- Judith Van Allen and the Impact of Her Article "'Sitting on a Man':Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women" in the Classroom
Impact of the Article on How I Understand African Women's History
By the time I went to college, I was a committed supporter of a social movement for women's liberation, but as I moved through undergraduate school at Howard University, there were no courses or lectures that focused on women in society as an area of study, not one. And when I decided to pursue a PhD in African history after my B.A., and went to the University of Wisconsin in 1977, I had planned to study something on state formation in precolonial East Africa, mostly because that region of Africa had been relatively untouched. But in my initial readings, I was always drawn to the work that had been done, mostly by anthropologists, on the roles of women, their contributions, work, values, and beliefs, and to the many fascinating examples of women's leadership in Africa about which I was learning in my African history survey courses.
One of the most influential of those articles was the one with the catchiest of titles, "'Sitting on a Man:' Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women," by someone named Judith Van Allen. The title itself drew me in to find out more. And in reading it, I was fascinated not only by the author's explication of the concept, but by her juxtaposition of the presumed emancipatory effect of Western influence to the realities of what women had lost because of Westernization. Her article, and other examples of women's lives in African societies about [End Page 183] which I was reading, did not fit the universal subordination of women theories then largely accepted by feminist theorists.
Van Allen's deconstruction of the presumed benefit of Western institutions and values, her position that African women had their own cultural values, ones that did not necessarily correlate to cultural values in another society, and that women can and did organize and resist authority through solidarity with those beliefs and values became concepts that I used over and over in my teaching as well as my own scholarship. As time went on, I joined much of that thinking to a growing body of work of other African women's studies authors to flesh out my own understanding of African women's feminism.1
My research explores women chiefs in African political systems and supports many of the theories regarding African feminisms various scholars have proposed. I have suggested that woman chiefs in Sierra Leone operate within a system that in many ways is still communal and distributive and that their exercise of power occurs within a system that is mutually supportive and kin-based. Furthermore, their exercise of power is seen as complementary and not antagonistic by influential males in the district. My work intersects with Van Allen's article in suggesting that African women in many ways operate using their own definitions, values, and objectives.2
Many scholars have presented African feminism as a struggle for liberation from the multiple oppressions that arise from racial, cultural, gender, and class biases. The vantage point of African women is one that challenges received notions of racial, gender, class, and cultural superiority.3 My work, strongly influenced by Van Allen, suggests that African women stress economic self-reliance and self-sufficiency, though simultaneously valuing complementary roles for men and women. African feminism values family and children and sees the female potential for giving birth as a strength and not a weakness. Female leadership in the family, religious rituals, and political life, working outside the home, economic independence, and a joint male and female struggle for group survival are all hallmarks of an African feminist perspective.4
Impact of the Article on How I Understand and Teach the African History Courses
More than ten years ago, I developed a graduate course, "Social Change in Africa: 1750–1945." The course was designed to introduce graduate history students to important issues in the study of social change in sub-Saharan Africa from the era...