen built her academic and political career writing on women in Botswana and southern Africa more broadly, "Sitting on a Man" continues to be engaged by successive generations of scholars. This article considers why "Sitting on a Man" remains in conversation more than forty-five years since its initial publication and highlights the ways in which it has informed my teaching.

The Historical Context

In 1929, when Igbo and Ibibio women in eastern Nigeria marched on Native Administration centers and destroyed symbols of the colonial state, newspapers carried the story around the world. The New York Times reported that the cause had yet to be ascertained, but some speculated that it was due to a fall in commodity prices and erroneous reports about the imposition of taxes on women.3 [End Page 139] In the 1970s, Van Allen's "Sitting on a Man" reintroduced this conflict to a new generation interested in women's history and African history. It spoke in different registers to multiple audiences. Some relished its challenge to the idea that the West and colonialism more broadly "emancipated" African women. It presented African women as critical historical agents engaged in anti-colonial praxis that simultaneously overturned the longstanding image of African women as beasts of burden, downtrodden and deprived. It also acknowledged and validated pre-colonial African institutions.

Iris Berger characterized Van Allen's work on the Igbo Women's War of 1929 as a classic example of the scholarship in the mid-1970s.4 During this period, scholars often focused on forgotten heroines and built on Ester Boserup's contention that colonial rule had undermined the precolonial institutions and ideologies that supported women's key political and economic roles. The article went beyond being a representative example: Nancy Hunt noted that "Sitting on a Man" was the best-known work examining collective women's action.5 Interest in African women's collective action in some ways reflected social and political movements in different parts of the globe. Global student activism, African liberation movements, feminism, and the UN conferences on women inspired interest and celebration of efforts by women to resist the seemingly totalizing forces of colonialism.6 "Sitting on a Man," in its clearly accessible prose, alerted its readers to a complex array of factors that contributed to this violent confrontation between Nigerian women and the British colonial state. Although an earlier generation read these women's actions as exotic and unknowable, the generation schooled in anti-colonial politics and a myriad of forms of embodied protests embraced and celebrated the efforts of these women.

Pedagogy and "Sitting on a Man"

Works that become classics do not achieve this status because they necessarily address all the issues pertinent to the topic; sometimes they open the door for debate, discussion, and further research. "Sitting on a Man" has the important distinction of being central to a discussion that is still vibrant. Moreover, it is the vibrancy of this discussion that contributes to its continued pedagogical value. Van Allen argued that changes brought by colonialism undergird the Women's War and she called specific attention to political and economic factors. She noted that colonialism undermined women's political institutions and position in Igbo society and concentrated power in newly created chiefly positions that did not have legitimacy in Igbo political culture while the interwar depression weakened their economic position. These broader developments shaped the women's [End Page 140] responses to reports that they would be taxed.7 Many scholars acknowledge the importance of the political changes and the economic depression, however, they also argue that we need to pay greater attention to...


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