With the four Women Writing Africa regional anthologies, Florence Howe helped present a feminist reading of African women’s experiences and their roles in the making of Africa.
On September 12, 2020, Florence Howe passed away at the age of 91. She will be remembered as a founder-mother of Women’s Studies, a founder and Director of the Feminist Press, which has recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, as well as for her pro-diversity and anti-racist activism.
But for us in Africa, Florence Howe’s name and legacy are and will be mainly associated with the four Women Writing Africa regional anthologies which were published by the Feminist Press with two-year intervals: The Southern region (2003), the Western and Sahel region (2005), the Eastern region (2007), and the Northern region (2009). She was behind the idea, the fundraising, the preparation, and the compilation of these anthologies.
Each one of these volumes has been hailed by critics worldwide as a genuine landmark not only in the history of African women, but in the diverse ways these women contributed to the shaping of the continent. By highlighting and historically contextualizing women’s voices, the volumes presented a feminist reading of African women’s experiences and their roles in the making of Africa.
The writing of the four anthologies did not only need a tireless search for funding and a continuous attention to logistics, it also needed dedication, commitment, passion, and compassion, without which the remarkable collaboration of scholars across various countries, and dealing with unexpected challenges and, at times, aggressive ideologies, could never have been achieved. In this respect, the collection of the four volumes of Women Writing Africa is a unique product.
I can speak of the Northern region anthology which I had the honor to be part of. Under the leadership of Florence Howe, the writing of this volume lasted for twelve years (1996-2009) and could not have seen the light of the day without the work of a dedicated core of scholars from the region, Ghana, and, the US. Hundreds of oral and written texts from periods that stretched back to Antiquity and the coming of Islam, to the pre-modern, and the modern eras, had to be found, checked, scrutinized for a combination of scholarly value and esthetics, sifted through, translated, presented, and discussed by our team which comprised historians, anthropologists, social scientists, and humanities scholars.
The gathered texts, produced by educated, non-educated, poor, rich, royalty, ordinary women, were compared, linked, and positioned within a bigger narrative of North African women. The whole process was long, complex but very rewarding.
Florence told us once: “You are constructing the history of North Africa!” Indeed, Florence’s inquisitive mind, critical assessments, and collaborative spirit were very important in this process; they made the whole experience both exhausting and thrilling.
Endless notes were taken and endless discussions of headnotes that would introduce each text took place in several meetings across the region and in the US. 9/11 and other major world events permitting, we held regional meetings in Fez (1999, 2001, 2002), Malaga (2003), Alexandria (2004), Bellagio (2005), and Washington DC (2007). In parallel, smaller meetings were held in various cities of Morocco for the Maghreb, and in Cairo and Alexandria for Egypt and the Sudan.
Not only hard work went into these meetings, but also heated discussions, disagreements, and sometimes dramatic exchange of words… but at the end of the day came reconciliation; we understood that we were on a special mission and we could compromise… which created lasting bonds between us and a feeling of pride for being part of the WWA story. The quotidian dramas in our personal lives made the bonds stronger: Some of us lost a parent or a family member, others went through divorce, an Algerian colleague scholar was killed in her home during the Algerian black decade, etc.
The collaborative endeavor had to continue no matter what. Florence’s dedication fueled our enthusiasm. We all learnt so much from her. We celebrated our own commonalities as we reflected on those that have been uniting North African women across a variety of cultures, languages, political systems, and societies. We learnt how to deal with the continuities and discontinuities in our history, how to read the many gaps in this long history, and how to value the often neglected roles of women in the construction of North Africa.
Today it is with both sadness and respect that we remember Florence Howe. Her name does not appear on the cover of the anthology, but her wit, inquisitive mind, rigor, attention to the details, exceptional editing skills, and optimistic spirit are encoded in every page, in every line…
May you rest in peace Florence, you left this world physically but your legacy continues: The North African anthology was translated into French in 2013 as Des Femmes Ecrivent l’Afrique du Nord and published by Karthala (Paris); the Arabic translation is on the way; the anthology entered our classrooms and became part of our scholarly discussions and debates, more and more students are familiar with it…You allowed us to grow personally and professionally and we will continue to celebrate your legacy.