In Their Own Words: Women Who Lead (Liberia), 10/17/2019, #6

It is generally argued that colonial involvement in West Africa prompted the creation of patriarchal structures through social, economic and political changes in gendered roles, ushering in a culture of exclusion and domesticity of African women to varying degrees. This was a central idea in last week’s group of readings, particularly Fatou Kiné Camara’s “African Women and the Gender Inequality Regime in Africa: From Patriarchy to Parity,” in which she contends there is a need to create restorative processes that return to matriarchal African tradition. This would include bringing women back into political forms of leadership and other implicit forms of involvement and integration. 

One way that West African women have been able to access political leadership roles is through post-conflict reconstruction: they are able to facilitate change and peace. I find myself appreciating and simultaneously resenting that restoration is a mode of access. In one sense, it beneficially integrates women into political structures, but in another it coincides with this idea that women have to fix the problems men create, problems to which they are disproportionately made victims. I saw this throughout Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s entire memoir, in which  her warnings and ideas were continuously excluded from political consideration until Liberia was in a state of economic disarray and intra-state violence. 

It is very clear that post-conflict environments in West Africa were still characterized by unequal representation of women, but in some cases, opportunities for transformative leadership development were also constructed. I will focus on Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s political ascension in Liberia.  

In January of 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first democratically-elected female president in Africa. She is an interesting and empowering figure for many reasons. She traversed states of oppression and privilege. The consequences of occupying this unique social position are recurrent throughout her memoir, in which she provides various examples of ways she struggled with identity formation and manifesting her political and professional goals. Due to tense intra-state division, her skin tone and socioeconomic background caused her to go great lengths to assert her indigenous roots, as many associated her with the settler class. At the same time, she was also privileged in the sense that she was able to receive formal education inaccessible to other women. This, however, did not protect her from entering an abusive marriage out of high school: at her lowest point, she referred to herself as a “struggling housewife with no future.” This seemingly precluded any kind of professional development, let alone a strong political career.

What I found most striking was that as a woman entering the political arena in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was at a high risk of political exclusion and punishment, yet she was transparent and candid in critiquing her country. She was also willing to challenge illogical ideas and corruption of the Liberian government and fearlessly confront people more powerful than her. In doing so, she observed how male Liberian leaders were very averse to feedback: 

Moreover, the inability to tolerate criticism is a troublesome trait in any human being, but in a leader it is especially so… Being able to “take it” is part of the price of leadership, particularly in a country that is still not fully institutionalized… But the truth is, if you want to lead and be hailed, you must also be prepared to be ostracized, because it surely will happen at some point in your career.

In one anecdote, she chronicles President Tolbert’s decision for Liberia to host the Organization of African Unity’s annual conference in 1979, a decision which she heavily scrutinized as financially unsound. What I have come to admire in engaging with the text is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s practicality and courage to critique the legitimacy of political decisions. More than a handful of times, this has gotten her into serious trouble, but it can be argued that this makes her all the more courageous. Sirleaf dismantled the facade that the conference would stimulate opportunities for investment and development and exposed the more disappointing reality that the conference, at the time, was no more than an “exaggerated men’s night out” for a group of powerful political figures. Not only did she oppose the decision, but she also pushed back against fraudulent invoices sent to the government for OAU projects. In one scenario like this, she stamped a bill submitted by a British contractor with a rubber “BULLSHIT” stamp and sent it back, after which she got in trouble. Though this may be funny, it also reflects the serious corruption, economic insecurity and mounting potential for conflict she foresaw and tried to prevent: 

Tolbert’s decision had made me the first female minister of finance in the nation’s history, but there was no time for accolades, no time to celebrate. Walking the streets of Monrovia, one could almost feel the tension… It was clear to everyone, surely even to President Tolbert, that things were bad… Unless something dramatic took place, unless Tolbert managed some great swerve to avert the dangerous turned ahead, we were headed for trouble, and fast.  

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s spirited and fearless disposition fostered integrity in thought and in conduct that ultimately spared her during the period of unrest that followed the 1980 coup against the Tolbert administration. Her record of speaking up against the Tubman and Tolbert administrations granted her limited favor from General Doe’s makeshift regime. But as General Doe eventually succumbed to greed and didn’t fulfill the promises of the revolution, Sirleaf foresaw a repetition of Liberia’s recent past materialize and administered a warning, which forced her escape to the United States for a short period. It is admirable that the strength of her character did not compel her to fold under the demands of a corrupt political regime, even when this very regime had spared – and also had the capacity to end – her life. Again, she adhered to her own moral principles when she refused to take the position in the Senate to which she was elected, in protest of General Doe’s theft of the presidential election in 1985. She refused to do this even under pressure by the US State Department and the Liberian government to do so. 

The decisions she made, and also the consistency of these decisions, established a record of credibility that ultimately paved the way for her own political ascension. In the memoir, she highlights the most obvious obstacle: “first, I was a woman in a society that insisted on male leadership” Throughout the course of the semester, we have seen how this power dynamic stipulates that women are overqualified for the positions they take on. This creates an extremely high cost of physical and emotional labor, which I eventually hope will diminish. Often times people frame this “extra work” as something that is admirable, but I believe that it is unjustified and forces women to overextend themselves to reach statuses of male leaders, who are often less qualified than they are. I have seen how people glamorize when extra work is imposed on women. One reporter relished her strenuous presidential campaign, noting: 

I always thought the nickname ‘Iron Lady’ referred to her indomitable state of mind. I had no idea that it also referred to her physical toughness. She never stops to eat or drink. We have walked tens of miles and driven hundreds more on the worst roads anyone can imagine, but at every stop, she sounds like someone just returning from a vacation. 

These are real, tangible costs that still enforce patriarchal structures and provide little to no reward. For example, people were very quick to legitimate sham elections, but when she won the presidency, they claimed fraud.  

Despite this, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s political profile, in particular, is worth notable consideration because of the integral part she played in Liberia’s post-conflict restoration and her unwavering ability to uphold the dignity of human life. At least partially, Sirleaf’s identity as a woman posits her at a level of social awareness and emotional intelligence that is unparalleled compared to most male leaders in Liberia at the time. Her vision of social and political justice, supplemented by agency and resilience, is validated by various examples, such as her opposition to acts of arbitrary violence executed by vengeful leaders, her disapproval of the level of torture sustained by General Doe before his brutal execution, her attempts to prevent women from being raped during the period of political upheaval, her prioritization of reintegrating former child soldiers and turning them away from violence and her application of Liberia’s extended family system to politics. 



Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, This Child Will be Great. New York: Harper, 2009

Fatou Kine Camara, “African Women and the Gender Equality Regime in Africa:  From Patriarch to Parity” (61-97) in Black Women and International Law.  Deliberate Interactions, Movements and Actions.  Ed. Jeremy I. Levitt.  Cambridge University Press, 2015

“The Status of Women’s Leadership in West Africa” A study commissioned by West Africa Civil Society Institute” eds.  Thelma Ekiyor and Marieme Lo (2009)

Featured Image:

Harvey Day, “The history of sex strikes.” BBC, May 2019. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/GETTY IMAGES)

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