‘Men write history, but women live it.’: Essay Competition Winner

The arrangement and preservation of knowledge about the past is ultimately a question of power. History is a process that both legitimates and reflects gender relations. For most of human history this process has been controlled by men. The notion of ‘men write history, but women live it’ ascribes gender relations at both a literal and metaphorical level. It posits that men not only control and assemble the historical narrative, but they also monopolise historically significant activity – metaphorically ‘writing’ a kind of historical providence that women endure. The Nigerian ‘Women’s War’ offers an insightful lens through which to explore this idea. Between November 1929 and January 1930, 10,000 women protested against both British colonial indirect rule and the rumoured imposition of direct taxation.[1] The women were largely of Igbo descent, but were also joined by five other ethnic groups from south-eastern Nigeria – Andoni, Orgoni, Bonny, Opobo and Umuahia. The event has been chronically misconstrued in conventional historiography.[2] Nigerian women have been written out of a narrative that they created, and reinscribed into an enduring patriarchal framework that sees their actions as a violent assault on femininity and order.[3] However, history is an ongoing process that continually reimagines the past – albeit if not changing the way in which Nigerian women were forced to ‘live it’. Nigeria’s rich lore and dance tradition problematises the notion that women live in the shadow of male decisions and challenges Eurocentric historical methodological approaches surrounding the Women’s War.[4] Furthermore, the Women’s War illustrates how problematic the binary notions of male agency and female passivity are. Not all men have monopolised history – some have been subject to it too. Questions of history, power and gender ultimately need to be intersectional in order to prevent a Manichean division of the world that obscures more than it reveals.

The historical record surrounding the Women’s War embodies the idea that men write history and women live it. Indeed, the fact that until recently the rebellion was labelled the ‘Aba Riots’ makes this clear. Van Allen claims that the ‘control of language means the control of history’.[5] Through labelling the organised and largely peaceful actions of the women as a non-specific and violent outburst, the historiographical record not only justified the militant action male British colonial officials took to quash the rebellion, but is an oppressive assault on Nigerian female identity and history – ‘de-politicising its feminist impetus’.[6] Although Van Allen goes on to claim is the result of the ‘sexist bias of Western scholarship’ that so little is known about the event, in reality, the androcentric  historical record was crystallised much earlier on.[7] As a result of the deaths of over 50 women on the back of the rebellion, two commissions of enquiry were set up by British officials and their reports form the basis of the historical record. Not only did the inquiry describe the rebellion as a conspiratorial ‘mob’ spearheaded my local male vigilantes, but of the 485 witnesses interviewed, only 103 were women.[8] Part of the reason this monopolising of the historical narrative seems so violent and exploitative is because the Women’s War was not a story for men to tell. Almost ironically, a struggle envisaged as an attack on patriarchal forces becomes testament to them.

At a metaphorical level, male colonial officers monopolised both the historical precedent and legacy for gender relations in Nigeria. Before the imposition of colonial rule, women had several roles in Igbo society.[9]  Political power was disparate and decentralised – with women allowed to participate in local assemblies and taking a particularly important role as arbitrators in settling disputes.[10] Allen describes how status was achieved not ascribed and thus women had the opportunity to carve out their own identity.[11] Political institutions like the ogbo – ritual-based arbiter lineage associations – and the mikiri – a kind of precursory trade union – allowed women to assert themselves in the public sphere.[12] Indeed, it has been argued that political power in Nigeria was ‘bisexual’ before the advent of colonialism, with men and women writing and living the historical record together.[13] However, history’s utility as a tool for asserting colonial control under the guise of tradition resulted in a rewriting of the historical narrative that characterised gender relations in Nigeria. In 1900, southern Nigeria was declared a protectorate. The ogbo and mikiri were abolished – thus erasing an historic symbol of female autonomy and forcing women to live in an imported Victorian historical narrative that worshipped the cult of domesticity and submission – effectively constituting cultural imperialism.[14]  Despite the Women’s War of petitioning against these issues, the legacy of this engineered erasure of Nigerian female history and tradition is felt even today. The ogbo and mikiri were never reinstated and the 1933 abolition of ‘self-help’ – a custom that approved force as a means of self-defence – buried Nigeria’s rich tradition of female activism.[15] Women still do not take leadership roles in local government – and although not entirely down to the actions of colonial officials, their historic invisibility strips them of legitimate claims to power.[16]

