Africa's 10 iconic women leaders | This is Africa

Politics and Society

Africa’s 10 iconic women leaders

Black History Month is a time to reflect on the contributions various people have made, for the freedom of black people globally. Take a look at TIA’s 10 iconic women in African history (not in order of importance)



1. Taytu Betul- Queen and Empress (Ethiopia)

Betul is praised for her role as a shrewd political leader who was instrumental in ousting Italian imperialists. She and her husband (Emperor Menelik II) were key figures in the Battle of Adwa (1896), between Ethiopian and Italian forces, which her nation won. Taytu Betul was an influential political leader.

Ethiopia’s Queen and Empress Taytu Betul was a key figure in fighting off Italian imperialists. Photo: Heber Ethiopia

2. Huda Shaarawi – Feminist leader and nationalist (Egypt)

Shaarawi spoke up for women issues and participated in Egypt’s nationalist struggle. She established the Egyptian Feminist Union (1923), and was the founding president of the Arab Feminist Union – to name a few of her achievements.

Feminist and nationalist Huda Shaarawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923. Photo: Kalamu

3. Women soldiers of Dahomey – Military leaders (Benin)

The admired but feared warriors of Dahomey Kingdom were also known as the “Dahomey Amazons” in the 18th century. They contributed to the kingdom’s military power, and were respected for being brave and never running away from danger.


Women soldiers of Dahomey Kingdom (Benin) were feared and respected for their bravery. Photo: Edmond Fortier

4. Gisèle Rabesahala -Malagasy politician (Madagascar)

Rabesahala was the first Malagasy woman to be elected as a municipal councillor (1956), political party leader (1958), and to be appointed minister (1977). The lauded leader also founded Imongo Vaovao newspaper, and is best known for dedicating her life to Madagascar’s independence, and advocating for human rights.

Pioneer Malagasy politician who was the first woman in Madagascar to be appointed minister. Photo: RFI

5. Wangari Maathai -Environmental activist (Kenya)

The Nobel Peace Prize winner (2004) founded the well respected Green Belt Movement in 1977, which advocates for people to plant trees to fight environmental degradation. She is also known for championing human rights.

Kenya’s Nobel Peace Prize winner was a passionate environmental activist. Photo: Green Belt Movement

6. Miriam Makeba – Musician and apartheid activist (South Africa)

The Grammy award winner openly opposed South Africa’s apartheid regime, and lost her citizenship because of she was an activist. “Mama Africa” introduced the world to South African music, and political struggles. Listen to Pata Pata here.

The South African Grammy award winner was an activist and important voice during the fight to end apartheid. Photo: Xhosa Culture

7. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – Africa’s first woman president (Liberia)

The Harvard educated leader made history by becoming Africa’s first female president in 2006. The leader shared her 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, and Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman for “their non violent struggle for the safety of women, and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” (Nobel Peace Prize)

Liberian president Ellen Sirleaf Johnson was the first female president in Africa, and is Nobel Peace Prize winner. Photo: Reuters

8. Yaa Asantewaa – Queen mother of the Edweso tribe (Ghana)

The Queen mother ‘Edwesohemaa’ led an army of thousands during the Yaa Asantewaa War for Independence, against the British colonial forces in 1900. The following year the British drove her into exile, and she spent two decades in Seychelles until her death in 1921.


Ghana’s Yaa Asantewaa was a key player in resisting the British colonial forces in 1900. Photo: Atlanta Blackstars

9. Nzinga Mbandi- Queen of Ndongo and Matamba (Angola)

Mbandi is described as a “deft diplomat, skilful negotiator and formidable tactician,” according to UNESCO. Nzinga encouraged her people to resist Portugal’s colonial influences, and even worked with the Dutch to drive the colonisers out. The queen resisted colonisation right until her death in 1663.

Angola’s Queen Nzinga Mbande was a deft diplomat fighting Portugese colonial forces. Photo: MRFPress

10. Cesária Évora – Musician (Cape Verde)

The Grammy award winning singer is known for appearing on stage with her bare feet in support of Cape Verde’s homeless, poor women and children. She sang in a style of music called “morna“,  which combines West African percussion with Portuguese “fado“, Brazilian modinha and British sea shanties. Listen to “Sodade” here.

Cape Verde’s Grammy award winning artist Cesária Évora is a singer and human rights activist. Photo: Concert live

Source: UNESCO

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