When we think about women’s activism we imagine protest marches, banners and pink hats. But women have claimed their voice, their right to speak, in public discourse in so many different and unexpected ways over time. One thinks of The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina during the “Dirty War,” who in 1977 began showing up in the plaza everyday to demand information about their “disappeared” children. Another example was older women in Nigeria during the anti-colonial “Igbo Women’s War” of 1929 reclaiming their space of authority by showing up in the thousands to enact the traditional practice of “sitting on a man” which involved chanting and dancing to shame the men. In less obviously public ways, elite women in Qing China wrote and published poetry that asserted their moral authority as wives and mothers who controlled the household economy where boys were first educated and men found retreat after their travels. These are all stories of women who claimed their right as public intellectuals to contribute to civic debates based on an assertion of their virtue as responsible citizens.
But, because of the tendency to universalize our own cultural assumptions, we often miss these claims of civic virtue and see women confined to the home and domestic labor, uninvolved in public affairs. The quintessential African grandmother telling stories to her grandchildren at night figures into popular, and even academic, culture as a quaint, but a politically innocuous, figure who entertains with animal tales. My research in the Mara Region, Tanzania, to explore women’s historical knowledge, however, showed that here their narratives asserted a claim of recognition for the value of their own civic contribution. They told very different kinds of stories about the past than men, who were recognized as the legitimate historians of the ethnic group. Women’s stories, by contrast, were about the value to the community of the cross-ethnic networks they formed across the region.
During the late nineteenth century East Africa experienced a series of El Niño droughts that resulted in famine, displacement and the spread of epidemic disease from the caravan trade. In the Mara Region young women and girls were often “sold” or pawned to wealthier families for food that would allow the rest of the family to survive. While some ended up in the slave trade, many more remained in the region and were incorporated into new families as daughters, or wives, becoming part of the family. The interests of men’s public stories was to forget where these women came from and sever their ties to their original families. However, the interests of grandmothers who told their stories to grandchildren at night was to preserve their honor as women with kinship ties in distant places that should not be forgotten. The distant networks preserved in grandmothers’ memories proved useful for getting help in times of trouble or finding marriage partners. Women’s counter-memory asserted their virtuous past and ongoing value to the community, precisely because of their network memory.
Does this work of elderly women telling their own versions of history qualify as activism? In order to demand change in the public arena one has to first assert the authority to speak at all. In the case of Mara women they may speak their concerns for the public good in the private spaces of grandmothers sleeping with their granddaughters or around cooking pots but they are heard in the larger public arena because of the moral authority that they claim. The dominant account remains that of elderly men who hold responsibility for “history.” But women’s alternative narratives of the past crossed ethnic groups in building durable networks of security. Even though hard to read in our cultural vernacular, women’s assertion of voice in the public sphere is sometimes as close as the stories they tell in defining an alternative version of the past.