Africa Feminism History

How single unmarried women thrived in one pre-colonial West African society

I have spent a considerable amount of time wondering how single women could have made do in West African history. The non-existent yet much spoken of “African culture” of today paints a picture that such things never happened even though there are several renowned women who we remember today that never married, whether it is Queen Amina of Zaria, or Sarrounia, or Pa Sini Jobu, or even King Ahebi Ugbabe. Yet, most of us believe that independent minded women who are not interested in marriage only came to be so due to colonial European influence. Or assume that it must have been hard for unmarried women back when. In this post, I use Baule women of Ivory Coast as an example to show that it was not impossible to be unmarried and childless in a pre-colonial West African society.

It was a great pleasure coming across Mona Etienne’s “Gender Relations and Conjugality among the Baule”, in Christine Oppong’s Female and Male in West Africa. In a chapter, Etienne begins by mentioning that modern Baule women are known for being independent, noting that many middle aged and elderly Baule women who live in towns are unmarried yet acquire enough wealth to support those that are dependent on them and to maintain social networks. Some of these women have educated adult children or foster children who earn high salaries and are thus able to support their incomes, ensure that the women are taken care of in old age, and that they will have a “presitgious” funeral when they die. Young women holding these older women as role models, view marriage as “incompatible” with their personal goals of becoming wealth, or view marriage as a means through which they can get wealth as “a generous husband may help them attain wealth and success”.

Etienne boldly states that “this type of situation is not unusual in Africa, especially in West Africa”, and I believe that she means among modern West African women in urban environments. However among Baule women, even those in rural areas resist marriage despite pressure and the limited economic opportunities available to single women in the village, putting marriage aside because they want to go to the city or wanting to escape to the city because they do not want to marry. Both in the urban cities and rural villages, there are Baule women who are more concerned with achieving economic autonomy. Etienne traces this reluctance to marry, and this view of marriage as an unwanted convenience or “as an outright exploitation” to pre-colonial Baule society. Baule society has always placed premium in personal autonomy and individual freedom of choice for women and men.

Early European observers remarked on the high positions Baule women held. They had a voice in the decision making process in affairs that concerned the village. Furthermore all adult women were part of a secret society whose rituals were forbidden for men to see/watch. As part of this society, women defended the interests of the community against foreign threats, they also defended the interests of women against women although Etienne states that the more import role was safeguarding the community interests in times of illness and warfare. The support of women was absolutely crucial in affairs concerning the community, for example it was believed that men who went to war without the support of women would surely meet defeat and death. It should be noted that men also had their own secret society that women could not be part of.

It seems it was only in ritual that Baule women and men were divided as there was hardly any other case of separation between the sexes, and gender attributes were not rigidly defined. The division of labour in which men and women were assigned different tasks were apparently upheld due to efficiency in production and were not enforced by supernatural or civil sanctions. Deviations were acceptable when necessary or convenient meaning that men could perform women’s labour tasks when the situation called for it and vice versa. Finding a partner of the opposite sex to aid with labour did not necessarily mean finding a husband or wife, but could mean finding a “sister” or a “brother”. Deviations were only rare in the cases of apprenticeship though healers and diviners could be men or women.

Women chiefs were important, although they grew less in number at the time of colonisation. Women could attract vast amounts of wealth and dependants (both men and women), they played their role in trading and gold prospecting expeditions, and acquired domestic slaves in their own rights. Etienne mentions the traditions and histories contemporary women have of business minded grandmothers and great-grandmothers, and guesses that these women may have been encouraged by their own mothers hinting at a chain of enterprising Baule women who inspired their daughters over time. So Baule women’s search for independence and wealth is not new but rooted in history and traditional models.

