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Modernisation and the Decline in Women’s Status

Covert Gynocracy in an Akan Community

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Covert Gynocracy

Anthropologists have been quick to point out (to feminists) that the notion of a primordial matriarchy is not based on empirical fact. Many contemporary societies are characterised by matriliny, however, and some ancient societies are known to have recognised matrilineal descent. Some social scientists begin and end their argument by pointing out that matriliny is not matriarchy. That, however, is not the end. The discussion is continued here with reference to one matrilineal community.

In a collection of essays relating women in society to culture, the editors noted that "sexual asymmetry is presently a universal fact of human social life" (Rosaldo and Lamphere, 1974:3), but point out that the degree of inequality is a cultural variable, and not determined by biological or other socially immutable causes. By describing the relationship between the sexes in one community, this essay adds to the picture of a wide cultural variety in sexual inequality, and thus implicitly adds more force to the movement for eliminating such asymmetry. Here, in an Akan community, we examine dimensions of inequality as they apply to women: "power" or the ability to get one’s way despite potential opposition, "authority" or the legitimate demand for obedience, "influence" or the ability to persuade people to do things, "prestige" or public recognition and respect, "independence" or the freedom to avoid demands made by persons with authority, and "office" which is a recognised status position pertaining to a role in which authority, prestige and/or power are attached. All of these may be allocated in various ways, between the sexes, in various societies.

In one of the papers in the above cited collection, Sanday, in a comparative analysis, isolates three factors that contribute to this variation. She notes that reproduction, subsistence, and defence are crucial for survival, and that the first, reproduction, limits female participation in the third, defence. The contribution of women to the second, subsistence, is the most important, then, in determining their status. women may or may not produce subsistence goods, but if men have control of the product, or of its allocation, then the status of women will be low. In the society described below, women do have control over the fruits of production but this does not necessarily lead to antagonism between the sexes or to recognition of women in ritual or religious spheres (Sanday 1974:196). Both of those apply to some extent, but a third alternative suggested by Bleak (1975 and mss.), appears to be more appropriate: the hiding of women's power under a barrage of ideology expressing male dominance.

Allthough men are out front and recognised, women make the important diecisions while hidden in the back

Bleek argues that this very outward show of respect and courtesy of women for men defuses potential conflict and protects the economic and social position that women substantively enjoy. The objective here is not to document the disparity between appearance and reality, as Bleek has already done for a neighbouring and very similar community, but to examine the cultural and social factors of that hidden power.

Although this is not a theoretical paper, some mention must be made about assumptions contributing to the analysis. Culture (C) is seen to be composed. of a number of variables (TEPSIW) which can be seen as dimensions of culture: technology, economy, polity, social institutions, ideology and worldview. Each dimension is seen as containing degrees of independence or dependence as variables, but the mix, in descending order, begins with the most independent (T) and goes to the least independent (W). New tools are more easy to introduce into a society than are new ideas about right and wrong. All of these (TEPSIW), however, consist of learned human behaviour, that is, culture. Each of them is seen to be changing and each of those changes are seen to affect the status of women, considered here as a dependent variable. In the community described below, an intermediate variable is described at length: structure, particularly the structure of matrilineal descent groups. In mathematical terms we could consider Y = I (x) where Y is the dependent variable, status of women with respect to men, which is a function of culture (C). The formula could be made more explicit as I (x) = D C = a + bT + cE + dP + eS + fI + gW, where TEPSIW refer to the cultural dimensions mentioned above. The constant "a" refers to the apparent persistence of certain aspects of women's status in spite of the considerable changes in all of those dimensions – changes that would lead one to expect equally considerable changes in women's status. This apparent anomaly can be understood, however, by the introduction of an intervening variable, the structure of matriliny.

Like other superorganic or cultural variables, matriliny survives by adaptation, and the apparent persistence in the relatively high status of women, in spite of the introduction of cultural changes that would lead to the fall in that status, can be attributed to causal feed back processes, through that intervening variable. To understand the position of women in an Akan society and its changes, then, matriliny must be understood.


Matriliny is not the mirror image of patriliny. Matrilineal societies differ from both patrilineal and bilateral societies in that the institution of marriage tends to be, relatively weak (Schneider and Gough 1961, Goode 1963). Bleek (1975a) has documented that weakness for the Kwawu about whom more will be written below. The recruitment of members into corporate groups via descent through female lines only, for example, results in certain kinds of prestige and influence allocated to women that they might not have in other societies where they are owned by, or dominated by, or expected to be subservient to, first father, then husband. Further comparisons can he made, but the purpose here is not to compare matriliny with other forms, but to identify elements of women's access to power and prestige in one complex matrilineal society, and then examine the effects of westernisation, industrialisation, and urbanisation.

The element of matrilineal descent is an important factor in the analysis. It will be shown that informal access to power and influence, and occasionally formalised (institutionalised) acknowledgement of that informal access, authority and office, constitute mechanisms for decision making (policy formation) and recognition (honour) of women in the community.

With the increased incorporation of that population into the multi-national capitalist economic system, those mechanisms, where they survive, appear to be weakening in function and importance.

The community selected for this analysis is composed of people from Obo, a town on the Kwawu Escarpment in the Eastern Region of Ghana. Obo has a resident population of about 5,000 plus a dispersed population of perhaps 20,000 persons (Bartle 1978b), all of whom call themselves Obo people. Non-resident Obo people, many of whom are urban migrants, identify with their home town: making visits for social and ritual purposes, building or hoping to build a house in Obo, and hoping ultimately to be buried there. (1).

