Women and Political Power

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

NigeriaYoruba artist

Gelede mask


H. 35.9 cm (14 1/8")

Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Eleanor Clay Ford Fund for African Art, 79.3

In many cases, the term "kingship" does not accurately portray the real nature of royalty, which is often based on the duality and interdependence of the sexes. In virtually every important male-dominated kingdom or titled association, women have held high positions as counselors, advisors, ambassadors, and even chiefs. Yoruba peoples often assign at least one woman to a high title in otherwise male institutions, for it is said that women must keep men from giving away the secrets. Men's power is seen as overt, outwardly directed, and assertive, while that of women is covert, mysterious, and secretive. To express these concepts and to honor the women who wield considerable authority in Yoruba political life, men stage performances called Gelede to pay tribute to and to appease elderly women, called "our mothers," whose awesome powers are potentially as malevolent as they are benevolent.

Gelede with snakes and gourd rattles, Egbado-Yoruba, Nigeria, 1977. Photo by H.J. Drewal and M.T. Drewal. Submitted by Henry Drewal.