What does that mean?
Women who openly display their power, knowledge, and skill, receiving public recognition and honor. But also, females who manage to wield power in societies that try to limit it or decree female submission; where their leadership is stigmatized and their creativity disdained. And women who resist and overthrow oppressive traditions and regimes. Who break The Rules in defiance of unjust legal and religious “authorities.” Who pursue their vision in spite of the personal cost.
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.
So we need a remedial history that reconstructs the female dimensions of human experience and achievement and recovers the distorted and obliterated past of Africa, the Americas, and all other regions neglected by the standard textbooks and mass media. This will be a provisional history because all the facts are not in yet, and previous interpretations are being reevaluated for gender, race, and colonial bias. More importantly, the indigenous oral histories have only barely begun to be integrated into mainstream narratives.
Women have often been relegated to the footnotes of history, and even those are highly selective. As Sandra Cisneros wrote of her search for Latina sheroes, “We are the footnotes of the footnotes.” Yet the heritages of women of color, especially the indigenous cultures, supply the most dramatic examples in recent history of open embrace of female power. But even Europe looks different when we look at the common women and encompass places like Bulgaria, Estonia, Corsica, or Iberian Galicia.
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. Some of them, particularly the spiritual callings, retain aspects of women’s self-determination even in societies that insist on formal subordination of female to male in private and public space.
There’s a striking interplay between women’s spiritual and political leadership, especially in many indigenous societies. I’m thinking of the Evenki shaman Olga who was both chieftain and religious leader of her Siberian village about a century ago, and the machis of Chile, shamans who are deeply involved in the Mapuche sovereignty effort. But this overlap occurs even in imperial contexts, as when the aged mikogami Pimiko was chosen as ruler to save Japan from a chaotic struggle for power in its early history. Another example would be the important role the Candomblé maes de Santos have played in the African-Brazilian community since early modern times.
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.
Often this female leadership does not rely on institutionalized authority, but on recognized personal power. The Apache seer and warrior woman Lozen is remembered for her acts of bravery and her clairvoyant ability to guide her people away from danger as they fled Anglo settler armies in Arizona and into Mexico. Granuaile Ní Mhaille (Grainne O’ Mailley) surmounted the absolute masculine monopoly of military and seafaring enterprise to become, through her pirate fleet, the uncrowned “She-King” of the Connemara coast of Ireland, and the scourge of the British Navy in the 1500s.
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.” Agodice practiced medicine in classical Athens disguised as a man, risking the death penalty then in force against female physicians. About two thousand years later, Miranda Stuart used the same strategy to get her M.D. As Dr. James Barry, she became Chief Surgeon for the British Navy. Her subterfuge was not discovered until her death, although she came close after being wounded in a duel.
This route of adopting a cloak of male privilege was followed by countless female adventurers, including Carmen Robles who became a colonel in the Mexican Revolutionary Army, and Elvira Cespedes, who practiced medicine and married a woman in 16th-century Spain — until she was denounced to the Inquisition and sentenced to a long term confinement and forced labor.
Female mavericks were also active in the arts and sciences. The renegade nun Okuni originated the Kabuki theater, from which women were soon banned. In Moorish Spain, the poet Walladah bint-al-Mustakfi rejected the veil and marriage, preferring to host intellectual salons and take female as well as male lovers. Around 975, her counterpart Aisa bint Ahmad declined a proposal by a poet she disliked with a defiant stance: “I am a lioness/ And will never consent to let/ My body be the stopping place for anyone/ But should I choose that/ I would not hearken to a dog/ And how many lions have I turned down.”
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. The Cherokee Beloved Woman, in her capacity of representing the women at the men’s council, possessed this authority, and so did the Gantowisas (Matrons) of the Six Nations (Iroquois). It was the women who supplied warriors with dried food and other necessities, and they suffered the consequences of war as well. There was a saying, “Before the men can go to war, the women must make their moccasins.”
The Lisu people of Yunnan (southwest China) once had a tradition that fighting had to stop if a woman of either side waved her skirt to call for an armistice. Often this would be a highly-regarded elder. The skirt, imbued with the woman’s mana, symbolized the life giver’s power. A woman taking off her outer skirt was also the signal for war or peace in the Pacific island Vanatinai, where women were also the traditional protectors of prisoners of war.