Most, ethnographic descriptions of Asante (Ashanti) apply to Obo. As in other Akan societies, such as Asante, political office and power is symbolised by the possession of a blackened ancestral stool. Obo as a "town," is the locale for several such stools owned by various matrilineages, which confederated to form the political structure of Obo headed by a chief who is the representative of his matrilineage. Like Greek city states, Obo and similar Akan towns own large areas of surrounding land on which are found satellite villages. Although Obo is in a rural area, its possession of black stools distinguishes it from its villages, and thus the term "country town" (Field 1948) is applicable. The political organisation, then, is based on matriliny – chiefs' courts representing the confederations of lineages; the primary responsibility of which is settling disputes.

Within the "traditional" Akan political structure, Obo is the head of the Nifa division of the state of Kwawu, having five stool towns subordinate to it in the division, and a few hundred villages and hamlets which are satellites of the six stool towns. In the present Kwawu Traditional Council, the chief of Obo is a wing chief and, like the other four wing chiefs (of Adonten, Kyidom, Benkum and Gyaase divisions), owes allegiance directly to the Kwawu paramount chief. Chiefs of other stool towns owe allegiance indirectly to the Paramount, via their respective wing chiefs. The paramount chief of Kwawu is a member of the Eastern Region House of Chiefs. This formalises government recognition of chieftaincy, and complements the Ghanaian legal structure which recognises chiefs' courts and the due process of customary law, including Akan land tenure, matrilineal descent and inheritance, and other principles recognised in chiefs' courts. All chiefs of stool towns in Kwawu are men at present.

Kwawu people share a history of migrations from the same areas of origin as the Asante and other Akan peoples. From about 1742 until 1874, Kwawu was a part of the Asante Empire and the paramount chief paid allegiance to the Asantehene in Kumasi. Obo was the most reluctant of the Kwawu towns that elected to declare independence from Asante (1874-6) and seek a protectorate status from Britain. During the "independent" period, until 1888 when Britain' signed a treaty with all the Kwawu chiefs, the Obo chief led the pro-Asante faction, which opposed the British and the Swiss Missionaries who acted as agents of the British.

Data about Obo were collected over extended periods of association with the town: first as a teacher in a nearby Kwawu town, 1965-7; second as a Ph.D. student at the University of Ghana; fieldwork (1972-75.) included intensive participant observation, archival research, and the administration of various questionnaires and interviews; third as a lecturer at the University of Cape Coast; through ongoing study of Kwawu migrants to the Cape Coast district, and frequent return visits to Obo for ritual and social contacts, like other Obo cyclical migrants. In the course of research, contacts have been made with migrant Obo people in various rural areas throughout Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, where they recognise remote Akan kinsmen, as well as in ethnically heterogeneous urban centres.

I’ve, described elsewhere (Bartle 1978b) the social organisation of the Kwawu, with special attention paid to cyclical migration which accounts for a dispersed community four times the size of the resident population. The mutually exclusive but complementary nature of conjugal families and matrilineal descent groups, and the resolution of inherent conflicts between them, must be understood in the context of cyclical migration.

In ancient times, warfare was endemic in the rain forest, and communities that resided in nucleated settlements of confederated lineages, survived, thrived, and expanded. Warfare. was exacerbated by the demand for slaves on the littoral. The Akan survived in this environment and eventually came to replace various Guan groups who had lived in more loosely organised patrilineal communities in the same areas.

Nucleated settlements were fine for defence but their growing populations needed to exploit the ambient forest farmlands further and further from each nucleus. The growth of satellite villages was the solution, and a form of cyclical migration contributed to their continuation as integral sectors of a mobile community ie. as complements to the nucleus. Children were raised in the safety of the home town, often by their mothers' sisters or mothers’ mothers. When they grew older they moved to the satellite hamlets and villages to hunt and farm. During the middle years, frequent visits were made to the home town for funerals and other ceremonial events; and to settle disputes. Spouses who had lived together in the satellites usually separated during home town visits; each going to stay in the house of his or her respective matrilineage. As each person got older, conjugal affairs assumed less importance while matrilineal responsibilities and interests conversely increased. Residence tended to change again, back to the home town, especially for those assuming offices or roles of importance in their matrilineages. Life cycles were completed with final returns for home town burial. Life courses were therefore correlated with a dynamic cyclical migration system and spatial mobility was thus the key element in single communities consisting of complementary nucleated settlements and their satellites.

This mobility pattern has survived to the present, but now with the residence of Obo people in urban as well as rural host locations during certain stages of their lives. Urbanisation has not necessarily resulted in the permanent transfer of rural people to the cities. Children of rural and urban migrants are usually raised in a matrilineal home town environment, migrate to rural and urban host locations where they live for several years in neolocal, conjugally based residence groups, and eventually retire as elders in the matrilineal home town again.

Women usually return at earlier ages than men, and tend to live longer, thus accounting for a home town population composed of mainly women and children. One hundred per cent of all resident adults had spent some time away from Obo, and most had spent at least some of that away time resident in urban areas. During home town visits, especially for ritual and ceremonial occasions, neolocal residence, associated host locations, is suspended, and spouses reside duolocally. Thus the traditional colonial ethnographic "Ashanti model" where each spouse stays with her or his respective matrilineage (children running from momma’s house to papa’s house each evening carrying pots filled with meals). The nuclear family is not the basic building block as in bilateral societies, nor is it incorporated into the lineages as in those patrilineal societies where the wife becomes a member of her husband's patrilineage. The temporary nuclear family must be seen as complementary to the corporate descent group, and a subordinate though vital part of a wider dynamic overall matrilineal system of kinship (Bartle 1978b).