History is a living process and the historical record can, and is, changing. Nigerian women who took part in the rebellion undoubtedly had to live with the consequences of an engineered androcentric historical narrative, but that does not mean that all women still have to. Since the 1970’s, Aba historiography – riding on the wave of second-wave feminism – has sought to challenge the narrative purported by the colonial commissions of inquiry. [17] Although Scott suggests that revising historical narratives to focus on the ‘impact of events on women’ is unhelpful, and instead we should be looking at areas of sexual difference and experience, the fact is that the historical narrative does not exist.[18] Any exploration of sexual difference cannot take place until a somewhat credible account of events is established.  The revisionist work of historians like Van Allen, and more recently Falola and Paddock does this. Through highlighting the complexity and sophistication of the Women’s War, the authors free the event from ‘living’ within a reductive narrative. Texts such as Nwapa’s 1966 Efuru self-inscribes the invisible female voice into Igbo history and interrogates both imperialist authority and a male-dominated literary tradition – allowing women to both write and live history.[19] As historiography continues to reflect a society that questions and challenges conventional gender distinctions, one can only assume that although the past lives of women were controlled by men, their legacy and the binary gender divisions that the question suggests, will be further dismantled.

And yet, whether men even solely wrote the history of the Women’s War is up for debate. Arguably the western historians aforementioned have a limiting, Eurocentric and textually-based notion of what constitutes history. Van Allen continually stresses the ‘invisibility’ of the women that took part in the Women’s War.[20] Smith claims that if ‘the past is like a foreign land, the history of women is not only foreign but largely unchartered’.[21] Both of these claims unhelpfully start and end with the absence of female voices in textual sources. As Strobel notes, due to the low level of female literacy, Igbo women have conventionally used songs, rituals and stories in order to ‘write’ their history.[22] Albeit a potentially fragile and tenuous means of accurately recording the past it does nevertheless challenge the exclusivity that ‘men write history, but women live it’, suggests. Indeed, relying on written sources alone is risky – as many may have been subject to a masked colonial influence that hides behind the ‘authentic’ voice of the native.[23] In the context of the Women’s War, Igbo women used dance as a means of cultural expression and memorialisation – collectively preserving and performing a memory for future generations of women. Indeed, Hanna claims that ‘women express their…power in dance-plays’.[24] The relationship between history, power and gender is crucial here. Historians have a tendency when revising the historical narrative to simply present women as victims of oppression – confining them to an androcentric conceptual framework under the guise of liberation.[25] Although historians like Van Allen are crucial in interrogating and questioning the established narrative surrounding the Women’s War, they have to also use alternative sources to posit a new history that gives the women agency on their own terms.[26]  Female Igbo practices of writing history seem to offer the perfect challenge to the idea that where men write history, women live it. Through memorialising the Women’s War through dance and activity, women not only write their own history but keep it alive through constantly recreating, sharing and living it.

Particularly when applied in other historical contexts, the nature of the statement, ‘men write history, but women live it’ seems to be more reductive than illuminating. For a start, not all men write history. The use of the word ‘but’ implies a kind of exclusivity whereby only women are subject to the implications of male history writing. Under British rule in Nigeria, all history was distorted and buried. Prior to colonial rule, authority amongst men was based on lineage.[27] Tradition and custom were passed down through rituals and obligations amongst sons, and history celebrated Nigeria’s rich natural environment and landscape.[28] Under colonialism, the construction of a new ‘industrial masculinity’ was accompanied by the erasure of the past.[29] Men, much like the Igbo women, were forced to live in the shadow of a constructed history. As Lerner points out, the binary division of men and women often ends up alienating and splitting two sides that actually share a great deal in common.[30]  Cixous’ belief that every theory of society can be reduced to ‘hierarchical oppositions that come back to the man/woman opposition’ seems outdated and naïve.[31] Men took part in the Women’s War too. Perhaps a more insightful notion would be that it is the patriarchy, as an oppressive ideological framework that oppresses both men and women, that writes history. Indeed, the links between a whitewashing patriarchy and colonialism have been noted before.[32] Carlyle’s maxim, “the history of the world is but the biography of great men” – seems to unintentionally expose this idea, problematising the homogenising implications of a male/female dichotomy. Lastly, the notion of all women ‘living’ history together completely lacks any intersectional awareness. Albeit in the case of the Women’s War, the distinctions between identifiers like class, sexuality and religion are subsumed under the context’s broader gendered and racial framework, in many cases not all women will ‘live’ or suffer the same history. Feminist historians must seek an intersectional approach to recording the past in order to avoid just re-inscribing women into another historical framework that denies them a voice.[33]

