Aspects of Feminism and Gender in the Novels of Three West African Women Writers (Aidoo, Emecheta, Darko) by Edith Kohrs-Amissah. Heidelberg, Books on African Studies 90pp. ISBN 3-927198-17X


Miriam C. Gyimah

In her book, Aspects of Feminism and Gender in the Novels of Three West African Women Writers, Edith Kohrs-Amissah revisits the Third World or African feminist debate1 on feminist theoretical conceptualization, naming, and identity. She does this by testing the theoretical contributions of leading scholars like ‘Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi, and others against selected works of Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchi Emecheta and Amma Darko. Because these three women’s works only represent two countries, Ghana and Nigeria,2 Kohrs-Amissah acknowledges that although she uses theories of African feminism in examining the works of the authors, her work “lays no claim to being comprehensive on the topic of feminism in Africa and on feminism in African Literature” (11). With this, she embarks on a journey to find a space for her own literary examination of contemporary African women’s positionality, environment, and challenges in Aidoo’s Changes. A Love Story, Emecheta’s Kehinde, and Amma Darko’s Beyond the Horizon.

Before the theoretical analysis of individual texts, Kohrs-Amissah begins with an introduction that engages the colonial experience as it pertains to African people and how colonialism has positioned African literature as part of post-colonial literature, “third world literature,” “commonwealth literatures,” “world literature written in English,” and “new English literatures” (5). She, however, maintains that these different categorizations of African people’s literature “transport certain ideological concepts which lead to a biased readings of the works written by these writers and generalise the different experiences of many peoples under colonialism…” (5). She argues that there is therefore a tendency to homogenize the works of these writers who come from different cultures and continents (5), instead of realizing that cultures are not static, and that they undergo changes that have nothing to do with the colonial experience (6). This is Kohrs-Amissah’s way of making the point that critics of African literature realized that European theoretical methodologies were “inapplicable” to African literatures and that European methodologies cannot yield the proper analysis. Consequently, “African literary theory grew with post colonial literary theory”3 (6).

Nevertheless, while the discipline was shaping itself, something else was also developing. Even as African literature and African literary theory were developing for the critical consumption of the world, particularly the west, their authors, both male and female had to combat problems with language, marginalization, etc., and since female authors faced the same difficulties as men, theirs were doubled because of the gender question. As a result, the “women writers realized the need for an African female theory” (8) that would provide the critical tools to guide the interpretation, evaluation and analysis of African women. The use of such theory, it is hoped, would help critics give truthful representations of African womanhood which until the past decade have been scarce. Needless to say, while the issue of gender is the main reason African women see the need to create their own theory, Kohrs-Amissah cautions that because “African women writers vocalize their simultaneous experience of multiple oppressions…gender is (only) one issue out of many. Consequently, an African feminist theory cannot only deal with the ‘male-female’-problem because abolishing one of the oppressions will not solve the problems facing African women. Achieving equality between African men and women will still leave the problems of neo-colonialism, racism and imperialism” (10). The author presents the African feminist discussion which, having to reference and even use the term “feminist” or “feminism,” has since been an often debated topic. She revisits the discussion to determine, on the basis of the recent writing of her selected authors, “whether the feminist debate has left an impression on the works of the women writers and if it has in which direction their feminist inclination shows” (11).

Kohrs-Amissah’s review of the African feminism discussion begins with the failure of Western feminism to capture successfully the experience of black women. She establishes that one of the reasons for the failure was the masculinization of colonization and the feminization of colonized people (12). She goes on to say that, according to “third world” women, white feminists generally ignore the differences between themselves and “third world” women and use their discourse to achieve a sense of superiority over these women by intentionally creating a generally negative picture of them in their theories (13). Kohrs-Amissah finds that African women, realizing the pitfalls of Western feminism, determined to formulate their own feminist theories not only to enable an accurate insight about them, but also to guide the analytical undertaking of their writings. Her text continues to elaborate that in the search for theories, African women, as other black women, critique the term “feminism” because of the racist and narrow implications associated with mainstream feminism and that one of the claims that black women make regarding feminism is that “it should take the interconnectedness of race, class and sex oppression into account” (20). She finds that this is critical since Western feminism for too many years saw it fit to focus only on sexual inequality. African women, who are also concerned about sexual politics, understand that a discussion of feminism must grapple with more than the issue of sex. As a result, the debate concludes that African women have to modify the word feminist in order to articulate their own concerns fully. Hence, they use concepts such as “‘African/a feminism/s,’ ‘Black feminism/s,’ ‘womanism’ being the most popular, and the word created by Ogundipe-Leslie, ‘stiwanism’ but also ‘motherism’ and ‘femalism’…” (22-23).