Girl selling tomatoes, art by Eva Campbell

Power and prestige allocated to women in the community must be seen in the context of this dynamic structure, and changes in one related to changes in the other. Although it is not possible to travel into the past to measure prestige and power so as to make comparisons with the present, certain indicators may be useful: oral traditions, reports by contemporary Europeans, and survivals of various functions and institutions. Matriliny conferred certain' rights, and access to power on women, even if the society was not matriarchal. Except when specified, the following structural generalisations apply both to the pre-colonial period and to the present, during which fieldwork was carried out.

Before examining the structure of matriliny and the political consequences which affected the position of women, some comments about the economy are pertinent. Economic independence of women was a prime factor affecting social structure. Women were the day-to-day producers. While men discontinuously hunted, cleared heavy bush, wove kente, tapped palm wine or engaged in war and politics, women continuously produced the food. Farming was seen as an extension of kitchen duties ("vertical integration" in economics jargon); women fed the people. They had access to their own matrilineal land, or sometimes that of their husbands, and made their own decisions about production. No one told them what or when to plant or harvest, and they could eat or sell the product, or use it to prepare food for those they were obligated to feed. Economic independence also extended into artisan, or commercial activities. The most common, and lucrative, craft was pottery making; if they traded, it was usually in foodstuffs, cloth or utensils. This economic independence not only provided the material basis for independence from fathers, husbands, and uncles, as described below, it also offered a channel for social mobility. Some wealthy women traders controlled considerable capital, and thus wielded considerable influence on community affairs. This must be kept in mind while analysing the structural factors which affected women.

The society was built up of hierarchically arranged confederations of matrilineal descent groups: membership was by birth – one could, only belong to the lineage of one's mother, not father (except in the case of female slaves whose offspring became parts of subordinate sub lineages of the slave's owner) and exogamic rules prohibited a husband and wife from belonging to the same lineage. Oral histories of the origins of most Akan lineages are traced via female descent links to an "old woman," who founded" each lineage or lineage segment. Members of a stool possessing lineage must trace descent from the same woman to be considered adehye (for lack of an equivalent word in English it is usually mistranslated as "royal" – the vernacular is preferable here) or a "pure" member of the matrilineage. Offspring of female slaves of male members of the matrilineage were also considered members, but, not being adehye, were usually prohibited from succeeding to stools, that is from taking offices of authority in the lineage. That prohibition could be waived temporarily if there were no suitable candidate among the adehye.

Although the formal heads of each lineage were usually, but not always, male, they owed their membership and office to females (mothers) and were intensely concerned with the procreative ability of female members. The larger the lineage, the more important its head. In the eyes of male members of a matrilineage, their sisters’ numbers of offspring were more important than their marital status.

One important source of the independence of women, from dominance by men, arose from the structure of matriliny itself. Fathers and husbands of women do not belong to the same descent group as the daughters and wives of those men. A father could not exercise control over his daughter as much as he might have in a patrilineal system, because the daughter did not belong to the same lineage as her father. While a girl perhaps temporarily resided in a conjugal residence unit that included both her mother and father, she would be expected to serve and obey her father. Few girls spent their childhood with their fathers, however, because of the migration cycle sketched above: spouses were frequently separated, especially in polygynous marriages, and children of migrants were sent back to the home town to be raised by female matrilineal kinfolk. This independence continued into adulthood. A husband could not exercise control over his wife (as much as he. could in a patrilineal system), because bridewealth was nominal, the wife did not become the property or member of his lineage, and because neither spouse lost respective lineage membership as a result of marriage. A wife did not leave her matrilineage of birth. A husband could not rely on the sanctions of his own lineage, therefore, to assist him in exercising control over his wife; he could not force her to obey his every whim.

In patriliny, the conjugal unit might be incorporated into the lineage. This is not true of matriliny. In the Akan system, the conjugal unit is in opposition to the lineage; it complements the functions of the lineage, but the ambivalent pulls of loyalty to spouse versus loyalty to lineage, weakens the marriage bond. Strength of conjugal ties are correlated with the life cycle and cyclical migration pattern. As each spouse gets older, and their reproductive functions decrease in import arise, their interests turn back to their respective lineages. As elders, back in the home town, they gained more respect, and more control over resources, by attending to lineage affairs, than they would have in the host location, attending to their spouse. A high separation rate, if not a high divorce rate, is functional in maintaining matrilineal descent.

Esi Salome

The subordination of marriage, in matriliny, not only decreased the dependence of women, on fathers and husbands. The recognised importance of women to their own lineage also meant that the male head of their lineage was not equivalent to a patriarchal head of a patrilineage. Heads of lineages could act as judges or arbitrators of disputes more than as autocrats or authoritarian rulers. The independence, prestige, and influence of women were correlated with their age and number of offspring. While important public offices were usually given to men, those men realised that their own power or influence, and prestige, depended upon the economic and demographic strength of their respective lineages. That strength depended upon the sexual and occupational activities of the women in each lineage. Men had to recognise, at least informally, the importance if not power of women in their respective lineages.

Mary Kingsley's famous statement about an old whispering woman behind each African chief, was relevant, if nowhere else, in the' matrilineal political system of the Akan.

