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Where Women Are

Nanjala Nyabola
Marie-Emmanuelle Pommerolle

Tracing Kenyan Women’s Involvement in Elections and Political Leadership from 1963-2002

Lanoi Maloiy


The chapter will construct an understanding of Kenyan women’s experiences of electoral politics by examining the life stories and, subsequently, the emergence of women in political leadership from 1960 through to 2002. The chapter investigates the challenges women face when running for and functioning within elective positions because of a male dominated political landscape, where Kenyan women are caught between pre-colonial and post-colonial societal culture, and the private and public sphere. The life stories of a selection of Kenyan women leaders are to demonstrate how they navigate a male dominated political landscape while working to attain elected positions. As such, their life-stories present key political and social events that were critical to these women’s journey towards elective positions. Against the backdrop of key socio-political events in Kenya’s history, such as the Mau Mau insurgency, independence, and the institutionalization of multi-party – politics play a significant role in shaping women’s experiences of seeking elected posts. These events and memories offer greater understandings of women’s history in electoral politics in Kenya. This study, therefore, contributes to an underserved area in leadership literature employing memories and voices that are often marginalised. At the same time, due to a reliance on oral history in Africa, many histories are often lost. Therefore, capturing women’s post-colonial history in written form is important in order to establish a Kenyan women’s history, the study connects these personalities to the wider trajectory of Kenyan and African politics.

Texte intégral


1In Kenya, politics and leadership are often perceived as a dangerous undertaking, primarily associated with men, and unsuitable for women (Kamau, 2010; Kassilly & Onkware, 2010; Okoiti-Omtatah, 2008). Furthermore, male dominance of political systems, culture and the economy, not to mention threats of violence, educational stipulations and gender stereotyping, present significant barriers for female leaders in Kenya (Kamau, 2010; Kassilly & Onkware, 2010; Nzomo, 1997; Okoiti-Omtatah, 2008). By 2018, Africa had only had two elected female heads of state, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (Liberia) and Ameenah Gurib-Fakim (Mauritius), while other female African heads of state have been nominated, were interim presidents, or succeeded after the demise of a male head of state (Chirwa-Ndanga, 2016).

2The main barrier towards women in leadership stems from male dominance of power and the stereotype of women as less effective leaders than men (Brown 1996). Politics and political leadership in Africa remains a male domain (Kassilly & Onkware, 2010). As such, more attention is needed towards developing approaches that challenge male dominance of political roles. Moreover, underneath all this, is a paucity of literature that focuses on locating and implementing empowerment strategies for African women leaders (Nkomo & Ngambi 2009).

3Certainly, there is recognition that women are absent from political leadership in Africa (Anigwe, 2014). That is why scholars such as Sara Longwe suggest that women participate at the local or grassroots level, but are less likely to be found in prominent political positions (Longwe, 2000). Culture, patriarchal structures, gender roles and socialisation are barriers to women’s participation in political leadership (Maloiy, 2016; Nkomo & Ngambi, 2009), including the socialisation that girls undergo during their early years. In this regard:

… girls are socialised to believe that public decision-making positions should properly be occupied by men, and boys are socialised into believing that girls may legitimately be excluded (Longwe, 2000: 26).

4Lawless and Fox (1999) had similar findings in their research on women political candidates in Kenya. They argue that socialisation creates the belief that women belong in the private sphere -- that is taking care of the home, while men should perform the role of provider. Therefore, because of the delineation between the private and public sphere men tend to dominate political leadership roles. As such women who enter this domain face significant opposition (Sadie, 2005).

5Research in Kenya indicates that women face opposition in the form of physical violence, intimidation and verbal abuse when they attempt to access leadership positions (Kassilly & Onkware, 2010; Okumu, 2008; Okoiti-Omtatah, 2008). Other studies also indicate that women in Africa are not provided with adequate security measures by the state, and thus are inordinately subject to abuse and violence (Chamley, 2011). This violence stems from patriarchy. To this end Okumu (2008: 83) claims that “patriarchal power is fragile and it resorts to violence to guard itself against threats.” Even when a woman manages to attain a political position, she can often be marginalised (Ifedili & Ifedili, 2009). This is part of what Longwe (2000: 26) calls the “dirty tricks” to prevent women from accessing political positions. Part of this strategy involves providing inaccurate information to women candidates, and attacking the moral character of female political leaders (Longwe, 2000).

