Mabel Dove-Danquah: A Trailblazing Author, Feminist, Politician, Activist & Journalist
It is common knowledge that the annals of Ghana’s political history clearly demonstrate a tendency to slight the achievements of her great daughters. Yet no society can expect to survive its existence without the contributions of its daughters. As a matter of fact women are simply more than bearers of humanity. Perhaps they constitute the very soul of human existence, and even more so, our politically conscious women can both enrich the political process and add value to society’s quest for development and cohesion. It is against this backdrop that Nkrumah wrote: “The degree of a country’s revolutionary awareness may be measured by the political maturity of women.” In this essay we look at one of the great women of the Gold Coast (Ghana), Mabel Ellen Dove, and some of her major achievements.
MABEL ELLEN DOVE: SOME BASIC FACTS
Mabel was born in 1905 in Accra to a Gold Coast-based Sierra Leonean father, a prominent lawyer called Francis Thomas Dove, and Eva Buckman, an Osu-based Ga businesswoman (Note: Other sources say Mabel was born in 1910). At the age of six her father sent her to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to pursue her education—primary and secondary. She began her primary education in a school one Mrs. Lydia Dove, her paternal aunt, ran. She continued at Annie Walsh Memorial School in Sierra Leone, the oldest all-girls secondary school founded in 1849, when the school closed down.
Upon her graduation from Annie Walsh her father sent her to England for further education. She enrolled in the Anglican Convent (Bury St. Edmunds) and St. Michael’s College. Mabel would later incur the wrath of her father, when she took a four-month secretariat program at Gregg Commercial College without his consent, for which he sent her back to Sierra Leone.
While in Freetown, she played no mean part in establishing a girls’ cricket club. She also read avidly at this time and got involved in a local drama society. Mabel finally returned to the Gold Coast in 1926, aged 21. Eventually she gained employment with Elder Dempster Lines, a United Kingdom company, as a shorthand-typist. In 1934 she joined G.B. Ollivant and later in the 1940s, A.G. Leventis, where she managed the fabrics and goods department.
Mabel’s passion for freelance journalism took wing concurrently with her employment.
MABEL AS A JOURNALIST AND WRITER
A number of newspapers sprang up across West Africa. And owners of these newspapers began showing interest in women’s issues. Thus was created columns in some of those newspapers specifically devoted to the coverage of women’s issues. Again, the purpose of this new development was to serve the emerging educated female clientele of the owners of these newspapers. Mabel’s journalistic and writing finesse came in handy during this momentous pace of print media and of proliferation of nationalist sentiments across West Africa. She wrote and freelanced for some media outfits.
From 1935 to 1940 Mabel wrote for the “African Morning Post” under the pseudonym Dama Dumas. From 1936 to 1937 she wrote for the “Nigerian Daily Times” under the pseudonym Ebun Alakija. From 1950 to 1960 she wrote for the “Accra Evening News” under the pseudonym Akosua Dzatsui. It was during one of these periods that J.B. Danquah became the founding editor of “The Times of West Africa,” formerly “West African Times,” a daily newspaper, around 1930-1931, some three to four years after his return to the Gold Coast upon completing his Abuakwa State-sponsored studies in England. Danquah heard of her writing finesse, of the controversy her writings generated among the local elite intelligentsia and expatriate community, and of her journalistic exploits. He sought her out almost immediately.
He would subsequently employ Mabel to write for his newspaper, from 1931 to 1935, with the paper folding up in 1935. On the other hand, in 1951 she also served as an editor with Nkrumah on the “Evening News.” Dr. Kwame Botwe-Asamoah writes: “What is more, Danquah’s own wife, Mabel Dove Danquah worked with Nkrumah on the ‘Evening News,’ and remained a supporter of Kwame Nkrumah.” Thus, she became the first woman in West Africa to be given an important editorial charge of a newspaper—thanks to Nkrumah. Last of all, she wrote for the Daily Graphic in 1952.
Her corpus of writings primarily centered on women’s rights (gender equality and gender equity), anti-exploitation and anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, political activism, scientific education of women, and suffragism. Among other topics, Margaret Busby’s edited Volume “Daughters of Africa” discusses Mabel’s literary work in addition to those of other females of African descent. In sum, a corpus of her short story writings appears in the following titles:
“The Happenings of the Night (1931),” “The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for Mr. Shaw (1934),” “Anticipation (1947),” “The Torn Veil (1947),” “Payment (1947),” “Invisible Scar (1966),” and “Evidence of Passion (1969)” (Conolly & Benson).
FROM EMPLOYMENT TO ROMANCE TO MARRIAGE TO DIVORCE
Mabel’s peculiar writing pedigree, together with its sharp activist edge and topical wittiness, turned her into a romantic magnet for her prospective husband, our own Don Juan Danquah.