Apart from independence, women also exerted considerable power within matrilineages; thus they had control over their uncles and brothers. Women tended to know about the details of kinship, within their own lineages, more than men who, in contrast, knew more about court etiquette and procedural details in the settlement of disputes in chief's courts. The two specialist bodies of information complemented each other in Akan political dynamics. Male elders of the lineage had to consult with female elders in private, before stating the public positions or decisions of the corporate descent groups, as at funerals or in the chief's court. Such consultation was essential where decisions were made about successions to stools (i.e. offices) to replace deceased members. Among other considerations, for example, it was determined if each candidate was an adehye or else a slave descendent; public declarations by men put all members of the matrilineage into one category (public reference to slave ancestry was forbidden) whereas women knew precise genealogical lines pertinent to the choice of successor. Women had specialised knowledge, not only because they bore the descent lines; they were more likely to reside in the home town for longer periods of their lives and, being less dispersed than men, could communicate kinship details more freely among themselves. They were the experts or consultants.

Lineages varied in size, thus the numbers of elders was a variable. A lineage may have recognised less than a hundred or more than a few hundred members, although segmentation made the size difficult to measure. Several women, then, were the depositories of information and advice needed by the lineage office holders. Each lineage segment, in the home town or satellite village, usually had at least one crone who was respected as "grandmother." In informal discussions the local old woman was often addressed by the title "Obapanin" (oba = female; opanyin = elder). The whole lineage as a single corporate group recognised one such old woman, senior in power if not age to the rest, who was given the title. The "informal" recognition of old women was thus formalised by a specific title and status.

In larger, more powerful, and richer lineages (where competition within the group was greater and required more regulation) the office of Obapanyin was more formalised and the woman given the title Ohemma (a contraction of Ohene = chief, and mma = females pl.,). "Ohemma" was usually mistranslated into English as "Queen Mother" because she was the official "mother" of the chief even when she was not the direct biological mother. The title Ohemma was usually only applied to the Obapanyin of a lineage from which a town chief is chosen. The Ohemma of Obo had blackened ancestral stools of her own, separate from the chief. Although she held an office in the chief’s court, she also had her own court for the settlement of disputes (the major activity of chieftaincy) particularly those of her lineage segment, and those brought to her by women who wished to avoid the more costly and formal Obo chief's court.

Each lineage had two recognised offices other than that of Obapanyin. One of these was "Abusua Panyin" (lineage head, from abusua = lineage, panyin = elder) and the other was Safohene (group captain, from safo = group, ohene = chief) which implies being a representative to the chief's court. Peace time political power in Akan communities was expressed in judiciary roles (conflict settlement) more than in executive functions. In smaller lineages the offices of Abusua Panyin and Safohene were held by the same person.... A Safohene was usually male but there was no proscription against women holding the office. During the research period, Obo had one from a relatively important lineage who regularly attended the six weekly Adae rites and subsequent court cases. The other was from a minor lineage and attended only occasionally. Both, like the Obo Ohemma, had reached menopause, making it convenient for them to perform ancestral stool rituals, which they would have had to avoid each time they were in their menstrual period.

These were not the only institutional channels for obtaining power and prestige. As in the politico religious sphere (where the ideology of ancestor homage sanctions a gerontocratic polity) most offices of the magico religious sphere (where the ideology of animism sanctions efforts to ensure fertility and protection) were not restricted to men only, although those having the highest formally recognised prestige tended to be filled by men. There were as many as two dozen "traditional" cults in Obo and its satellites, each consisting of a constellation of supernatural beings, one human medium (or more) possessed by those spirits, and a retinue ranging from a few drummers through a whole set of linguists, acolytes, singers, shrine bearers, and so on. Two of the important media – one possessed by an ancient Obo god, Fofie, another by a witch catching spirit, Tigare, introduced in this century – were men at the time fieldwork was conducted. The rest were women. A few of the minor, obscure spirits also possessed men but, like the more important ones, most possessed women. While the media usually continued to farm or trade, their possession by spirits offered a channel for upward mobility, open to women, that by-passed the economic route.

Before examining recent changes, the pre-colonial status of women in Obo can now be summarised. In a gerontocratic matrilineal society, women's influence and prestige tended to increase with age and were usually expressed in informal settings, although there were offices of formalised informality such as "mothers" of matrilineages. Matriliny required the subordination of marriage and conjugal duties to loyalty to and participation in the descent group. This, combined with economic activities, farming, artisan work, and trading, gave women considerable independence. Women (like elders) had prestige in the matrilineal home town, where black stools symbolised the "seat of power." More time in host locations where conjugal residence and increased duties and sub ordination to husbands made them more dependent. In a social system characterised by cyclical migration based on individual life cycles, age, sex, and residence were related: children, elders, and many women were located in the home town, while working age men, and some women, were located in host locations, at first satellite villages, then more urban and commercial centres. Women who demonstrated fecundity and were successful as traders and providers were respected. Male elders (who overtly held offices of power) were dependent on the respected old women when making decisions affecting their lineages. The society was not equalitarian; rather it was hierarchically structured. Women were expected to respect and serve their betters: these who were older than them, those belonging to more powerful lineage segments those holding office, and adult males. (2). While males dominated overt areas of public decision making, and acted as arbitrators in settling disputes, they could not exercise autocratic power because of the power of women. This is the meaning of covert gynocracy that characterised pre-colonial Akan society as in the example of Obo.