6The chapter examines the lives of a few women who shaped the political leadership and elections landscape in Kenya. These women are Grace Ogot, Wambui Otieno, Philomena Chelagat Mutai and Professor Wangari Maathai. They have been selected due to the connections between their activism and politics, their public persona and political endeavours. The three key questions guiding this study are:

  1. What key events influenced the political context from between 1963-2002?

  2. Who were the key women leaders during this period?

  3. What kind of challenges and obstacles have the women featured in this research faced when vying for elective positions in Kenyan politics?

7This chapter is based on a biographical method employed to capture the histories of key women seeking elective positions in Kenya. It involved writing life herstories of four women who have vied for elective positions from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. Furthermore, the method allows the investigation of individual stories, while also constructing a collective history of Kenyan elections and of Kenyan women’s postcolonial political leadership experiences. Memories and oral history are significant in creating Kenyan and African histories and therefore, utilizing this method is relevant for undertaking research in the African context.

8Secondary data was collected for this study largely from archival data, and supplemented with biographies and other literature, including the political magazine Weekly Review, dated from 1975 to 1985. The Weekly Review articles were accessed through the Kenya National Archives, where a research permit was organised for a period of a year. This approach allowed for women’s experiences and historical involvement in elective politics to be constructed against the backdrop of key socio-political events in Kenyan history.

Kenyan Women and Elective Politics: Life Herstories

9The first female politicians who emerged in Kenya in the 1960s were Grace Onyango, and Ruth Habwe of Maendeleo ya Wanawake (Progress for Women). Later, other women like Phoebe Asiyo, Julia Ojiambo, Eddah Gachukia, Jemima Gichaga and Philomena Chelagat Mutai launched their political careers (Nasong’o & Ayot, 2007). Ruth Habwe was the first woman to vie for an elective seat (see timeline of Kenyan women in politics at the end of this chapter), and she faced patriarchal attitudes when she declared her candidature:

She was suspended from party membership for daring to contest the election without the party’s mandate, and she was told by MPs to ‘go back to the kitchen and cook for Mr Habwe’s children (Bailey & Bundeh, 1993: 170).

10Ruth Habwe’s venture into politics set the scene for women’s leadership struggles from the late 1960s through to 2013.

11Grace Onyango was initially the Mayor of Kisumu in 1960, before becoming a Member of Parliament for Kisumu. The Weekly Review (1975b: 4) indicates that she became the first female Member of Parliament in 1969 and the same article suggests that Kenya lagged behind its neighbouring countries, with the authors arguing that “the few that have made it in politics have been exceptionally successful, proving that there is a great deal of scope for Kenyan women in the political life of their country” (The Weekly Review, 1975b: 4). During the 1960s through to 2002, there were very few women in the Kenyan parliament. The first parliament had only one woman, while subsequent parliaments had between two to six women, dropping down to two women between 1983 and 1992. This low representation of women in parliament can be attributed to the patriarchal attitudes of key political leaders and the one-party system in place (Thongo, 2017). Once there was a regime change in 2002, the number of women in parliament increased and has been increasing steadily from 10 women elected in 2002, to 23 women Members of Parliament and 47 Women Representatives elected in the current parliament. This increment is primarily due to the new 2010 constitution that implemented affirmative action for women.

Wambui Otieno: A Legacy of Political Leadership and Resistance

12Wambui Otieno is best known for her struggle to bury her husband S.M Otieno. The family of her late husband wanted to bury S.M Otieno in their ancestral home in Nyanza, yet, according to Wambui, SM Otieno wanted to be buried in their family home in Ngong. The matter went to court and Wambui lost the case. As a consequence, despite her wishes, SM Otieno was buried in Nyanza. Wambui’s involvement in the public sphere and politics went beyond this court case however. She herself was part of the Mau Mau independence struggle, as well as the second liberation movement that fought for multi-party politics in Kenya. This involvement was influenced by her family legacy of political activism: Wambui was the great grand-daughter of Waiyaki wa Hinga – one of the first Kenyans to resist the British in their initial colonization efforts in the early 1900s (Presley, 2011). Highlighting this, Presley (2011: 215) shares that:

As a result of growing up in her immediate family and through ties with nationalist leaders, Wambui’s political awareness and commitment matured after 1950. By then, a new nationalist organisation, called Mau Mau by the Europeans, attracted the impressionable sixteen-year-old girl with its radical call to expel the Europeans via armed insurgency. During school holidays in 1952, when oaths of loyalty to Mau Mau were secretly administered in her neighbourhood, Wambui took the step that secured her place in Kenya’s history as one of its most prominent women leaders.

13During the Mau Mau resistance and the state of emergency, Wambui was a scout and ferried firearms for the Mau Mau, and was also in charge of a group of women scouts (Presley, 2011). In her biography A Mau Mau’s Daughter, Otieno relates how she disguised herself and gathered intelligence for the Mau Mau movement (Otieno, 1998). Unfortunately, Wambui was captured during one of these missions and was raped by a colonial officer. Despite this tragedy, Wambui continued to be involved in post-independence politics. She met SM Otieno in the early 1960s, but was hesitant to marry him. Presley (2011: 219) records that “she refused because she was Kikuyu and he was a Luo, and there was historic tension between the two ethnic groups.” Despite her misgivings, Wambui married S.M Otieno and continued to be involved in politics and activism. Speaking to this, Wambui states that:

I had been worried that marriage might curtail my freedom to participate in politics. To the contrary, I continued to take an active part in political and social activities. SM gave his full approval for me to continue being a politician (Otieno, 1998: 103).

14From the late 1960s, she was a member of Maendeleo ya Wanawake. In the early independence era in 1969 Wambui Otieno vied for the Langata Member of Parliament seat (Otieno, 1998). However, during this time period ethnic politics had emerged and began to intensify. Wambui faced what Maloiy (2016: 122) describes as a “no tribe land”; when women face challenges because they marry someone from a different tribe or clan. Wambui was thus encouraged to leave her husband or at least separate from him for the period of the elections because:

I could be a successful candidate only if I abandoned my Luo husband. When this information was conveyed to me, I felt very dejected. All that I had done was now being measured by my marriage to SM. I had to make a decision, and quickly. I sent the messengers back with the answer that since Parliament was not going to be my husband after the five-year term was over, I had no intention at all of divorcing my husband (Otieno, 1998: 104).

15Wambui’s situation echoes that of many women seeking elective positions. Women are often stigmatised because of their marriage choices. As described by a Kenyan female politician in Maloiy’s study (2016: 122) who was speaking to the emergence of female political leaders:

It’s not that area alone, the whole of the African context, when you get married as a woman, you cease to be from that tribe -- you are taken to the other tribe. When the other tribe sees you coming up with the leadership, they throw you back to your tribe, so it’s a challenge for a woman to really set her pace and say: ‘I can stand for this’ yes.

16This tension – when a woman’s private situation becomes a matter of public discourse – makes evident the challenges that African women face when attempting to engage in politics while continuing to make and have “unpopular” private choices and responsibilities (Mikell, 1997). Wambui narrates how her bid for election was ill-fated (Otieno, 1998) since the ballot boxes had pictures of candidates, and it was, thus, easy to identify which were her ballot boxes and destroy them. In this regard, Wambui found evidence of half-burned ballot papers behind the Kibera district officer’s premises (Otieno, 1998). This experience did not discourage her, and she went on to vie twice and to engage in various political activities. Wambui (1998: 106) states that:

Despite these defeats, I never abandoned politics and I continued serving our people in whatever capacity I could. I was never bitter about what had happened to me [since] it was part of the history of electoral politics in our country.

17In fact, Wambui Otieno was very active in the struggle for multi-party politics, also known as the Second Liberation. Within this context, she was a founding member of the political party Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), along with other opposition leaders such as Jaramogi Odinga, Paul Muite and James Orengo (Otieno, 1998). While campaigning for the opposition during the lead up to the 1992 election, she was beaten severely and hospitalised, but she persevered. The opposition did not win the presidential election, but its actions opened the door to multiparty politics after many years of a one-party regime.

18Wambui’s life story demonstrates the inclusive nature of the liberation struggle in the 1950s and 1960s; women were very much part of the liberation struggle and resistance movements in Kenya during this period. Certainly, in Wambui’s book we can see that various ethnic groups were involved in the resistance against colonisation. Only after independence did ethnic politics intensify, and it has since become entrenched in the nation’s psyche. Yet gender relations altered during the colonial era, and some colonial policies marginalised women and prevented them from participating fully in the post-colonial context (Tamale, 2000; Parpart, 1986). Colonial power was arguably handed over from white males to African males (Ogot, 2012), perpetuating a patriarchal leadership model that has been difficult to eradicate. This handover also explains the current ethnic political landscape, as the colonial administration often ethnicised their local governance. The British colonial administration stereotyped various Kenyan ethnic groups and “the stereotypes of the colonizer became important for the images of the ethnic groups were to have for the other” (Mutiso, 1975: 47). While it is beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss the emergence of ethnic politics, it is important to note that it has become a clear element of the Kenyan political landscape. Overall, Wambui Otieno’s life story demonstrates women’s significant yet unsung role in the liberation movements, and highlights the gendered and ethnic political leadership topography of the Kenyan context.

Philomena Chelagat Mutai: Young, Resilient and Controversial

19Alongside Grace Onyango, Philomena Chelagat Mutai was one of the first female elected Members of Parliament in Kenya (Rotich & Byron, 2016). Much of Mutai’s life story is set against the backdrop of the nascent post-colonial era as she came into prominence a decade after Kenya had attained independence. During this time, across the continent, independence leaders had been assassinated while other countries endured coups. It was against this background that Mutai was elected to parliament at the age of 24 in 1974, as a protégé of Jean-Marie Seroney. The Weekly Review (1975a: 4) notes that:

Not only did Seroney defeat Cheruyiot with a huge majority, but he also managed to bring on his election victory coat-tails such an unlikely candidate as Miss Chelagat Mutai into parliament because she was considered to be a Seroney “girl.”

20This statement highlights the patriarchal nature of Kenyan politics: in the assumption that Mutai relied on Seroney’s assistance to attain her position. The perception that Mutai was ‘Seroney’s girl, ’ underscores the belief that politics is a male domain and men dictate how women and which women enter this sphere (Kareithi. 2014). It also reinforces Ifedili’s (2009) argument that when a woman attains a political position she can often be marginalised.

21Seroney may have mentored Mutai but she was involved in politics from her time at the University of Nairobi where she was an editor of a student publication called The University Platform (The Weekly Review, 1976). During this time Mutai was vocal about issues facing students, including the actions by a heavy-handed police chief called Oswald (Kweyu, 2013). The Weekly Review (1976: 3) suggests that she had “uneasy relations with the Kenya government” since her student days. Further, Mutai and other students were removed from the university aduring an investigation of itc closure. She returned to the university after a long absence (The Weekly Review, 1976), and would prove problematic for two post-independence regimes.

22Not only did Chelagat have political experience from her university days, she was also popular and influential in her hometown of Eldoret. Before the 1974 election, Mutai conducted a grassroots campaign; as a student with very little funding walking from door to door, and village to village, asking for votes. Unexpectedly, she emerged the winner beating her closest rival by over 6,000 votes (The Weekly Review, 1976).

23Mutai was young but was very vocal in parliament. She debated the deaths of prominent politicians and what this meant for the security of their colleagues. She was also vocal when two MPs, Martin Shikuku and Jean Seroney, were detained. Mutai was elected to two parliamentary committees, including the anti-corruption committee (The Weekly Review, 1976).

24Despite displaying so much promise, Mutai’s time in parliament was short-lived as she was jailed in 1976 for two and a half years after being accused of inciting supporters in Uasin Gishu (Lynch, 2011). She regained her seat in 1979, but in 1980 ran afoul of the government again and faced jail time after she was accused of filing inaccurate mileage claims (Lynch, 2011). Witnesses stated that the accusations were unfounded and seemed to be a “witch-hunt against a popular and outspoken MP” (Lynch, 2008: 34). Eventually, Mutai fled the country seeking exile in neighbouring Tanzania until 1984 (Lynch, 2011). As a consequence, her promising political career stalled.

25Nevertheless, her short political career demonstrates courage, tenacity and resilience in the face of opposition. Mutai was a political trail blazer for women from the Kalenjin ethnic group (Kiprop & Chang’ach, 2016). Since her time, women such as Tabitha Seii, Linah Jebii Chelimo, Joyce Laboso, Alice Chelaite, and Gladys Sholeii won seats in parliament. Mutai’s story is one of inspiring women from a highly patriarchal culture to access political positions.

Grace Akinyi Ogot: Nurse, Wife, Writer and Politician

26Mrs Grace Akinyi Ogot, author, businesswoman and politician, is another Kenyan woman whose life story needs to be told. Ogot came from a strict Christian background and her parents were such strong propagators of girls’ education that her father even did chores such as fetching water, habitually the work of young women, so that Grace and her sisters could complete their schoolwork (Ogot, 2012). With such strong support from home, Grace Ogot went on to become one of the first African women to travel abroad for further studies in Britain.

27According to her biography, Grace Ogot “earned a series of ‘firsts’ in the course of her life” (Ogot, 2012). The first part of her autobiography reflects the colonial context and the place of African women within that context. African women’s education was largely confined to nursing and teaching (Kanogo, 2005). These jobs were perceived as an extension of the caring role that women perform.

28During this time young African men and women gained colonial educations and some were travelling abroad to pursue further studies. Ogot was one of them, travelling first to Uganda, then to the United Kingdom for her higher education. On her return to Kenya, Ogot worked in various hospitals. She also began writing professionally, establishing herself as a renowned author.

29Grace Ogot’s foray into politics began when she was nominated to parliament by President Daniel Arap Moi in 1983, after the MP of Gem was murdered in 1985 and the seat fell vacant. According to the Weekly Review (1985: 20), Grace Ogot was a key contender for the vacant seat:

The indications so far, however, are that Ogot, who hails from the area, may be interested in the seat. Ogot, has been in fact, been highly visible in the area of late, especially during Owiti’s funeral, when she was the mistress of ceremonies. Informed sources say that Owiti’s supporters, including the MPs from the district, consider Ogot the most appropriate replacement for Owiti in Gem, even as the parliamentary representative, and this they say is a suggestion that Ogot is finding quite agreeable. There is a snag, however in that Ogot is already a nominated MP and it is as yet not clear whether she will consider resigning her nominated positive so as to seek an electoral mandate in the forthcoming by election.

30Ogot narrates in her biography how women of the Gem area sent a delegation requesting her to run for the Member of Parliament position (Ogot, 2012), and she agreed. Women composed and sang songs in support of Grace’s campaign (Ogot, 2012: 251), and an example of some of their lyrics are:

Do you know Gem has changed, Gem has changed, and wants to elect a woman, Do you know Gem has changed, Gem has changed and wants to elect a woman.

31The women then began to run a grassroots campaign. Grace Ogot (2012: 249) states that

They (the women) agreed to conduct a home-to-home campaign, on foot on a twenty-four (hour) basis, working in shifts. And even more significantly, they never asked for monetary handouts, although this was to change later during the multi-party era in the early 1990s. I provided them with a large room in my house in Kisumu which they used as their resting place, and where they cooked their food. On election day, many of them were my agents who jealously guarded my votes. I will always remain grateful to Gem women.

32The support from the women of Gem demonstrates women’s solidarity and support was a significant factor in Ogot’s rise to Member of Parliament for this constituency. Despite the common misconception that women fail to support other women asthe reason for the lack of women in politics, Ogot’s life story shows that women can be a core part of a woman candidate’s electoral strategy.

33Ogot’s election bid almost came to an end before it truly began, since she found out the night before the nomination that she was supposed to tender her resignation as a nominated Member of Parliament to the Speaker before going ahead with the by-elections (Ogot, 2012). It is not clear whether Grace knew that she had to do this. This lack of information, or, sometimes, the provision of inaccurate information, is part of what Sara Longwe describes as dirty tricks to hinder women from vying for political leadership roles (Longwe, 2000: 26). Eventually, Ogot tendered her resignation to the speaker late at night, and she travelled back to Gem to take part in the by-election the next morning. She was successful and became one of two women elected to Parliament in 1985 thus beginning her political career.

34Ogot inherited a constituency facing several crises: three previous Members of Parliament had met untimely deaths. Robbery and violence were also rife in the area (Ogot, 2012). Despite inheriting such a crisis filled constituency, she initiated many development projects: such as a Gem constituency bursary fund and women’s development projects through the Gem Mabati women’s group. Owing to her dedication and track record of development, she was re-elected as Gem Member of Parliament. It is only in 1992, during the onset of multi-party politics, that Ogot exited the political stage, and she managed to leave the constituency in better shape than when she was elected. She shares:

Finally in just over eight years, the kind of disillusioned constituency I inherited had been turned into a constituency of confident hard-working, and dedicated peoples (Ogot, 2012: 288).

35Ogot’s political career started in the context of a largely, male-centric post-independence era with the transfer of power was from white colonial leaders to African male leaders (Ogot, 2012). Male leadership continued for most of the 1960s through to the late 1990s. Early leaders like Mzee Jomo Kenyatta believed that women were incapable of leadership (Thongo, 2017) and this gendered perception of women persisted in the political landscape and marginalised women until the late 1990s (Aubrey, 2001).

Wangari Maathai: Female Presidential Candidate and Nobel Peace Prize Winner

36Professor Wangari Maathai is known as the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Though she is celebrated mostly for her work as an environmentalist and activist, she also engaged in elective politics.

37Maathai was born in the 1940s in Nyeri. Here, in this fertile region of Kenya, she developed an appreciation of nature where her mother instructed her about how to utilise and co-exist with the plant and animal life in the area (Maathai, 2007). This gave the Maathai motivation to conserve the environment for future generations. Similar to Wambui Otieno, Maathai came from a legacy of leadership. On this, she provides:

My clan, Anjiru, is associated with leadership. The daughters made the clans matrilineal but many privileges, such as inheritance and ownership of land, livestock, and perennial crops were gradually transferred to men (Maathai, 2007: 5).

38This family legacy of political leadership has been found to be enabling for female political leadership (Maloiy, 2016).

39Maathai’s life story occurs primarily against the backdrop of the end of colonialism and the dawn of the independence era, a period that held much promise for many African states. This was a time of liberation from colonial powers and nation building (Adamolekun, 1988). Maathai, like many Africans during this period, studied abroad with the intention of returning back to her home country, first to the United States and later to Germany for her doctorate. In fact, Maathai was the first East African woman to attain a doctorate (Namulundah, 2014). In this regard, Wangari Maathai’s life-story is similar to Ogot’s since they both studied abroad. Furthermore, like Ogot, she represented a series of firsts: the first East African woman to receive a doctorate and master’s degree and the first African woman to receive an associate professorship and become the chair of a university department (Muthuki, 2006).

40When Maathai returned to Kenya she encountered significant gender inequalities perpetuated by patriarchal structures – part of the colonial legacy. She says:

Many of the benefits given to male professional staff at the university were legacies of the colonial era, when young male teachers from Britain were encouraged to work in Kenya and other colonies and were provided with incentives in addition to their salaries (Maathai, 2007: 114-115).

41These benefits tended to benefit only men, supporting Ogot’s (2012) assertion that the transfer of power and privilege during the independence era went from white males to African males. It is this power and privilege that Maathai and her female colleague Professor Mbaya stood against. They fought for equal rights; that is, for female academics to be entitled to the same benefits as their male counterparts. This fight for equality foreshadowed the larger more politicized battles that Wangari Maathai would face.

42Maathai’s entry into politics began rather innocuously in 1979, when she sought to be the chairperson of the National Council for Women of Kenya. This move met with resistance due to ethnic politics. She tried again in 1980, however, she states:

This time it wasn’t my ethnicity that generated opposition, but it appeared that elements in the government took an interest in the election, especially through one organization, Maendeleo ya Wanawake. I realized I was involved in a political game, even though I believed I was not in politics (Maathai, 2007: 156).

43Lisa Aubrey (2001) catalogues the use of women’s organisation for male political power through claims that the heads of these organisations are often linked to male politicians through family ties or marriage. Aubrey (2001) adds that the control of women’s organisations by men is often a means of maintaining power, and over time it works against women’s empowerment.

44In 1982 Maathai contemplated running for political office, but as a university employee she had to resign before she could run (Maathai, 2007). The day she was to present her electoral papers, Maathai faced eviction from the university house she occupied after divorcing her husband. This speaks to Tamale’s (2004: 53) assertion that to maintain power, various tools such as laws and regulation are used: to “safeguard the public sphere as a domain of male hegemony; it will resist any attempts by women who try to make the transition to the public sphere.” Maathai herself argues the same in her autobiography:

Imagine my disgust when, after I had submitted my official letter of resignation to the university, the authorities cooked up a technical reason why I couldn’t run. The committee charged with overseeing the election told me I was not registered to vote […]. According to the committee, however, I should have reregistered in the previous national election, in 1979. And because I hadn’t, I wasn’t eligible to run. It soon became obvious that politics was at play again. The ruling party didn’t want me in Parliament and had figured out a way to stop me from getting there (Maathai, 2007: 161).

45This preservation of male power through the use of spurious rules and regulations recurs when Maathai tries to return to her position at the university after being locked out of the election process. She was informed that her job had been given to someone else the day after her resignation had been tendered (Maathai, 2006). This was a crucible moment for Maathai, as she subsequently formed the Green Belt Movement for which she would eventually receive a Nobel Peace Prize. Crucible events are key events that change the trajectory of women’s lives, and propel them towards a path of leadership (Maloiy, 2016). Maathai’s work with the Green Belt Movement would move her into the political sphere and later onto the global stage (Namulundah, 2014).

46Through the Green Belt Movement, Maathai openly challenged the KANU regime in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including stopping the sale ofKarura Forest to private developers. She also helped preserve Uhuru park and fought against the lengthy detention of political prisoners. For these stances she was subjected to constant scrutiny, harassment and even imprisonment. Yet she persisted in her quest for political freedom and conservation of the environment. Nixon (2006: 28) suggests that Maathai was a non-conformist since she had too many things against her: she was “unAfrican, unKenyan, unKikuyu, unpatriotic, ungovernable, unmarried, unbecoming of a woman.” As part of this non-conformity, in 1997 Maathai vied for the position of President of Kenya. Her motivation for running was the connection between corruption, environmental degradation and poverty, and she believed that her candidature would be able to put an end to this. Speaking to this nexus she writes that:

Large areas of forest were still being logged legally and illegally, at a fast rate, or sold off to government cronies for development. These practices compounded the lack of water, fuel, wood, healthy soil, and nutritious food in rural areas that so many Kenyans still experienced (Maathai, 2007: 255).

47Maathai garnered support from well-wishers and they assisted her with the financing of her campaign. However, like many women entering into the political arena, finances were still an issue, including the fact that the Kenyan media did not look upon her candidature favourably (Maathai, 2007). Maathai in the end faced the dirty tricks aimed at preventing women from attaining political leadership. The night before the election rumours circulated that Maathai had dropped out of the presidential race, resulting in very few votes from a few supporters who had either not heard the rumour or refused to believe it (Maathai, 2007)

48Professor Maathai’s life history is representative of the struggle of Kenyan and African women to be recognised by the state. Muthuki (2006: 85) states that:

Maathai is therefore a symbol of the challenges faced by African women in convincing their governments of the need to give them equal space, especially in decision-making.

49In 2002, Professor Wangari Maathai finally made it to parliament as the Member of Parliament for Tetu, and was also made an Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Environment in 2003.

The Nexus between Politics, Activism, Women in the Public Realm and Women’s Rights

50The women’s life her-stories in this chapter demonstrate the interconnection, between activism, public struggles, women’s rights and politics, and underscore that the personal really is the political. When documenting their her-stories, there is a tendency to concentrate on the private arena of women’s lives. For instance, in the case of Wangari Maathai, she has not been covered in popular press and academic literature, primarily on her environmentalism and the Nobel Peace Prize but for her very public divorce (Anderson, 2014). Similarly, with regards to Wambui Otieno, and specifically in popular culture, the court case to bury SM Otieno in their Ngong home and her later marriage to a much younger man are what dominante writings about this personality. Yet, these women contributed significantly to politics in Kenya and advanced many women’s forays into political leadership roles, both indirectly and directly. Little has been written about Chelagat Mutai, despite her achievements as one of the country’s youngest ever Member of Parliament and as one of only three women in parliament in the 1970s. In contrast, male politicians who were equally vocal, such as Martin Shikuku, are remembered and written about. This emphasises the marginalisation of women in the wider Kenyan historical context.

51There are more similarities between the women profiled in this chapter: strong associations between the experiences of Otieno, Maathai and Mutai since they did not fit in to the archetype of the ‘typical’African woman. Both Mutai and Maathai run afoul of the state and remained out of favour for a significant part of their lives. They were both very radical in their approach, yet were steadfast in carrying out tasks which they saw as benefiting Kenyans. Both were also unmarried, even while marriage is often discussed as the pinnacle of success for women in the African context. To this end, Tamale (2004: 54) argues that:

In Africa, it does not matter whether a woman is a successful politician, possesses three Ph.D.s and runs the most successful business in town; if she has never married and/or is childless, she is perceived to be lacking in a fundamental way.

  • 1 This value for marriage is a perception among many Kenyan communities, it is however not necessaril (...)

52Therefore their unmarried state, and the lack of children in the case of Mutai frames these women as not underachievers relative to the African ideal, despite Maathai earning a Nobel Peace Prize, and Mutai becoming a Member of Parliament at the age of 24.1 These experiences illustrate the contradictions and tensions that Kenyan and African women face: tensions that are often played out in the public sphere.

53Otieno had an unconventional lifestyle. She married a man from a different ethnic group than herself, perhaps in a bid to demonstrate to Kenyans inter-ethnic harmony. Later in life she married a younger man. Ogot is an outlier as she was a conventional African woman married with children. Yet, she is also unconventional in her own way, since she was one of the first Kenyan women to travel abroad for further studies, was a prolific writer, and was one of the first women to be an elected Member of Parliament. The life her-stories of all of these women show that an African woman has different facets, and they depict the tensions African women face as they negotiate between various opposing factors including personal ambitions and private responsibilities, tradition and modernity, and, lastly, being conventional and unconventional.

54Finally, all four women show evidence of authentic leadership, a type of leadership that develops over a leader’s life-time and is often influenced by key events and mentors (Maloiy, 2016). Authentic leaders are principled and tend to use their own principles and values to inform their leadership (Shamir & Eilam, 2005). All four women had key events that changed the trajectory of their lives and propelled them into political leadership positions, and their principles and personal conviction can be seen in their lives. Due to their personal convictions, they wanted to make life better for their constituents and for the wider Kenyan society. For instance, Maathai wanted to ensure that Kenyans enjoyed a clean and green environment. Authentic leadership such as the one demonstrated by the four women featured here offers hope for Kenya and other African countries. It is a leadership style that can alter the trajectory of a country through the leader’s conviction and focus on the needs of constituents (Maloiy, 2016).


55Through the life her-stories of four women profiled -- Wambui Otieno, Philomena Chelagat Mutai, Grace Ogot and Wangari Maathai-- this chapter deepens our understanding of Kenyan women’s experiences of elective politics. These four women’s experiences of the political barriers due to various factors including patriarchal structures, ethnic politics, and a male dominated political landscape show connections between their activism, public persona and political endeavours. These life herstories demonstrate key moments and developments in Kenya’s history. Their lives demonstrate the complexity of many African women’s lives as they seek political positions. As such, these life herstories make a much needed contribution to the underserved body of literature on women in leadership in Africa.

(Bailey & Bundeh, 1993)
(Njau & Mulaki, 1984)
(Likimani, 1991)
(wa Kinyatti, 2008)
(Wipper, 1985)
(Sheldon, 2005)
(Tibbetts, 1994)



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1 This value for marriage is a perception among many Kenyan communities, it is however not necessarily the author’s view.

Table des illustrations

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Légende Sources(Bailey & Bundeh, 1993)(Njau & Mulaki, 1984)(Likimani, 1991)(wa Kinyatti, 2008)(Wipper, 1985)(Sheldon, 2005)(Tibbetts, 1994)
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Is a lecturer at the African Women’s Studies Centre, University of Nairobi. Her research interests focus on projects with a community approach to gender and development, and, in particular, the participation of women in politics.

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