That is, a romantic relationship soon developed between Danquah and Mabel during the period of her employment with Danquah—which culminated in marriage in 1933. Their wedding took place at the Holy Trinity Church, with Father E.J. Martinson officiating it. Guests at the wedding included C.E. Clark, Ofori Atta, Vincentis Kwawukume, Susan B. Ofori Atta, Bonso Bruce, Oliver Dove, and Danquah’s nephew Aaron Ofori Atta—later a Minister for Local Government and a Minister of Justice in the CPP government. Bonso Bruce, Mabel’s uncle, gave her hand in marriage. The wedding ceremony was reported in the September 7, 1933 edition of the “West African Times” as “A Quiet Wedding Ceremony, Dr. Danquah and Miss Dove.” The September 9, 1933 edition of “Gold Coast Independent,” the “Gold Coast Week by Week Section of the same paper, also reported it.
Mabel Ellen Dove became Mabel Dove-Danquah, J.B. Danquah’s first wife. Unfortunately, the marriage broke down as it was not a happy marriage. More to the point, the “celebrity” marriage began suffering a serious blow a mere one year following the wedding. Part of the reason may have been that Danquah traveled to England in 1934, where he remained for two more years and returned to the Gold Coast in 1936.
On the other hand Nnamdi Azikiwe, later Nigeria’s first president, would propose to her when her marriage with Danquah was already in tatters. Still, she rejected the proposal outright because she was still officially married to Danquah. We should add that Danquah, as a student in England, had four children, two boys and two girls, with two separate women—neither of whom he married. Mabel on the other hand was childless when she met and married Danquah!
In the end by the middle of the 1940s the “celebrity” marriage had collapsed in a bitter divorce. Several attempts to resuscitate the “dead” marriage proved futile. Vladimir Danquah, if we may add, was a product of this unhappy marriage. Danquah would go on to marry Elizabeth Ologo as his second wife (other records have her as Elizabeth Vardon. Danquah also had another woman in her life, Comfort Carboo). We have to admit that we are not aware if Mabel married again after her marriage with Danquah dissolved.
MABEL DOVE-DANQUAH, KWAME NKRUMAH AND THE CPP
Takyiwah Manuh writes: “With the return of Nkrumah to the Gold Coast and his breakaway from the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) to form the CPP, women’s involvement in politics on a national scale became possible for the first time…With the birth of the CPP, a ‘Women’s Section’ was formed almost simultaneously, and these women worked tirelessly within it, for the achievement of ‘self-government now.’
“Women such as Mabel Dove-Danquah and Akua Asabea Ayisi worked side by side with Nkrumah on the ‘Evening News’ writing articles, demanding independence and exposing themselves to the risks attendant on political activity in a colonial regime. Women took part in the ‘Positive Action Campaign’ and Leticia Quaye, Akua Asabea Ayisi and others went to prison. Memorable among them was an old lady in her sixties, Arduah Ankrah, who used to call herself ‘Mrs. Nkrumah,’ and who was convicted for the contempt of some of the campaigners. It is said that she was very cheerful and kept up the spirits of her fellow detainees while in prison.
“During this time, women used to attend the rallies of the CPP around the country and, as has been already stated, the women were skillful organizers. They were powerful orators as well, and, inspired by the events unfolding around them, responded wholeheartedly. Nkrumah recounts in his autobiography:
“Much of the success of the CPP has been due to efforts of women members. From the very beginning, women have been the chief field organizers. They have travelled through innumerable towns and villages in the role of propaganda secretaries and have been responsible for the most in bringing about the solidarity and cohesion of the party.”
An excellent summary of the positive role women played in decolonizing the Gold Coast and by extension, Africa. Indeed, women constituted the backbone of the revolutionary nationalism and internationalism which Nkrumah’s pragmatic leadership represented. In one memorable episode, for instance, “Ama Nkrumah,” one ardent female member of the CPP who had adopted Nkrumah’s name (Ama in place of Kwame), delivered a blistering speech while Nkrumah was in prison. After the speech she took out a razor blade and slashed her face with it. She then went on to smear blood over her body, while daring the men in her presence to emulate her example “in order to show that no sacrifice was too great in their united struggle for freedom and independence” (Manuh).
Observers later designated such daring women of the CPP as “‘unknown warriors of the party’ and as ‘playing a glorious part’ in the struggle for independence” (Manuh).” The CPP supported females such as Mabel to the extent that she won a seat in the national legislative body in 1954, becoming “the first African woman elected by popular vote to a national legislative body” (Benson & Conolly). The irony is that she entered the national legislative body around the time Danquah, her ex-husband, was exiting it.