Obo, like all communities, is in a continuous state of change. The model described above is not final or absolute, but a representation of social structure and the position of women before colonial days when numerous changes were introduced in all cultural dimensions. These changes tended to be accretive (adding new onto old) rather than revolutionary (replacement of new for old) although some aspects have become truly obsolete: eg few people how take five days to walk to Accra as they did at the turn of this century. Chiefs' courts no longer hold the power to execute death sentences on convicted criminals. The dispersed Obo community has been exposed to extrinsic influences since Obo was founded only a few centuries ago. Trans Sahara communication existed for thousands of years, and trade with Europeans at the coast began five centuries ago.

The most appreciable technological changes, however, occurred during the last quarter of the neteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth. Subsequent changes, urbanisation, westernisation, and industrialisation, appear to continue in the same direction, but without that singularly high acceleration. Although ancient institutions have survived by adapting to new conditions, in terms of the total culture they no longer dominate; they exist contemporaneously with newly introduced institutions.

Inasmuch as they can be categorised into cultural dimensions listed above, these changes can be noted in turn: technology, economy, polity, society, ideology, ritual.

Changes in the technological and economic dimensions came about as a result of Obo and its neighbours increasingly becoming integrated into the world economic network. Modes of production expanded. Farming, trading, and handicrafts were supplemented by cash cropping, paid employment, and increased capital formation. Men, rather than women, came to engage in these new activities because those who introduced them were men and they had an idea that women should be excluded from such markets.

Agricultural extension work, for example, tended to be concentrated on increasing cocoa production, and directed towards men, rather than towards women and food crops. Employers, at first only Europeans, sought males to work as clerks, etc. Only later could women enter the labour market, and then usually only at lower levels of income and occupational prestige.

Economic sexism came with the European capitalist economy, that brought commercial and industrial institutions. Obo people in the dispersed community were in contact with the coastal market economy from ancient times but from 1876 Europeans came to settle in Kwawu – the Basel missionaries from Switzerland who hired men to cut timber, make bricks, and build the mission houses (cf. Jenkins 1970). They didn't hire women. They taught women to sew so as to be useful as housewives rather than economically independent.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Obo became increasingly important as a market centre lying directly on the trade routes from and to Kumasi, Salaga, Akyem, Accra, and the Volta route to the coast; as such it was a thriving entrépot. It attracted numerous strangers. In 1901, according to the 1911 census, it was still the fourth largest centre of population in the Gold Coast after Accra, Cape Coast, and Kumasi. As a host location for numerous, usually male, long distance traders, Obo dealt in slaves, salt, kola, and European goods. Obo was a ready market for women who farmed, cooked, and sold food to the itinerant population. With the coming of Pax Britainica, and eventually the railway between Kumasi and Accra, completed in 1923, then the highway, the trade route shifted to the southern lowlands where it passed through Nkawkaw, one of the Obo satellites. Obo declined in resident population while the community continued to disperse. Women sought other markets away from Obo, and found new markets for their food in the south during the great cocoa rush into Akyem. Kwawu became the "bread basket" of the South (Crowther 1907) and later, with the growth of Accra, women from Obo entered the urban food market.

Obo women continue to play a major role in the Accra market, and often pass as Ga, usually being fluent in that language. They also followed the cocoa migration to Asante then Brong Ahafo. In spite of the male oriented market in labour, Obo women have managed to adapt a "traditional" economic independence in farming and trading to urban commercial society. They have become an integral part of the urban economy.

Changes in the social or institutional dimension came about as a result of the introduction of new institutions that function in a modern industrialising nation state, and the relative, if not absolute, decline in functions of kinship based institutions. Cyclical migration continued to satellite villages, but short term long distance trading expeditions declined in favour of longer periods of residence in host locations which, as trade centres, increasingly tended to be urban. Some writers, comparing an observable urban present to an imaginary rural past, have argued that this has resulted in more freedom and independence for women and a correspondingly higher divorce rate (cf. Peele 1972). The opposite is more likely to be the case (cf. Bleek op. cit.). Longer periods of residence away from the matrilineal hometown may mean a greater portion of each woman’s life will be spent in neolocal conjugal residence groups.

The more educated and westernised women, who are more likely to have internalised marital morals and attitudes based on European Christian ideology, and are more likely to have married highly educated men in upper income brackets (see Oppong 1975) and are therefore more likely to be in situations of conjugal dependence than are illiterates. They may be so, in spite of their training for more highly paid occupations. Illiterates still have channels for upward mobility and independence from their husbands.

New institutions, like banking, a national army, police, a legal court system, large commercial and state corporations, and a civil service came to replace some of the functions of matrilineal descent groups: accumulation and transfer of capital, defence, social control, justice, trade control and executive political activity. This may have resulted in the decline of those functions in the matrilineage. It could also be argued, however, that most of the functions of the new institutions are directed to the social and economic needs of the modern urban society, needs that did not exist in earlier agrarian society. How could such functions decline in the matrilineage if they weren't there to start with? Some functions of matriliny have declined, however, and within the whole social structure of the nation, the relative importance of the matrilineage has decreased. Matriliny has survived, however, by adaptation to changing, urbanising conditions, and will continue to do so as long as the state recognises chieftaincy, "customary" laws related to inheritance and marriage, and the land tenure system. As these continue, so will matriliny survive. Thus the covert status of women, described above, will continue, in modified forms.

