‘Women have determined the course of events and the forms of human culture’.
We originated, founded, governed, prophesied, created great art, fought for our rights, and for our peoples. These are the women edited out of history, their stories omitted, distorted, and replaced with an endless litany of men (and the occasional queen or meddling concubine).
Our ignorance of these women is greatly compounded by the omission of information on societies which accorded females power in public life, diplomacy, religion, medicine, the arts as well as family structure and inheritance. Both racism and sexism are implicated in these silences and gaps.
Women’s history demands a global perspective. There’s far more to it than Queen Elizabeth I or Susan B. Anthony. We need to refocus historical attention from the school of “famous women” (often royal females) to encompass broader groupings of women with power: clan mothers and female elders; priestesses, diviners, medicine women and healers; market women, weavers, and other female arts and professions.
These “female spheres of power,” as I call them, vary greatly from culture to culture.
Priestesses or diviners have often led liberation movements: Nehanda Nyakasikana in the Shona revolt against English colonization of Zimbabwe; María Candelaria in the Maya uprising against the Spanish; and Toypurina in the Gabrieleño revolt in southern California.
In 1791, the old priestess Cécile Fatiman inaugurated the Haitian revolution against slavery in a Vodun ceremony in the Bois Caiman. Even earlier, the seeress Veleda was the guiding force behind the Batavian insurrection of tribal Europeans against Rome, and Dahia al-Kahina (“the priestess”) led Berber resistance to the Arab conquest of North Africa. And Gudit Isat (Judith the Fire) who overthrew the Axumite Empire in 10th century Ethiopia was remembered as a religious leader as well.
Female boldness has in many societies been required simply to defend personal liberty and self-determination, carving out space to act in spite of patriarchal constraints, to become what the English called “a woman at her own commandment.
The most courageous women challenged oppression. The famous Swahili singer Siti Binti Saad rose from the oppressed classes to make taarabu music her vehicle calling for social justice in what is now Tanzania.
She protested class oppression and men’s abuse of women; her song “The police have stopped” sharply criticized a judge who let a rich wife-murderer go free. She seemed unafraid even of the sultan.
The battle leadership of a Pawnee elder saved a village from attackers, and so she was named “Old Lady Grieves the Enemy.” Afterward, she taunted wife-beaters, telling them to go after the Poncas who came to burn up the village, and leave the women, who do no harm, alone.
There are many historical accounts of women warriors, and women often fought to defend their homes, their people and their country. However, although it is hard for many people today to conceive of such broad female authority, in some societies women had the formal power to veto the decision to go to war.
There was a saying, “Before the men can go to war, the women must make their moccasins.” Discover and experience the women’s superiority and learn from them a great deal and things will never be the same again.