Baule Gyaman girls in exquisite gold jewelry with horsetail switches

Among the Baule, early stages of marriage were marked by long periods of duolocality, that is the wife continued to live with her kin and the husband did the same. Marriage was not thought to be complete until the wife took up residence with her husband. It is due to this that noble women, women who belong to families that held high political office, are said to not marry. Such women could not be expected to move and take residence with their husbands if they did marry because they had a chance at a political office. And apparently the same thing happens today, even though the traditional political office does not hold as much important in this post-colonial age. Yet there are women who refuse marriage because they are heirs to a political seat, or whose families oppose their marriages for the same reason. Etienne states that these cases must be less frequent that in the past, because colonial and post-colonial administrations does not encourage women holding traditional political positions. In pre-colonial times when this discrimination was non-existent, there would have been more noble women refusing to marry or whose families refused their marriages. There would have also been noble women who married but did not live with their husbands as they did not want to risk losing their chance at a political seat. Thus for politically ambitious women, marriage was a constraint and noble women were not anxious to married, or if they did get married often divorced to claim their political office with their kin.

Baule women retain economic rights in their own kin group. They have rights to the labour of a brother or any other kinsman with whom they could launch an economic partnership similar to that between spouses. Basically, unmarried women could form ‘marriage-like” partnerships with their kinsmen on solely economic grounds. Kinship relations among the Baule are traced from both parents, rather from either a father and a mother, with succession and inheritance being generally matrilineal. In this cognatic system, people continually sought to attract dependants from all sides of the family tree that they could rely on, and who could rely on them in turn. Elders looked to attract dependants in order to increase their own wealth while juniors wanted to establish ties with elders who were rich enough to finance entrepreneurial undertakings and who were generous enough to offer dependants a share in the profits. Kin group membership was not rigidly ascribed and there was less gerontocracy or autocracy. Elders did demand respect and had some authority, however rigidly enforcing authority could led to the departure of dependants and even the eventual dying out of a kin group due to all the members leaving.

Riches came from having a large number of dependants to contribute to one’s revenue. No elders or chiefs could completely take the labour or revenue of their dependants, meaning that dependants always could keep a little something to themselves. The elders held on to a bonus which increased their own wealth. People acquired wealth and personal property either from their labour and also from estates inherited matrilineally. Relationships of dependency were flexible, all adults had the possibility of building their own group of personal dependants. A son who remained with his father’s kin was a “child of male” and could not inherit there, and neither could his children unless he married a woman in the same kin group as his father. In order to inherit, one had to be a “child of a female”. A man could return to his maternal kin in order to inherit there. Or he could build his own group, with his sisters, or his sister’s children, or by attracting maternal kin unrelated to his father. These people would show allegiance only to their “brother” and contribute their labour to his estate while receiving some revenue for themselves.

A women who chose to live with their husband had access to similar opportunities. She could create her own group by holding on to her unmarried or divorced daughters. These would be joined by her dependants unrelated to her husband, her domestic slaves, and younger members of her own kin group. By fostering and adopting children, a married woman could grow the number of people who depended on her. Usually when a woman took up residence with her husband, she was given a child in adoption and would adopt other children as time went on. Junior dependants would join her group if she had a reputation of wealth and generosity. All a married woman’s dependants owed allegiance to her alone, and respect to her husband. Through this, a married woman essentially she aided the people in her own kin group and maintained ties with them even though she now lived with her husband.

Etienne argues that marriage in Baule society was more of an “association of a woman and man for purposes of reproduction and production with shared rights in both children and products”. Children owed labour and allegiance to both parents, but this could be circumstantial depending on the child’s desires and ambitions. A married woman controlled the products of her labour and gained new wealth from surplus production. Gender equality was so that the two most important products in pre-colonial Baule society were controlled by men and women; yam for men and cloth for women. Division of labour meant that both men and women contributed to the production of both. Women and men controlled surplus production by controlling the labour of their dependants, domestic slaves, children and junior kin. And by controlling male dependants who worked in yam farming for example, a woman could use her surplus production to fund other opportunities such as long-distance trade and gold prospecting.

Of course colonialism changed things considerably. The introduction of cash crop lead to Baule women losing control over production. And losing control over production lead to losing control over dependants, as reduced productivity reduced a woman’s ability to attract dependants, and less dependants reduced a woman’s productive capacity. There is more to be said on how Baule gender relations and marriages were affected by colonialism and urban migration, however that is not the purpose of this post so I will end things here hoping that those who read this post have a clearer idea of how single unmarried women thrived in pre-colonial Baule society.

What I read
Etienne Mona, “Gender Relations and Conjugality among the Baule”, pp. 309-319 in Female and Male in West Africa (1983) edited by Christine Oppong


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