The development, of a market system for the exchange of labour is leading to the growth of a pair of classes, one subsisting by the sale of its labour, the other by the ownership of capital. The dispersed Obo community is not exempt from this process. The growing number of mills and factories around Nkawkaw is evidence of this development in the rural area, while Accra has been so characterised for many years. Because of the tendency to hire only men, and to give loans to men, this process has tended to bypass women. Also, most Obo adults are involved in petty enterpreneurship (farming, trading, or crafts) wherein they provide both capital and labour. Continued interest by urban migrants in their home town, where they hoped to ultimately return, hinders the development of an alienated urban proletariat, and also thus contributes to a very slow formation of opposed labour and capital classes (Bartle 1978b). As long as such class differentiation is hindered, women will continue to obtain power and prestige as described above.

Changes in the ideological dimensions and in the objectives of socialisation, were introduced primarily by missionaries, initially those from Basel, Switzerland. Even before Kwawu became a British Protectorate in 1888, the missionaries were preaching the values of monogamy and wife dependence. While they trained young men in carpentry, black smithing, and masonry, they tried to teach young women to sew, nurse babies, and cook. Their stated objectives were to "train girls to be useful and submissive housewives." As schools wore founded, first by the Basel, then later by other missions, girls were not encouraged to attend as much as boys, and the syllabus reflected the same missionary attitudes. (3). Unlike in the traditional animist and ancestor cults which allowed female access to office, catechists and preachers were all male. The values taught by the missionaries may have been functional for a puritanical European society where the nuclear family (and thus the dependent wife) was the building block of society. Only men were to be trained to earn money while women would be trained to serve men, without pay, at home. The Christians coming to West Africa made it clear that they objected to a high divorce and separation rate, duolocal conjugal residence, large funerals for lineage elders, independent and mobile women, "worship" (homage) of ancestors and tutelary spirits and corporate matrilineal descent groups; all institutions which contributed to the continued functioning of matriliny and its corollary, independence, power, and prestige, however informal, of women. After over a century of proselytising, resulting in a nominal Christian population of sixty per cent in the dispersed Obo community, the Christians still have a long way to go to wipe out those attributes. The rise of syncretistic faith healing cults, which are characterised by political participation of women greater than in the established Christian mission churches which preceded them, may be seen as an institutional adaptation to the introduction of new (e.g. Christian) beliefs, that allows for continued high participation and informal power of women. In spite of some inroads in ideological statements, the deeper values, attitudes and beliefs remain, and indirectly contribute to the hindering of the decline in traditional access to power that might accompany the introduction of ideas related to westernisation.

All of these changes have affected the structure and dynamic organisation of the total dispersed Obo community, as each member resides alternatively in the home town and in both rural and urban host locations, circulating through the total system. What is remarkable, considering so many changes in technology, economy, polity, and ideology, is the persistence of the matrilineal system of descent and inheritance, corporate lineage ownership of land and other property, chief's courts to settle disputes, and therefore a continued informal power, prestige, and political participation of women in the total dispersed community. Marriage continues to be weak. The head of the lineage has not become a patriarch. Women still have independent incomes. Channels for mobility through trade or accession to religious and political offices continue to operate. The home town still continues to have an excess of women over men, close to the seat of power. Neo-Christian and syncretic healing cults offer women alternatives to upward mobility as do the extant cults of tutelary deities. Elders continue privately to seek advice and support from the women, in their matrilineages, prior to making public decisions or policy statements in the chiefs’ courts or at funerals. Women continue to amass wealth and independence, as entrepreneurs in the food cash crop market, by farming and by trading. Women continue to exercise independence from fathers and husbands, without giving all to their matrilineal uncles. In short, women's power is not declining as fast as superficial social changes might lead one to predict; with the increase in industrialisation, urbanisation, and westernisation, however, the decline will slowly continue.

One might argue that the growth of capitalism in Ghana would not result in decreased independence of women, and then might cite the relatively high degree of freedom and mobility in the western capitalist societies of Europe and North America. Even Obo data could be used to support the notion. The survey of Obo migrants revealed a few women upwardly mobile in the modern sector; middle range army officers, police inspectors, hospital matrons, and civil service executives. The point would be missed. At the early stages of capitalist growth there have always been discrimination, oppression, and restrictions on some ethnic groups, workers; and women. That was the case in early stages of the European industrial revolution, sugar slavery in the Americas, and over the last century in Ghana. Widespread European and American women's emancipation movements are relatively recent, belonging to later stages of capitalism, and may come in the later stages of Ghana's future. Obo women presently enjoy an independence which still far exceeds that of the majority of women in (especially rural) Europe and America. As Ghana becomes more westernised, women's power will decrease, until later. Ghana, however, will not necessarily industrialise or urbanise by following exactly the same trail as Euro-America, so oppression of women might not become so extreme as it did in early stages of western capitalism. (4).

So long as chiefs continue to be recognised as part of the national political structure, and their courts function in the settlement of disputes within and between matrilineages; so long as chiefs are not appointed by government, nor elected by secret popular vote, but enstooled by matrilineal elders; so long as the national legal system recognises the "traditional" land tenure system, ownership by corporate descent groups, and recognises "customary" laws regarding marriage, divorce, and matrilineal inheritance and succession – the matrilineage will survive, by adaptation, to new, urban, industrial societal requisites. So long as matriliny survives in Obo, with marriage weakened by obligations to the descent groups, then covert gynocracy will thrive.


1. In this they are not very different from most of the population of Southern Ghana, as documented by Caldwell (1969).

2. Bleek has already documented the contrasts between appearance and reality in a Kwawu town near to Obo, where the overt ideology of female subservience was contrasted with their economic and social independence (Bleek 1975). "For a superficial observer the position of women in rural Kwahu [sic] is characterised by subordination. They are really in control of the situation. By behaving as objects, they conceal their actual power, both in economic and in social terms,” (1975b:52,63).