Overall, it is clear that neither men nor women exclusively ‘write’ or ‘live’ history.  History, being the assemblage of knowledge about the past to produce an argument, is inherently fluid and the product of its social context. Admitting otherwise risks a tacit acceptance of the presentation of the past and women and men’s roles within it. Although in regard to the 1929 Women’s War, male colonial officials did engineer a policy of historical erasure and monopolised the way in which the event was presented, the effects are neither permanent nor confined only to women. Nothing can be done to change the lives of the Nigerian women who lived under colonial rule, but historians can change how the event is perceived and broaden the sources used to tell it.  If anything, it is a patriarchal ideological framework which has written history. The focus on ‘great men’, state politics and a ‘patriarchal ordering of values’continues to exclude women and other groups who existed outside the realm of political power and warfare.[34] The future of history must be intersectional – empowering and celebrating the diversity of human identity and activity. If not, events like the Nigerian Women’s War will continue to be misrepresented and overlooked for generations to come.

Evie Nicholson


Bibliography

Andrade, Susan Z. “Rewriting History, Motherhood, and Rebellion: Naming an African Women’s Literary Tradition.” Research in African Literatures 21, no. 1 (1990): 91–110.

Brown, Carolyn. “Race and the Construction of Working-Class Masculinity in the Nigerian Coal Industry: The Initial Phase, 1914–1930.” International Labor and Working-Class History 69, no. 1 (March 2006): 35–56.

Declich, Francesca. “‘Gendered Narratives,’ History, and Identity: Two Centuries along the Juba River among the Zigula and Shanbara.” History in Africa 22 (January 1995): 93–122.

Great Britain. Foreign And Commonwealth Office. Library. Report of the Commission of Inquiry Appointed to Inquire into the Disturbances in the Calabar and Owerri Provinces, December, 1929. Lagos: Printed By The Government Printer, 1930. <http://www.opensourceguinea.org/2014/10/nigeria-report-of-commission-of-inquiry.html>.

Hanna, Judith Lynne. “Dance and the ‘Women’s War.’” Dance Research Journal 14, no. 1/2 (1981): 25–28.

Lerner, Gerda. “Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges.” Feminist Studies 3, no. 1/2 (1975): 5–14.

Meyerowitz, Joanne. “A History of ‘Gender.’” The American Historical Review 113, no. 5 (December 2008): 1346–56.

Pierre, Elizabeth A. St. “A Historical Perspective on Gender.” The English Journal 88, no. 3 (January 1999): 29-34.

Scott, Joan W. “Women and War: A Focus for Rewriting History.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 12, no. 2 (1984): 2–6.

Smith, Bonnie G. “The Contribution of Women to Modern Historiography in Great Britain, France, and the United States, 1750-1940.” The American Historical Review 89, no. 3 (June 1984): 709-732.

Strobel, Margaret. “African Women’s History.” The History Teacher 15, no. 4 (1982): 509–22.

Toyin Falola, and Adam Paddock. The Women’s War of 1929 : A History of Anti-Colonial Resistance in Eastern Nigeria. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2011.

Van Allen, Judith. “‘Sitting on a Man’: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women.” Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 6, no. 2 (January 1972): 165–81.

———. “Aba Riots or the Igbo Women’s War? – Ideology, Stratification and the Invisibility of Women.” Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies 6, no. 1 (1975): 11–39.

Ware, Susan. “Writing Women’s Lives: One Historian’s Perspective.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 40, no. 3 (January 2010): 413–35.


