By Awa Ann
“Often described as ‘mothers’ to the nations that their husbands lead, Africa’s first ladies are expected to be the unifying figures, serving not only the president of the nation but the voters who entrusted their husbands with the mandate to lead.”
With these words my attention was caught. I wanted to know more who they are,what makes them tick, are they in anyway … motherly? Is it the myth, the glamour of the position or are they the real deal?
My research unveiled some interesting things…
First ladies or Premier Dame (also Known as “Mother” Moeder (Afrikaans), Mzazi ( Swahili), Enat (Amharic), Umm (Arabic) Inna (Fula) Uwa (Hausa), Nna (Mandingo), Bamama (Lingala), Yaboi (Wolof), Oni(Akan)etc are supposed to also be wife, daughter, advisers, companions and mentors. Whatever name they may be given from the Namib to the Sahara or in any part of the continent they are not only seen to be on a pedestal and expected to champion humanitarian causes but at the same time be like Caesar’s wife beyond reproach
As we celebrate women in the month of March and beyond, we shall publish the profiles and work of different African first ladies, highlighting their politics and activism among other issues.
We will be focusing on a series of articles based on the first ladies of the African continent and each week will feature a profile of first ladies whom have not only been recognised, applauded but sometimes vilified for the roles they play to support the politics of their husbands.
First of all acknowledgements to Danielle Mumbere of Africanews for the initial write up on her article “Celebrating African First Ladies”.
So who is a first lady?
A first lady is by definition the wife of the head of state of a country and it therefore follows that most nations led by a male president, has a first lady.
Wikipedia defines a First Lady as “an unofficial title used for the wife of a non-monarchical head of state or chief executive. The term is also used to describe a woman seen to be at the top of her profession or art and Merriam Webster defines it as “the wife or hostess of the chief executive of a country or jurisdiction”.
The origin and designation of the term First Lady or Premier Dame (French) seems to have started in the United States, where one of the earliest uses in print, in 1838, was in reference to Martha Washington wife of the first president of the United States George Washington.
In the early days there was no generally accepted title for the wife of the president. Many early first ladies expressed their own preference for how they were addressed, including the use of such titles as “Lady” or “Lady Presidentress.” Mrs President” and “the President’s wife,” which eventually gave way to “first lady”, as women started to expand the powers of the position by championing humanitarian causes and help set new expectations for just how active and influential the wife of a president could be.
However some pundits argue that Harriet Lane, niece of bachelor president James Buchanan(15thpresident of USA), was the first woman to be called first lady while actually serving in that position. The phrase appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Monthly in 1860, when he wrote, “The Lady of the White House, and by courtesy, “The First Lady of the Land”. Once Harriet Lane was called first lady, the term was applied retrospectively to her predecessors.
The title first gained nationwide recognition in 1877, when Mary Ames wrote an article in the New York City newspaper The Independent describing the inauguration of President Rutherford B Hayes(19thpresident) She used the term to describe his wife, Lucy Webb Hayes.
While historically the term has generally been used to refer to the wife of a president, there were occasions when another woman, such as the president’s daughter, has filled the duties of first lady as hostess, if the president’s wife was unwilling, unable, or if the president was a widower or bachelor. An example is during the administration of President Kamuzu Banda (1964-1994);Malawi had an “Official Hostess” who served in the same capacity as “First Lady” because the president was unmarried.
In addition to this, the term first lady has been used intermittently for the wife of the president of Nigeria. The spouse of the president has no official title, but receives the same style as the president, Excellency for example A former president Shehu Shagari (1979- 1983) was a polygamist, and none of his wives were referred to as the first lady
In countries where the head of state’s spouse is a man, First Gentleman is the male equivalent of the title First Lady. This is the case with Angela Merkel of Germany, Marie-Louise Presca of Malta, Joyce Banda of Malawi or The last female head of state who led an African nation Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whose tenure expired in January 2018.
First Spouse or First Partner, a rare version of the title, can be used in either case where the spouse of a head of state is male or female. This new term is used to promote gender equality and gender neutrality.
A perfect example was the time when it looked like Hillary Clinton might make history as the first female president of the United States in 2016; there was much chatter about what to call former President Bill Clinton. Suggestions ranged from the technical (“first husband”) to the flippant (“first bubba”).
Furthermore, some critics were dismissing the title of “first lady” as “archaic,” Saying that it may have risen to prominence as a way to recognize the power of a president’s wife.
Robert Hickey, an expert on honorifics and titles who works at The Protocol School of Washington, said that A title like “first spouse” would also be gender-neutral. The word “partner,” however, has the added flair of suggesting an equal split in power.
“From a protocol point of view, it is only the official who has precedence.” No matter how grand the title sounds, in other words, the spouse’s power is necessarily secondary as it derives solely from marriage to the person who got elected
Yet even titles that sounded like an upgrade can be deceptive. For instance, in some monarchies, when a king marries a woman of lower rank she might take the title of queen (Queen Jetsun Pema of Bhutan). Whereas if a queen does the equivalent, her husband receives or retains a lower title such as prince; marriage isn’t enough to make him a king. (Prince Philip of United Kingdom)
However, while the position of first lady is not legally or constitutionally provided for in many countries, many presidencies cater for the Office of the First Lady, through which the holder is facilitated to champion social causes.
As of January 2020, all African countries have male heads of state.
In our subsequent editions we will talk about African First Ladies and OAFLA currently named as the Organisation of African First Ladies for Development (OAFLAD) an advocacy organization where First Ladies of Africa seek to leverage their unique position to advocate for policies that make health services accessible and laws that boost women and youth empowerment, reinforce favorable policies and programs through advocacy, resource mobilization and development of partnerships with all stakeholders at all levels.
In our next edition…….who is Mrs Fatoumatta Bah-Barrow of The Gambia?