3. I am indebted to Dr. Agnes Aidoo of the History Department, University of Cape Coast; for pointing, this out in a recent seminar.

4. An analogy can be drawn with the tracks left by the two wheels of a bicycle. The front wheel, representing Euro-America, preceded, and was characterised by the greatest variation; that variation representing degrees of oppression or freedom. The rear wheel, representing third world societies, followed, but did not experience so much variation.

References Cited

Aldous (1962) "Urbanisation, the extended family, and kinship ties in West Africa," Social Forces, Vol. 41, pp. 612

Baker, T. and M. Bird (1959) "Urbanisation and the position of women," Special number on urbanism in West Africa, K. "Little (ed.) Sociological Review, Vol. 7, No. 1

Bartle P. (1978a) Forty Days: The Akan Calendar," Africa, Vo1. 48, No. 2, pp. 81-

(1978b) Urban Migration and Rural Identity: an Ethnography of an Akan Community, Obo, Kwawu, submitted for Ph.D., Univ. of Ghana, Legon (See Abstract)

Bleek, W. (1972) "Geographical mobility and conjugal residence in a Kwahu lineage," Research Review, Vol. 8., No. 5, pp. 47-55

(I 975a) Marriage Inheritance and Witchcraft. Mededelingen Africastudiecentrum, No. 12, Leiden

(1975b) "Appearance and reality: the ambiguous position of women in Kwahu, Ghana," in P. Kloos and K. W. van der Voon (eds.), Rule and Reality, Essays in Honour of Andre J. F. Kobben, Amsterdam, Univ. van Amsterdam

(mss.) Birth Control and Female Emancipation: an Example from Ghana, cyclostyled.

Caldwell, J. C. (1969) African Rural-Urban Migration, N. Y., Columbia Univ. Press

Crowther (1906) Notes on a District of the Gold Coast," Quarterly Journal of the Institute of Commercial Research. Univ. Liverpool, Vol. 1, p.168-82.

Douglas; M. (1969) "Is matriliny doomed in Africa?" in M. Douglas and F. M. Kaberry (eds.), Man in Africa, Tavistock, pp. 121-36

Field, M. J. (1948) Akim Kotoku, Crown Agents for the Colonies

Fortes, M. (1969) "Time and Social structure, an Ashanti case study." in M. Fortes (ed.), Social Structure; Studies Presented to A. R. Radcliffe Brown, Oxford, Clarendon

Goode, W. J. (1963) WorId Revolution and Family Patterns, Glencoe, Free Press

Goody, J. (1959) "The mother's brother and the sister's son in West Africa," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 89, pp. 61-88

Gough, K. (1961) "The modern disintegration of matrilineal descent groups," in D. M. Schneider and K. Gough (eds.) Matrilineal Kinship, Berkeley, U. Calif., pp. 631-54

Hill, P. (1963) The Migrant Cocoa Farmers of Southern Ghana, Cambridge, University Press

Jenkins, P. (1970) Abstracts of Basel Mission Gold Coast Correspondence, Typewritten, The Archivist, Basel Mission, Basel, (copy in Balme Library, Legon, Accra)

Little, K. (1973) African Women in Towns, An Aspect of Africa's Social Revolution, London, C.U.P.

Oppong, C. (1974) Marriage Among a Matrilineal Elite, Cambridge University Press

Pool, J. (1972) "A cross comparative study of aspects of conjugal behaviour among women of three West African Countries," Canadian Journal of African Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 253

Robertson, C. (1974) "Economic Women in Africa; profit making techniques of Accra market women;" Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 12 p.657-64

Sanday, P. R. (1974) "Female status in the public domain," in M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (eds.), Women, Culture, and. Society, Stanford, Univ. Press, pp. 189-206.

Vercruijsse, E. V. W (1972) "The Dynamics of Fanti Domestic Organisation: A Comparison with Fortes’ Ashanti Survey," The Hague, Institute of Social Studies, (cyclostyled).

    C’est la description et l'analyse de la situation sociale des femmes dans la communauté dispersé par des migrations cyliques de la ville d' Obo, dans le Kwawu – Région Est du Ghana. Le systèm matrilinéaire diminue pour les femmes l’importance du marriage et de la dépendance conjugale et leur donne dans la communauté certaines forms de prestige, d'influence, et d’indépendance. Elles sont habilites à exercer le pouvoir politique miis ce fait es caché par leur idéologie affirmée de subordination aux hommes: frères, maris, et oncles maternals. Les progrès de l’urbanisation, de l' occidentalisation et de I' industrialisation ont géne maIs non detruit les voies anciennes qui permettaient l' ascension sociale; c'est à covert que la gynéocratie poursuit son oeuvre dans la communauté moderne dispersée. (Silke Reichrath).

    Die vorliegende Abhandlung beschreibt und analysiert die gesellschaftliche Stellung der Frauen in den sozialen Strukturen der durch zyklische Migration geographisch zerstreuten Gemeinde Obo in Kwawu, einer Stadt im Osten Ghanas. Matrilinearität mindert die Unterordnung in der Ehe und die eheliche Abhängigkeit und verleiht den Frauen der Gemeinde teilweise Macht, Prestige und Unabhängigkeit. Die Chance für Frauen, politische Macht auszuüben, wird jedoch von der offenen Ideologie der Unterordnung unter Männer – Väter, Ehemänner, Onkel – zunichte gemacht. Zunehmende Verstädterung, Verwestlichung und Industrialisierung haben die traditionellen Wege der sozialen Mobilität geschwächt, aber nicht zerstört; ein verdeckter Gynozentrismus existiert noch in der modernen, geographisch zerstreuten Gemeinde.

