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  • Man Sitting with Judith Van Allen
  • Emily Lynn Osborn (bio)

In her book The Female King of Colonial Nigeria: Ahebi Ugbabe, Nwando Achebe, now a professor of history at Michigan State University (and editor of this journal), recounts a conversation she had with her advisor, Professor Boniface Obichere, while in graduate school. With a "dry chuckle," Obichere warned Achebe against "writing another history of the women's war."1 With this counsel, Obichere made a comment on the state of the field of West African history. By the 1990s, at which time this conversation took place, the 1929 Women's War had drawn a good deal of scholarly attention from historians and others.2 But—and this was Obichere's point—there were still many other important historical subjects and processes that deserved scholarly examination. Achebe took note and, since that conversation, she has produced two monographs that have broadened the parameters of West African and women's history. One of those, the biography of Ahebi Ugbabe, specifically brings to light the unlikely rise to power of a woman who becomes a colonial chief. Nonetheless, it is still clear that Achebe—and many others—owe an intellectual debt to the historian, Judith Van Allen, and her 1972 article on the Nigerian Women's War, "'Sitting on a Man': Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women," which helped to break new ground in the field of West African history.3

Van Allen's article has established itself as a classic of African history, becoming a mainstay of course readings at both the graduate and the undergraduate [End Page 173] level. I assigned it yet again last year in a graduate-level colonial Africa course that included doctoral and master's students from various departments, where it sparked an enthusiastic and lively discussion. "A great feminist story," gushed one student. Another praised Van Allen for making a general case for the importance of "how history helps us to understand what the world means."4 In an era of declining history majors and in an educational climate that relentlessly promotes the disciplines of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), professors and teachers take note: we need more, not fewer, texts that can encourage our students to embrace the study of the past. (Although, I concede, students who enrolled in a graduate level history course no doubt need less convincing than some others might.) That said, it is clear that Van Allen's writings on the Women's War have withstood the test of time. Thus, it is worth examining—in a spirit of commemoration, celebration and critique—what Van Allen does in her analysis of the Women's War and how she does it.

The article starts with a provocation, as Van Allen calls into question the idea that the Western civilization and Western feminisms are necessarily emancipatory and liberating. She suggests that other societies, such as the Igbo in Nigeria, have historically adhered to social and political practices that are progressive, egalitarian, and democratic, which made it possible for women to act collectively to obtain and exercise power. In the twentieth century, however, colonialism and capitalism corroded the influence and autonomy previously exercised by Igbo women. This erosion took place not because of so-called "backwards" tradition and patriarchal custom, but rather because of the blind spots and presumptions of British colonizers. That is, colonial officials implemented policies that elevated men and ignored and distanced women.

In outlining the gender dynamics of colonial rule, Van Allen establishes the central themes of this text. This article challenges easy assumptions that circulate in the West about the alleged superiority of Western civilizations and presumed universal definitions and applicability of Western feminist principles. Van Allen offers a firm critique colonial rule, while she also moves from the premise that political history and women's history are inextricably bound together, one informing and shaping the other. Van Allen likewise treats as dynamic and interrelated women's and men's roles: women anchor the analysis, but changing formulations and manifestations of male power are also critical to the shifting landscape in which Igbo women thought, lived, acted, mobilized, and expressed themselves.

Van Allen elaborates her...


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