In its oral and written forms, literature has constantly served as one of the major instruments in mirroring reality and society. Literature remains a consistent tool in the representation, comprehension and interpretation of fields of human endeavour such as religion, class struggle, politics, human situations, social conflicts and Gender relations. No wonder then, gender relations, especially feminism has laid hold on literature as a veritable machinery for gender activism Men discovered the gold mine in literature quite early and for ages tapped its resources to carve a niche for the male gender in politics, culture and religion. At the same time the male gender used the resources of literature and criticism to invent prejudices, stereotypes and superstitious beliefs and heaped them on the female gender. While women laboured under this burden for ages, men were busy upstaging them in every field of life. Few instances have however existed where certain female figures due to their exalted royal, military, economics and cultic backgrounds have through individual efforts raised their heads above water in their respective societies and eras. Literature has equally recorded cases where powerful women in various races have astutely and subtly cornered for themselves rights and priviledges which ordinary women and even ordinary men could never dream of. Such positions were like personal identity cards which neither outlived them nor were enjoyed by other women during and after their lifetime. These examples are today literature, in history and literary achieves. They remained a tiny minority. The above injustice was not to last any longer (Charlotte1993:84):
Feminism began as a general social and political movement and came to include literary theorists and critics as the movement continued… literary feminists began to see both in books and in the larger social context that produces and consumes books, the need for a critique of a culture they called patriarchal…
As a result of the courageous objection to male biases in literature and criticism, the latter part of our century saw a militant move by feminist critics to position women as protagonists or at least as major characters in literature; as writers of poetry, drama, novels and as readers and consumers of literature. Hitherto, feminist literary critics always see in male works a figment of male chauvinistic imagination about women, an impression that is totally contrary to real women in a real world. Simon de Beauvoir, a French writer published a book titled The Second Sex in 1949. She discovered that men are always exalted while women are consistently downgraded in Literature and myth. All positive values and qualities are attributed to men while women are apportioned the negative and secondary values and qualities. Similarly feminist critics analysed a selection of male writings and gave kudos to Shakespeare and Chaucer for creating strong and admirable female characters. Kate Millet, on the contrary, in her 1970 publication titled Sexual Politics attacked male writers like Henry Miller, D. H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer for their mysogyny and triumphalism in favour of the male gender. Yet female writers like Virginia Woolf in a 1924 essay titled “A room of one’s own” frowns at the paucity of ‘rooms’ for women writing in the Canon. A readily explanation was proffered by Elaine Showalter who coined the term gynocritics, as a veritable effort by feminist critics to stand in solidarity with writers of feminist literature who had been unjustly evaluated and interpreted. Showalter aims at proving that the female writer, reader and critic have come of age as far as literary experience is concerned. In this regard she published The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, literature and Theory in 1985. French feminists like Luce Irigray and Julia Kristeva, on their part insisted on language that is gender neutral.
2. WOMEN IN AFRICAN LITERATURE
In African Literature and criticism, womanisim is documenting and uplifting women’s activism and experiences. The African feminist prioritizes his project thus: He emancipates the African women by first documenting her positive and negative experiences under the African and foreign patriarchal cultures. On the positive angle, the African women have played unique and active roles in the African society as queen, warrior, priestess, mother, wife, skills and crafts person, herbalist and sorcerer. The African women have had negative experiences too. Some of these negative experiences that have impacted her full and wholistic development were: ancient and modern polygamy; child and forced marriage; levirate, widowhood; female genital mutilation and mother-in-law injustices and violence. The African female writer also includes in her documentation and emancipatory activism such negative experiences as male economic, psychological, political, and socio-cultural violence against women. This documentary project covers the past lived and the present living experience of women.
Normally life in the society is such that no person gets his or her right without a fight. Hence African feminists had to be militant and combatant as we could see in Sembene Ousmane: Les bouts de bois de Dieu; Guelwaar; Buchi Emecheta The Joys of Motherhood; and Aminata Sow Fall’s L’ex pere de la nation.
Furthermore, the African feminist sought to create a space in literary criticism and fiction for writings and creation that would be strictly speaking African Women. There was need, namely for African womanisits to make such an entry into literature which hitherto had been the exclusive preserve of the masculinist. Having thus gained entry into African literary and critical creation, the African feminist is highlighting and propagating women writing and experience so as to correct all forms of male stereotypes and prejudices that have hitherto being directed against women.
African feminism does not only dwell on the stigma and name-calling of the past and the present; and especially on the injustices and victimization suffered by women under patriarchal cultures. One of her major tasks is to study and criticize all fields of human endeavour, as well as to do a thorough self assessment and soul-searching of her own existence so as to ensure dynamism and relevance in the world of literal and critical thinking(Adebayo,1996:9):
African feminists must highlight the need for new meanings, new practices and interpretations to enhance a dynamic African feminist discourse.
3. WOMEN IN ANGLOPHONE AFRICAN LITERATURE
Flora Nwapa was a trailblazer when she published the epoch making novel, Efuru in 1966; she was the pioneer Nigerian woman writer to apportion positive and symbolic roles to female characters. Nwapa created a female character that is a responsible, serious minded woman merchant. Efuru, as she is called is a role model; a woman of substance and high society lady that every mother would pray to have as a daughter. Efuru is a self-made woman who distinguished herself as a model of a mother, a wife and a pious devotee of Uhamiri, the local deity. Infact a female character in the novel addresses her as (Nwapa, 1966:57)) “a woman among women.”
Nwapa’s female characterization is in stark contrast to Jagua Nana, a 1961 publication of Ekwensi in which the female character was a harlot. She is also in contrast to Ayi Kwei Armah’s Estelle who colluded and collaborated with her husband Koomson in corrupt practices in L’ Age d’or n’est pas pour demain (1976). Efuru also contrasts with Leah, illicit liquor dealer in Peter Abraham’s Rouge est le sang des Noirs (1960). Most of the male writings of the era starting from Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters of 1965 to Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine of 1966 had powerful male protagonists, and lowly esteemed female characters. As if to prove that no body ever gets his or her right without a fight, Nwapa in her two other subsequent publications: One is Enough (1981) and Women are Different (1986) introduced some militancy and a no-nonsense attitude into her characterization. The issue at stake as far as the feminist nature of the novel is concerned, are the female characters’ reaction to certain obnoxious cultural practices like forced and arranged marriages, polygamy, male matrimonial infidelity and male use-and-dump attitude towards their spouses. Thus in One is Enough, Amaka calls it quit in her marriage with Obiora, Dora in Women are Different proves that a woman can still forge ahead in life even when abandoned by her husband. When her husband retraced his steps back to her, she accepted him but with the condition that he will now play the secondary role in her matrimonial life.
Flora Nwapa insists that women writers must create works of fiction that mirror the realities of female experiences in the African society(Nwapa, 1984:14):
The Nigerian male writers fail to elevate women to their rightful plane. They overlook the safeguards with which custom surrounds her: the weight of feminine opinion, the independence of her economic position, the power she wields by the mere fact that she holds the pestle and the cooking pots. They fail to see all these things because they are men and are influenced by the colonial administration’s Victorian type prejudices against women.