    Descripción y análisis de la posición de las mujeres en la estructura de una extensa comunidad, dispersada por la migración cíclica desde Obo, ciudad de origen en Kwawu, en la zona este de Ghana. El sistema matrilineal tiene como resultado la subordinación al matrimonio y a la dependencia conyugal, y concede a las mujeres de la comunidad ciertas formas de poder, prestigio e independencia. La posibilidad de las mujeres de detentar poder político se enmascara tras la patente ideología de subordinación al hombre: padres, maridos y tíos. La urbanización, occidentalización e industrialización crecientes han debilitado, pero no destruído, los canales tradicionales de la movilidad social. La ginocracia encubierta continua activa en la dispersa comunidad actual. (Mª Lourdes Sada).

    Análise e descrição da posição das mulheres na estrutura social de uma comunidade extensa, dispersa pela migração cíclica do povo de Obo, uma terra natal em Kwawu, na região oriental do Gana. A matrilinhagem resulta em subordinação ao casamento e dependência conjugal, atribuindo determinadas formas de poder, prestígio e independência às mulheres na comunidade. A capacidade das mulheres deterem poder político é escondida pela ideologia observável de subordinação aos homens: pais, maridos, e tios. A crescente urbanização, ocidentalização e industrialização têm enfraquecido, mas não destruído, os canais tradicionais de mobilidade social; ginocracia dissimulada continua a funcionar na comunidade dispersa moderna. (Inês Rato).

    De plaats van de vrouwen in de sociale structuur van een verspreide gemeenschap, veroorzaakt door periodieke migratie van mensen van Obo, een thuisstad in de stad Kwawu, in het oosten van Ghana, is beschreven en geanalyseerd. Matriliny resulteert in de ondergeschiktheid van huwelijk en echtelijke afhankelijkheid en wijst bepaalde vormen van macht, prestige en onafhankelijkheid toe aan vrouwen in de gemeenschap. De capaciteit van vrouwen om politieke macht te hanteren, wordt verborgen door de openlijke ideologie van ondergeschiktheid aan mannen: vaders, echtgenoten en ooms. Verhoogde urbanisatie, verwestering en industrialisatie hebben de traditionele kanalen van sociale mobiliteit verzwakt, doch niet vernietigd; heimelijke gynocracy blijft echter voortduren in de moderne verspreide gemeenschap. (Joyce Maskam).

    Questo articolo descrive e analizza la posizione delle donne nella struttura sociale di una comunità “dispersa” a seguito delle migrazioni cicliche dalla città di Obo nel Kwawu, nella zona orientale del Ghana. Il sistema matrilineare determina la subordinazione al matrimonio e la dipendenza coniugale, pur concedendo alle donne della comunità un certo grado di potere, prestigio e indipendenza. La possibilità di accesso al potere politico da parte delle donne viene mascherata da un’esplicita ideologia di subordinazione all’uomo: padre, marito e zio materno. I processi di crescente urbanizzazione, occidentalizzazione e industrializzazione hanno indebolito ma non distrutto i canali tradizionali della mobilità sociale; forme nascoste di ginocrazia continuano a operare nell’odierna comunità dispersa. (Anna Bosi).

    Περιγραφή και ανάλυση της θέσης των γυναικών στην κοινωνική δομή μιας εκτεταμένης κοινότητας, που είναι διασκορπισμένη από την κυκλική μετανάστευση, της κοινότητας της Obo, μιας μητρόπολης της Kwawu στην Ανατολική Περιοχή της Γκάνα. Η μητρογραμμικότητα έχει ως αποτέλεσμα την υποταγή του γάμου και συζυγικής εξάρτησης και παρέχει συγκεκριμένες μορφές ισχύος, κύρους και ανεξαρτησίας στις γυναίκες της κοινότητας. Η δυνατότητα των γυναικών να ασκούν πολιτική εξουσία κρύβεται από την φανερή ιδεολογία της υποταγής στους άνδρες: πατέρες, συζύγους και θείους. Η αυξημένη αστικοποίηση, εκδυτικοποίηση και εκβιομηχάνιση αποδυνάμωσαν αλλά δεν κατέστρεψαν τους παραδοσιακούς διαύλους κοινωνικής κινητικότητας: η συγκεκαλυμμένη γυναικοκρατία εξακολουθεί να λειτουργεί στην σύγχρονη διασκορπισμένη κοινότητα.

    The position of women in the social structure of an extended community, dispersed by cyclical migration of people from Obo, a home town in Kwawu, in the Eastern Region of Ghana, is described and analysed. Matriliny results in the subordination of marriage and conjugal dependence, and allocates certain forms of power, prestige, and independence to women in the community. The ability of women to wield political power is hidden by the overt ideology of subordination to men: fathers, husbands, and uncles. Increased urbanisation, westernisation, and industrialisation have weakened but not destroyed the traditional channels of social mobility; covert gynocracy continues to operate in the modern dispersed community.

This paper was prepared at the request of the Ghana National Council of Women and Development. Many thanks to Bridget Levitt, Rina Okwonkwo, Mireille Peltier, Maggy Hendry, Beverly Houghton, and Christine Oppong, who read and commented on early drafts; mistakes are my own responsibility.

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