The author begins with African/a feminism and explains that those who choose to use these terms view global oppression as important as the oppressions Africans face (23). “In using the term, they show that they do not want to lose touch with the global feminist debate. They find it satisfactory to broaden the Western definition of feminism in order to make it relevant to the struggle of African and other ‘Third World’ women” (23). She elaborates on the premise of African/a feminism as she presents Ogundipe-Leslie’s points on the subject: 1) that feminism need not be opposition to men…. 2) that women need not neglect their biological roles, 3) that motherhood is idealized and claimed as a strength by African women and seen as having a special manifestation in Africa…4) that the total configuration of the conditions of women should be addressed rather than obsessing with sexual issues, 5) that certain aspects of women’s reproductive rights take priority over others, 6) that women’s conditions in Africa need to be addressed in the context of the total production and reproduction of their society and the scenario involves men and children…7) and that the ideology of women has to be cast in the context of the race and class struggles which bedevil the continent of Africa today…. (25). However, the author reports that black women who claim the word feminist as part of their identity are often criticized by African men and women who reject the notion of African women being subjugated.

Another term, Stiwanism, which is an acronym for Social Transformation Including Women in Africa, was coined by Ogundipe-Leslie to “counter the opposition she encounters whilst using the term feminism.” Kohrs-Amissah cites Ogundipe-Leslie who says, ‘I have since advocated the word ‘Stiwanism,’ instead of feminism, to bypass these concerns and to bypass the combative discourse that ensue whenever one raises the issue of feminism in Africa….” (26). Although the author elaborates on what Leslie believes is critical to African/a feminism, there seems to be a lack somewhere as to the function of the word Stiwanism in the text.4

Lastly, Kohrs-Amissah presents the term African/a Womanism. Womanism is a term that was coined by the novelist Alice Walker. The word was later qualified by the Nigerian scholar Chikwenye Okonjo Ogunyemi with the word African/a to refer to the everyday lives and situations of African women. The term is an alternative for black feminist (27). According to Kohrs-Amissah, both Walker and Ogunyemi “define womanism within a black context as the coming of age of a young woman which brings about the emergence of femaleness. Additionally, Ogunyemi believes that the ‘ultimate aim of womanism is the unity of blacks everywhere under the enlightened control of men and women.’ She lays stress on womanism as a black global ideology which encompasses issues of racism, imperialism and sexism” (27). Kohrs-Amissah surmises that “African/a womanism has a lot in common with “Third World” and African feminism but is grounded firmly in the African context…it encompasses all the issues which Black / African feminists address and goes beyond it in that it is a holistic ideology which accentuates the empowerment of all black people and which lays emphasis on the female sphere. It has a humanist vision as it calls for justice and equality in society (globally)” (29). While Kohrs-Amissah acknowledges that besides the mentioned differences, the three feminist theoretical formulations were to an extent the same she opts to use the term feminism in her analysis.

In the author’s evaluation of selected works of Aidoo, Emecheta, and Darko, she separately presents a biography of each author to shed light on that person’s politics and to suggest how this background affects the author’s creative writing and critical thinking. Aidoo and Emecheta’s biographical information are proportionally longer and more detailed than Darko’s. Perhaps, that is because while Aidoo and Emecheta have been writing for decades and have more available information about them, Darko is relatively new as a novelist and so there isn’t a great deal of gathered data on her.

In her examination of all the texts, Kohrs-Amissah first spends a good deal of time with the summation before embarking on her analysis. The summation is useful and may be necessary for those not familiar with the texts, but they still seemed a bit lengthy. Changes is about the protagonist Esi Sekyi who decides to end her first marriage to the insecure Oko after he rapes her to reclaim his place as head of the relationship. The main conflict is that Esi is more educated than her husband as she holds a Masters degree and the bungalow in which they lived came with her job. Her preference for her career and sense of independence is a sore point in the couple’s relationship, and Oko, unable to handle his wife’s commitment to her job as a statistician, is left questioning himself if his wife was really an “African woman.” Finding monogamy stifling, Esi falls in love with Ali, a married man with an already established family and opts to marry him since polygamy, for this modern educated woman, seems an arrangement that will offer her more freedom. Needless to say, the arrangement is more complicated and dissatisfying; at the end of the novel, while choosing not to divorce Ali, Esi is nevertheless alone. Although Aidoo touches upon womanist ideals5 because she is “concerned with the role of the women in the changing Ghanaian society and the effects of colonialism and cultural imperialism on the country” (45), for Kohrs-Amissah, Changes takes on a feminist theoretical approach. She makes this judgment based on Aidoo’s awareness of the problems of modern day Africa, specifically her country. Aidoo conveys “that women play an important role in contemporary African society and that they make positive contributions to the changes taking place” (45). Kohrs-Amissah goes on to demonstrate that Aidoo “…pinpoints the subjugation of women in African society to the influence of Chritianisation, Islamisation and indigenous traditions, which reinforced each other to create the contemporary patriarchal society” (42). Furthermore, she concludes that part of what makes Aidoo’s text more of an adherence to Western feminism is that although Esi remains in her community, the novel ends with her individualization.

