Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Political African Women of the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, and Eighteenth Centuries

Thematic Essays

By Category

By Geographical Region & Time Period
By Department

As leaders, priestesses, traders, cultivators, oracles, wives, and mothers, women have occupied key roles in the developments that have shaped the course of African history. The turbulent years following West and Central Africa's initial contact with Europe were marked by the emergence of women revered for their formidable political skills and social vision. We know of these women today largely through oral histories, artworks, and, significantly, contemporaneous European documents. There can be no doubt that important and celebrated women existed in other periods of African history, but prior to the era of contact with Europe, written records of their names and achievements simply do not exist. Indigenous narratives about them have not survived to the present day, or have yet to be recognized and recorded. As the study of African history continues, however, the identities of other notable African women will surely be revealed.


Alexander Ives Bortolot
Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University