Footnotes

[1] Judith Van Allen, “‘Sitting on a Man’: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women,” 

     Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines 6, no. 2 (January 1972): pp. 

     165–81 ; Judith Van Allen, “Aba Riots or the Igbo Women’s War? – Ideology, Stratification and the Invisibility of 

     Women,” Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies 6, no. 1 (1975): p. 12.

[2] Van Allen, “’Sitting on a Man’”, p. 177

[3] Van Allen, “’Sitting on a Man’”, p. 174-6.

[4] Francesca Declich, “‘Gendered Narratives,’ History, and Identity: Two Centuries along the Juba River among the  

     Zigula and Shanbara,” History in Africa 22 (January 1995): p. 94 ; Margaret Strobel, “African Women’s History,” 

    The History Teacher 15, no. 4 (1982): p. 512.

[5] Van Allen, “Aba Riots”, p. 11.

[6] Susan Z Andrade, “Rewriting History, Motherhood, and Rebellion: Naming an African Women’s Literary 

     Tradition,” Research in African Literatures 21, no. 1 (1990): p. 96.

[7] Van Allen, “Aba Riots, p. 14.

[8] Great Britain. Foreign And Commonwealth Office. Library, Report of the Commission of Inquiry Appointed to 

     Inquire into the Disturbances in the Calabar and Owerri Provinces, December, 1929. (Lagos: Printed By The 

     Government Printer, 1930),  

    http://www.opensourceguinea.org/2014/10/nigeria-report-of-commission-of-inquiry.html.

[9] Van Allen, “Aba Riots”, p. 14.

[10] Van Allen, “Aba Riots”, p. 16.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Van Allen, “Aba Riots”, p. 19.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Van Allen, “Aba Riots”, p. 27.

[15]Van Allen, “Aba Riots”, p. 24

[16] Van Allen, “’Sitting on a Man’”, p. 165.

[17] Susan Ware, “Writing Women’s Lives: One Historian’s Perspective,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 

       40, no. 3 (January 2010): p. 415.

[18] Joan W Scott, “Women and War: A Focus for Rewriting History,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 12, no. 2 (1984): 

       p. 3.

[19] Susan Z Andrade, “Rewriting History, Motherhood, and Rebellion: Naming an African Women’s Literary 

        Tradition,” Research in African Literatures 21, no. 1 (1990): p. 97 ; p. 105.

[20] See for example, Van Allen, “Sitting on a man”, p. 165; p. 181.

[21] Bonnie G. Smith, “The Contribution of Women to Modern Historiography in Great Britain, France, and the 

        United States, 1750-1940,” The American Historical Review 89, no. 3 (June 1984): p. 109.

[22] Margaret Strobel, “African Women’s History,” The History Teacher 15, no. 4 (1982): p. 512.

[23] Francesca Declich, “‘Gendered Narratives,’ History, and Identity: Two Centuries along the Juba River among 

       the Zigula and Shanbara,” History in Africa 22 (January 1995): p. 114.

[24] Judith Lynne Hanna, “Dance and the ‘Women’s War,’” Dance Research Journal 14, no. 1/2 (1981): p. 27.

[25] Gerda Lerner, “Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges,” Feminist Studies 3, no. 1/2 (1975): pp. 

        6-7.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Carolyn Brown, “Race and the Construction of Working-Class Masculinity in the Nigerian Coal Industry: The 

        Initial Phase, 1914–1930,” International Labor and Working-Class History 69, no. 1 (March 2006): p. 38.

[28] Brown, “Race”, pp. 35-56.

[29] Brown, “Race”, p. 43 ; p.48.

[30] Lerner, “Placing Women in History”, p. 9.

[31] Cixous, Hélène, and Annette Kuhn. “Castration or Decapitation?” Signs 7, no. 1 (1981): p. 44.

[32] M. A. Jaimes Guerrero. “”Patriarchal Colonialism” and Indigenism: Implications for Native Feminist Spirituality and Native Womanism.” Hypatia 18, no. 2 (2003): pp. 58-69.

[33] Elizabeth A. St. Pierre, “A Historical Perspective on Gender,” The English Journal 88, no. 3 (January 1999): 

        pp. 29-34.

[34] Lerner, “Placing Women in History”, p. 10.

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