With Emecheta’s Kehinde, Kohrs-Amissah also notes that the work, like Aidoo’s novel, ends with the protagonist’s individualization and is therefore an expression of Western feminism. So here, like in Aidoo’s text, it is the concept and theory of African feminism that prevails and not that of African/a womanism. Kehinde Okolo is a Nigerian woman who emigrates to England with her husband, Albert. In England, because she has a good job in a bank, Kehinde is more professionally successful than her husband, who is a shopkeeper. The marriage seems equal and allows Kehinde more freedom of expression than she would perhaps have in Nigeria. But her husband finds her freedom emasculating for him and returns to Nigeria where he secretly marries an educated woman and gains the power and prestige that he believes befits him. He requests Kehinde to sell their home in England and return to Nigeria. Although she is unable to sell the home, she returns and discovers that not only has the husband married, has a son, and is expecting another child, but also that her original position as his wife has been eroded. Without the level of success and happiness she enjoyed in England, she returns to England to begin anew. Kehinde’s feminist-consciousness, which results in her self-assertion and her exiting the hostile space of her country to London, has Kohrs-Amissah declare that the work is African feminist. However, she points that the difference between Kehinde and Esi is that while Esi declares her individualism, she still maintains a connection with her community while Kehinde breaks hers.

Finally, with the third novel, Darko’s Beyond the Horizon, the reader is introduced to Mara, an uneducated village girl whose family marries her to Akobi, a young man of poor character simply for the bride price. This unfavorable foundation is the beginning of her end as a prostitute in Germany. Upon his taking her to the city after marriage, Mara suffers mental, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband. He demands she be subservient and, without her knowledge, sells all her belongings and heads to Europe for a better life. Years later, he asks his wife to join him. She arrives in a shockingly foreign land where her husband, who has married one of its citizens, tells her to pretend she is his sister. He continues his abuse of her and eventually prostitutes her. She encounters further difficulties and learns that her husband has been using the money she makes to finance another woman—Comfort—he has smuggled into Germany from Ghana. Mara sinks into further whoredom, believes she is incurable, and even becomes a drug addict. She however becomes bold enough to expose her husband, and he is arrested. Resolving that she can no longer return to Ghana in her corrupt state, she decides to continue to prostitute herself and support her mother and sons who are still in Ghana.

Kohrs-Amissah’s analysis of the above work leads her to determine that, although the novel depicts the cultural and masculinist subordination of women both in Ghana and in Europe, it also demonstrates the importance of female solidarity as women come together to help each other, thereby strengthening and hoping to liberate themselves. She concludes that the novel, like the previous two, has feminist inclination (81). However, she appears to critique Darko more than Aidoo and Emecheta in that Darko does not show a deep awareness of some of the issues mentioned in the work. For example, Kohrs-Amissah observes that while both Aidoo’s and Darko’s protagonists suffer marital rape, and Aidoo confronts the subject, Darko simply mentions it and doesn’t deal with it. For Kohrs-Amissah, Aidoo and Emecheta engage feminist discussions and attempt to challenge the subordination and multiple manipulations of women. And while she still sees Darko writing about such subordination, Darko’s text is more a warning about the unrealistic expectations that Africans have about traveling to the west and the difficulties and hostile confrontations they will face. Nevertheless, Kohrs-Amissah’s evaluation of the three authors leads her to render the verdict that “all three authors, to some extent fulfill the requirements of writing in the African feminist tradition. This is especially valid for Aidoo and Emecheta. By writing, they “‘throw in their voices’ and show that they can contribute positively to the debate on African women; by writing about women, they create distinctive images of African women; and by writing for women they help create self-awareness” (82).

Kohrs-Amissah’s review of the feminist debate is clearly presented and so is her examination of the three West African women. Nevertheless, there are some unfortunate omissions. For example, while she cites Carole Boyce Davies and Clenora Hudson-Weems, she does not pay sufficient attention to their contribution to the discussion of African/a women and feminism, or womanism. That Boyce Davies has contributed greatly to this discussion is evident with her groundbreaking collection, Ngambika. Studies of Women in African Literature, and more specifically with the introductory essay, “African Feminist Consciousness.” The only reason that perhaps Kohrs-Amissah may have excluded both Boyce Davies and Hudson-Weems is that they are not continental Africans, and if this is the case, it still leaves that judgment questionable.6 Additionally, that Kohrs-Amissah chooses to study just three women who narrowly represent West African women writers is questionable. To be fair, she says that her book does not address all of Africa, but to choose such a narrow geographical space is still troubling. Furthermore, while she successfully pulls together her narrowly defined purpose and presentation, she uses the term feminism to guide her work; she also declares that all the texts she examines fall within African feminist theoretical discourse.7 What then are the motivation and purpose of examining only three authors? How does she want to contribute to the entire discussion that precede her analysis? Would it not have been better to deal with other African women’s texts that reveal a variety of theoretical approaches? Had she done that, her analysis of the theory and practice of African women’s literature would have been more complex.


Kohrs-Amissah, Edith. Aspects of Feminism and Gender in the Novels of Three West African Women Writers (Aidoo, Emecheta, Darko). Heidelberg: Books on African Studies, 2002.

Boyce Davies, Carole. “Feminist Consciousness and African Literary Criticism,” in Carole Boyce Davies and Anne Adams Graves (eds.). Ngambika: Studies of Women in African Literature. Trenton New Jersey: Africa World Press, Inc., 1986, 1-23.

Hudson-Weems, Clenora. Africana Womanism. Troy, Mich.: Bedford Publishers, 1993.

Ogundipe-Leslie, ’Molara. Re-Creating Ourselves: African Women and Critical

Transformation. Trenton, New Jersey: Africa World Press, 1994.


1. Kohrs-Amissah uses Third World or African feminism here because she is referring to the categorization of the people/continent politically as Third Worlders, and the fact that sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. A problem with the text is that sometimes she writes the word Third World in quotations and at other times, she does not. This in it self is confusing for the reader was not clear as to what she was referring to at times and her specific need for sometimes using the quotes and then not using it at times.

2. Aidoo and Darko are Ghanaians while Emecheta is Nigerian.

3. Here, the distinction between postcolonial literary theory and African literary theory is that postcolonial literary theory is a more general theory that encompasses all the people and cultures that were once colonized under various European countries, while African literary theory is further narrowed to continental Africans.

4. See Ogundipe-Leslie’s book, Re-Creating Ourselves: African Women and Critical Transformation. Here Ogundipe-Leslie goes further to talk of what she considers the five mountains on the backs of African women and how these mountains oppress them and the need for their liberation. Her Stiwanism speaks to these mountains and the points Kohrs-Amissah mentions under her discussion of feminism. It appears the word Stiwanism is just there to replace or use as an alternative to feminism. If that is the point Kohrs-Amissah is making, then perhaps she should have also dealt with the terms “femalism” and “motherism,” which she mentions as alternatives to feminism but does not offer them the same space as she does Stiwanism.

5. The womanist ideal I refer to here is the concern for the survival of an entire people as originally expressed by Alice Walker In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens and also Ogunyemi in “Womanist: the Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English.”

6. The failure to study these critics’ contribution to the African/a feminist / womanist discussion is unfortunate. It is even more unfortunate in Boyce Davies’ case considering she studied and lived in Africa and that she did not only write her “African Feminist Consciousness: African Literary Criticism,” but also co-edited an anthology, Ngambika, with Anne Adams Graves devoted to the representations of African women.

7. Kohrs-Amissah says that she chooses to use the term feminism because of the title of her book, Aspects of Feminism and Gender in the Novels of Three West African Women Writers (Aidoo, Emecheta, Darko). Nevertheless, with her reading of all the authors’ texts as African feminist, perhaps, there was no need for her presentation of the entire debate regarding African women’s use or dismissal of the term feminist and their position regarding mainstream feminism and the different positions on naming and developing an African/a feminist or womanist theoretical discourse.

Copyright 2003 Africa Resource Center, Inc.