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For The “The Rising Generations”: A Historical Note on Africana Women’s Groups

“O woman, woman! Upon you I call; for upon your exertions almost entirely depends whether the rising generation shall be anything more than we have been or not.”

Maria W. Miller Stewart in her address to the Afric-American Intelligence Society of Boston, Massachusetts (1832)

For centuries, African diaspora (Africana) women have organized themselves, displaying strong, dynamic leadership for the protection, liberation, and self-determination of African people. Early anti-slavery societies were developed and led by Black women who inspired one another.[1] In the United States these groups include the Afric-American Female Intelligence Society of Boston, and in Brazil, Irmandade da Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte (The Sisterhood of Our Lady of Good Death) organized in the early 1800s. Like their Brazilian sisters, Black women abolitionists in the United States (often studied as individuals rather than as integral aspects of complex organizations) created organizations to free Africans from enslavement. The oldest Africana women’s movements of the 1900s in North America included the National Association of Colored Women, the League for the Protection of Colored women, and Canada’s Colored Women’s Club of Montréal founded in 1902. These groups shared responsibilities, raised funds, networked, and generally rallied around respected and trusted leaders. African women’s clubs struggled for gender equality, fought racism, addressed illiteracy (especially among women in developing countries), responded to local health crisis, and advocated for the concerns of children. In so many ways, Africana women advanced social, cultural and political consciousness and public activism.

Mary McLeod Bethune (Scotia Seminary)

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African women constructed associations to give women technical skills and abilities and to empower women economically. Women of African descent around the globe have established groups supporting the advancement of nations and justice for marginalized peoples within countries. In the Caribbean groups such as the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association in Trinidad and Tobago have a long history of addressing critical labor union issues. Many African women in America rose to national prominence through the organizational leadership of women. The National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), noted for their motto “Lifting as We Climb,” was founded by Mary McLeod Bethune in 1935. Bethune, brought together numerous Black women’s groups under this authority; and during her lifetime, served de facto, as one of the first African American stateswomen. Bethune led by example and was widely recognized as a strong leader. In Africa, Black women took up arms and educational instruction in the liberation of people. With a focus on the future for example, the women of The Liberation Front of Mozambique (known as FRELIMO, and organized in 1962) fought for the independence of their country. In addition, national liberation efforts were also the thrust of the Federation of South African Women which was formed in 1954; and in the 1960s the Organizacao da Muher Angolana (OMA) organized for Angola’s freedom from Portugal during the War of Independence; and regarding the case of Ethiopia, the General Union of Eritrean Women was created by exiled women in Egypt in 1967. According to Mason (2001), the General Union of Eritrean Women (GUEW) was led by Amna Malikeen who served as chair, and Zahra Jaber who was responsible for international relations.[2]

Women in the Black Diaspora continue to organize into the twentieth-first century. Some of their issues are similar to those of their foremothers. However, Black women must address, in addition to critical matters of health (especially within HIV affected populations)—poverty, inflation and employment, the violation of human rights against men, women and children in war torn countries, including violence against civilians, personal security of individuals and communities, and the recognition of democratic and legal rights. Twenty-first century women’s organizations also contend with racial/cultural deracination. “The Global List of Women’s Organisations” cites numerous contemporary women’s groups, including those located on the continent of Africa and in the African diaspora.[3] The list displays the wide variety of issues Black women undertake. As an independent online effort, Denise Osted (a “Canadian-born writer and feminist”), began the unaffiliated and unfunded electronic listing cataloguing women’s organizations and businesses in 1997. From her early “The Global List of Women’s Organisations,” website, Osted stated a few examples of the difficulties in locating and compiling contemporary women’s organizations. The challenges include, but are not limited to, the impact of colonial legacies, women living in occupied territories, and those residing in unrecognized regions. The opportunities afforded to Black women organization’s worldwide today include embracing the philosophy and practicality of the “global network.” This embraces the use of high-technology vis-à-vis the internet including dedicated websites, social networking (together with virtual groups), online conferences and educational courses, and the use of connectivity tools as Skype. The history of women uniting in the Black diaspora is immense, though often overlooked or diminished in the scholarship, especially in the areas of cultural and spiritual agency, political reform, and as revolutionaries in national armed struggles. However, Africana women have always demonstrated operational self-reliance, faith, and resourcefulness for overall upliftment and when faced with challenging circumstances.

Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina

[1] Shirley J. Yee, Black Women Abolitionists, A Study in Activism, 1828-1860, University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1992.

[2] Christine Mason (2001) “Gender, Nationalism and Revolution: Re-Assessing Women’s Relationship with the Eritrean Liberation Front,” Women and International Development, Michigan State University, Working Paper #274, December 2001, pp. 1-21.

[3] Denise Osted, “The Global List of Women’s Organisations,” http://www.distel.ca/womlist/womlist.html . Accessed December 2005. (Denise Osted, Box 435, East Selkirk, Manitoba Canada R0E 0M0, E-mail: