Tuesday, 08 March 2022 18:10

“Women, O Women!’: In celebration of the International Women’s Day 2022 Featured

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‘Women, O Women!’ It's the rallying cry of Liberia’s women movement. The cry summons a spirit that emboldens against the timidity that has held many women from venturing on new frontiers. It is a call that awakens women who have grown content with mediocrity and charges them to ‘do something’. It reminds of the inherent qualities that women possess and can employ to be even better. In a proper sense, however, it is a call to battle—a battle against all forms of suppression fostered by a male-dominated society. The struggle aims for a society where women have the opportunity to become productive professionals and not just consigned to the care economy; where customs do not subtract from the bodily integrity of women, and where having a female President is not just an isolated accomplishment. As we celebrate International Women’s Day today, it is important to reflect on the conditions of Liberian women and their pursuit of a more equitable society where governance without meaningful representation and participation of women is only a thing of the past.

In the shadows

Women have not always occupied prominent roles in Liberian society, and their voices have not always been publicly heard.  In order to appreciate the early experiences of Liberian women, however, an assumption of homogeneity must not be made. While findings may vary due to ethnic, religious, and other considerations, a broader examination of women in the Liberian state must consider two groups that generally constituted the state: Americo-Liberians and Natives. Scholars are in agreement that a key commonality between the groups lie in the fact that women were not equal with men. Also, women were the dominant force in domestic work and child-rearing. However, Americo-Liberian women enjoyed some of the most progressive rights enjoyed by women across the world at the time. According to Newman, they could buy and sell land, enter into contracts, bring legal suits and initiate divorces, appeal to the Legislature, and exercise other forms of agency. [1]

In contrast, women in the customary or native setting were lacking in autonomy. According to Fuest, women were married off very young to older men, children belonged to the lineage of the husband, and a woman could lose access to her children and marital property upon the death or divorce of her husband, especially where she refuses to re-marry within the husband’s family. [2] Fuest also relates the unfortunate fact that women were accumulated by powerful men who then redistributed women’s sexual and reproductive services to foster political alliances and win other clients. Also, women did not engage in extensive market activities. But women also yielded other forms of power. The Sande female secret society accumulated resources and wielded considerate power over initiates and members, with the same being recognized by their male counterparts. In the southeast, a council of female elders could deliberate and veto decisions made by men through collective demonstrations, while individual women became political leaders in the Northwest.[3] Most notable is Madam Suakoko who was appointed by President Daniel E. Howard (1912-1920) as Clan Chief of Kiayea.[4] She is credited with unifying the clan; playing a key role in annexing Bong, Lofa, and Nimba, to Liberia; aiding government’s military operations; and contributing to the establishment of three major institutions in the district now named after her: Central Agricultural Research Institute (CARI), Phebe Hospital, and Cuttington University. [5]

Generally, the situation of women in Liberia did not receive major attention until the second half of the twentieth century.

The turning point

Liberian women began to rally against marginalization by the 1930s. The first cooperate move towards their political rights began in 1931 with the Liberian Women’s League under the leadership of Sarah Simpson George. [6] Their engagement began by assisting the government in improving the sanitary conditions of Monrovia. In 1932, another group under the leadership of Maude A. Morris took a more direct approach by petitioning the Legislature to request an amendment of the Constitution to extend suffrage to women. [7] In 1942, President Edwin J. Barclay’s administration passed a “Referendum Act” to amend the Constitution granting women’s right to vote but the amendment did not happen as it was never referred to constituents. [8] In 1946, however, the right to vote and hold political office was finally extended to women under President William V.S. Tubman. [9] This meant that Americo-Liberian women were no more confined to secretarial duties or teaching in schools. [10] Women then began to occupy key offices in government and were elected to the national legislature. For example, Elizabeth Collins became the first female senator, Ellen Mills Scarborough became the first female representative, Etta Wright acted on several occasions as Secretary of Defense, and Angie Brooks rose from a Liberian diplomat to the prestigious position of President of the United Nations General Assembly in 1969. [11] In 1971, Emma Shannon Walser became the first woman to become a judge in Liberia, [12]  and Dr. Mary Antoinette Brown Sherman made history when she was the first woman to be inaugurated as President of the University of Liberia and President of an African institution of higher learning in 1978. [13] At the beginning of the 1980s, women constituted 32.2 percent of the secondary school teachers, 30 percent of the university teachers, 14.7 percent of the judges, 9.4 percent of the doctors and dentists, and 48.2 percent of the nurses. [14]

War Years

The outbreak of the civil war in 1989 greatly affected the vulnerable, including women and children. There are many horrific accounts of rape, torture, and murder meted out against women. Hardship was also endured as a result of conflict-induced displacement. But it is important to note, however, that women were also actors in the conflict. Women units existed amongst all the armed factions, although estimates of the number of women fighters range from 2 to 5% of the total. [15] Some even gained notoriety as fierce warriors. But the war years seem to have made women, even more, stronger as it increased the scope of their economic activities as well as their political involvement.  Women had to step up as many men (husbands, fathers, sons, brothers) were killed or had to flee to hide in the forest. Women were forced to take on traditional tasks of men such as making bricks, building and roofing houses, and clearing farms, while local narratives refer to many women who physically protected their husbands and family members from combatants. [16] Market women made extended businesses by crossing fighting lines into territories where men could not go. Indeed, many analysts agree that since the war, women’s ability to live independently has increased dramatically and many have assumed key roles in society a ‘remarkable emancipation from their pre-war positions’. [17] In a remarkable move towards mainstreaming gender issues across Liberian society, the Ministry of Gender and Development was established in 2001.

Many women’s organizations have emerged since the war era. In fact, women’s organizations were instrumental in ending the 14-year conflict. Thousands of women in white under the umbrella of the Women in Peace Building Network (WIPNET) took to the streets to demand an end to the violence. Women also insisted on being part of peace talks to which only the (male) leaders of the armed factions were invited. [18] This ultimately yielded results. As Chinkin notes, the Comprehensive Peace Accord of 2003 contains gender-relevant provisions: women inclusion in the Governance Reform Commission, women organizations representation in the National Transitional Legislative Assembly, gender balance in all elective and non-elective appointments’ within the National Transitional Government of Liberia, amongst others. [19] Leymah Gbowee and many others came to prominence during this period as they mobilized and organized women across ethnic and religious dividing lines to bring an end to the conflict. Gbowee became a joint recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with fellow country-woman Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen. [20]


Post-war developments

A major win was soon made on the legal front, with the enactment of an Inheritance Law in 2003 to protect the marriage rights of women. By 2006, history was made with the inauguration of Africa’s first elected female head of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Notably, Madam Ruth Sando Fahnbulleh Perry had served before her as the interim Chairman of the Council of State of Liberia from 3 September 1996 until 2 August 1997. By 2008, women’s representation in the legislature was low at 15%. With Ellen in power, the glass ceiling had been broken and the obvious anticipation was centered around how different she would run the government, including how women would be involved. By 2008 also, women occupied 22% of cabinet positions in the Sirleaf government. She also appointed the first female Chief of Police. An anti-rape law was passed and a fast-track court established to deal with gender-based violence. Hundreds of markets were built or renovated during her regime for thousands of marketers. But Sirleaf’s support for women in politics soon came under question. By 2017, only 4 out of 21 cabinet ministers were female. Pailey and Reeves are of the view that she did nothing to position women favorably for political office citing her refusal to honor a petition from women to support a woman as her party’s candidate for a 2009 by-election. [21] They further contend that Sirleaf did little to increase females in leadership roles within her Party (the Unity Party). According to Pailey and Williams, Sirleaf did not actively support a proposed law granting 30 percent of political party leadership to women as well as a trust fund to finance electoral campaigns. They lament Sirleaf’s silence when another bill allotting five seats for women in the Legislature was rejected by largely male Senators given that a similar bill had already propelled women to high public offices in Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa. Sirleaf was later expelled from her  party days before leaving office. [22] She was reinstated by the National Elections Commission the following year.[23]

Another major criticism of Sirleaf was her defense of nepotism and seeming unwillingness to tackle corruption. Admittedly, Liberia reached its highest score of 41 on the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International in 2012 largely due to anti-corruption legislation and institutions established during her administration. However, the political will to investigate and prosecute persons of corruption was lacking. Fellow Nobel Laureate, Leymah Gbowee resigned from the Peace and Reconciliation Commission criticizing Sirleaf’s decision to appoint her three sons to senior government positions.

The checkered legacy of Sirleaf arguably stands in the way of future female contenders for the highest office. However, the legacies of male Presidents have not been any better. So while Sirleaf might have disappointed in different respects, opportunities still exist for women in politics, as well as for generally increasing the role of women in the life of the nation. President George M. Weah seemed to have jumped at this opportunity when he declared himself feminist-in-chief upon taking office. But only a few years later, his party (Coalition for Democratic Change) submitted its candidates for the Senatorial Elections without a single female candidate. [24] Currently, only 5 out of his 19 cabinet ministers are females. [25]

All hope is not lost, however. We remain hopeful that the women of Liberia stay true to their commitment to achieving a just and equitable society for all. We celebrate the many women, known and unknown, who sacrificed for a better Liberia. Some got a glimpse of it during their lifetime and others did not. To those who currently bear this task, the nation looks up to you. A better Liberia is possible. Women, O Women!

About the Authors

Gerald Dan Yeakula is a Liberian lawyer currently based at the Center for Human Rights, University of Pretoria in South Africa where he is pursuing a Master’s of Law Degree in Human Rights and Democratization in Africa. He is Program Manager at the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL).

Akiah Precious Glay holds a Doctorate in Sociology with Emphasis in Conflict Escalation from the Selçuk University, Konya, Turkey, Master’s in Peace and Conflict Studies: Nicolaus Copernicus University Torun, Poland and the Kofi Annan Institute for Peace Studies, University of Liberia. She currently serves as the Gender Officer at CENTAL

Leelah P. Semore holds a Masters in Environmental Science from the Cuttington University and a Bachelor in Plant and Soil Science from the same university. She is currently a Program Assistant at CENTAL.


[1] D Newman, ‘The Emergence of Liberian Women in the Nineteenth Century’ Howard University, Washington, DC, 1984, pp. 197–8, 378–9.

[2] V Fuest ‘“This is the Time to Get in Front”: Changing Roles and Opportunities for Women in Liberia’ (2008) 107 African Affairs 201.

[3] As above

[4][4] ‘Madame Suakoko’ (Historical Preservation Society of Liberia) <https://www.hpsol-liberia.net/madame-suakoko/> accessed 7 March 2022.

[5] As above

[6] ‘The Federation journal. ([North Carolina]) 1945-19??, March 01, 1953, Image 1 · North Carolina Newspapers’ <https://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/2016236536/1953-03-01/ed-1/seq-1/ocr/> accessed 7 March 2022.

[7] As above

[8] As above

[9] AE Brooks ‘Political Participation of Women in Africa South of the Sahara’ (1968) 375 The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 82.

[10] (n 2) Above

[11] C Brooks ‘Liberia Celebrates William V. S. Tubman’s 122nd Birth Anniversary Tomorrow, November 29th’ (Global News Network) <https://gnnliberia.com/2017/11/28/liberia-celebrates-william-v-s-tubmans-122nd-birth-anniversary-tomorrow-november-29th/> accessed 7 March 2022.

[12] ‘Liberia: Liberian Women Unite to Push for More Seats in the Legislature’ (FrontPageAfrica) <https://frontpageafricaonline.com/politics/liberia-liberian-women-unite-to-push-for-more-seats-in-the-legislature/> accessed 7 March 2022.

[13] ‘Pres. Sirleaf Inducts Dr. Ophelia Weeks As 14th President of University of Liberia’ (FrontPageAfrica) <https://frontpageafricaonline.com/news/2016news/pres-sirleaf-inducts-dr-ophelia-weeks-as-14th-president-of-university-of-liberia/> accessed 8 March 2022.

[14] (n 2) Above

[15] M Moran ‘Our Mothers Have Spoken: Synthesizing Old and New Forms of Women’s Political Authority in Liberia’ (2012) 13 17.

[16] (n 2) Above

[17] As above

[18] (n 15) above

[19] Chinkin, ‘Gender, international legal framework and peacebuilding’.

[20] ‘The Nobel Peace Prize 2011’ (NobelPrize.org) <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2011/press-release/> accessed 8 March 2022.

[21] RN Pailey and KR Williams ‘Africa at LSE: Is Liberia’s Sirleaf really standing up for women? #LiberiaDecides’ 3.

[22] ‘Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: The legacy of Africa’s first elected female president’ BBC News (22 January 2018) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-42748769> accessed 8 March 2022.

[23]Admin ‘Former President Sirleaf, others back to Unity Party’ (Liberia Public Radio, 23 June 2019) <https://liberiapublicradio.com/2019/06/03/former-president-sirleaf-others-back-in-unity-party/> accessed 8 March 2022.

[24] ‘Liberia’s self-proclaimed “feminist president” Weah fails to nominate woman candidate’ (RFI, 12 August 2020) <https://www.rfi.fr/en/africa/20200812-liberia-s-self-proclaimed-feminist-president-weah-fails-to-nominate-woman-candidate-politics-africa> accessed 8 March 2022.

[25] C Brooks ‘LIBERIA: Women NGO Critiques President Weah’s SONA’ (GNN Liberia) <https://gnnliberia.com/2022/02/05/liberia-women-ngo-critiques-president-weahs-sona/> accessed 8 March 2022.

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