Meanwhile, in the legislature she fought for better services for the mentally challenged, provision of potable water, women’s empowerment, roads and other public services, girls’ education, and inclusion of more women in politics and education. Unfortunately she served only one term. She continued to write in support of the CPP nonetheless.
It is clear from the foregoing that Nkrumah and Mabel saw womanhood and femalehood as a potential backbone of statehood, stateness and national development. Diop’s scientific scholarship unraveled the central role of African womanhood in Africa’s spiritual and material development. The Dahomey Amazons, the Akan Mmomomme, and the Asafo Nkyeremmaa are a case in point (Manuh). Dr. Kwegyir Aggrey, a distinguished Fante educator, scholar, and theologian, and one of Nkrumah’s early important mentors, equated the praxis of educating women with national advancement itself.
For his part, Nkrumah valued womanhood greatly and saw in it a potential source of wisdom, bravery, vision and foresight, strategic kindness, and tactical perseverance. In one sense, he saw womanhood as a potential bearer of the seed of transformational power as far as development went. It is quite within reason then when Manuh wrote: “Nkrumah catapulted women onto the political scene in a way that was new both in Ghana and Africa.”
“In terms of Nkrumah’s leadership style, there were several. They complemented his nonstatutory cultural policies and, more importantly, his political, economic, and social objectives of a transformation of Ghanaian society,” writes Dr. Ama Biney. “The elevation of women in the country via his expansion of the educational provision for girls and the introduction of a women’s column edited by Akua Asabea Ayisi on the front page of the ‘Evening News’ were radical forms of action. Ayisi later became one of the few female judges in the country. Another important female journalist in her own right was the former wife of Dr. J.B. Danquah, Mabel Dove Danquah, who worked on the ‘Evening News.’”
Benson and Conolly write fondly of her, Mabel: “Witty and politically conscious, Dove-Danquah’s stories often explore issues of gender, social status, racism, duplicity and morality in 1930s and 1940s West Africa. Her literary career was curtailed when she went totally blind in 1972.”
Kathleen E. Sheldon notes: “Dove Danquah supported Kwame Nkrumah’s Covention People’s Party by writing articles in the party publication, the ‘Accra Evening News’…Dove Danquah was the first woman elected to the Ghanaian parliament in 1954, before independence, and possibly the first woman elected to an African legislature on the continent.”
Kenneth Little writes of her in the book “African Women in Towns: An Aspect of Africa’s Social Revolution”:
“There was an example of this in 1951 when, on a visit to Freetown, she became involved in agitation over the high cost of living. ‘West Africa’ (1954c, p. 67a) reported the incident as follows: ‘The Gold Coast,’ says Mabel, ‘was then very much in the news and people looked to me to do something. The logic of what followed is not very clear, but Mabel certainly did not let the Gold Coast down. With two other women she went to the market place ringing a large hand-bell and when a crowd gathered exhorted the people to make a mass protest. Later, says Mabel, 20,000 women, with banners flying, marched through the streets of Freetown, and a petition protesting against living costs was presented to the Governor. Today, Mabel admits that she has no idea what caused the inflated prices, or what steps were taken to reduce them—all she knew was that rice, the staple diet, became cheaper.’”
Mabel Dove-Danquah, a forgotten heroine, passed away in 1984.
Scholars have described Mabel as “a trailblazer of her time” in that she chalked “one of the firsts” in her political and journalistic carriers in Ghana and Africa. Falola and Salm, for instance, describe her as “the first female journalist of notoriety in Ghana.” Certainly she was one of the Gold Coast’s, Ghana’s, and Africa’s finest freedom fighters. In addition, her moral, journalistic, and intellectual resistance to male chauvinism was remarkable in several respects. Namely, she fought and overcame opposition to her social-political activism and intellectual independence and shredded the veil of sexism. No doubt Mabel holds an esteemed place in the historical and political unfolding of Ghana and Africa as a serious feminist, writer, political activist, and journalist who advanced the cause of women and paved the way for succeeding generations of women to exercise their social, cultural and political rights.
There is no doubt in our minds that Ghana still needs such formidable women today!
1) Stephanie Newall (ed). “Writing African Women: Gender, Popular Culture and Literature in West Africa” (see Naana J. Opoku-Agyemang’s essay “Recovering Lost Voices: The Short Stories of Mabel Dove-Danquah).
2) Stephanie Newall (ed) & Audrey Gadzekpo (ed). “Selected Writings of a Pioneer West African Feminist.”
3) Stephanie Newall. “Literary Culture in Colonial Ghana: How to Play the Game of Life.” (see the essay “White Cargoes/Black Cargoes on The West Coast of Africa: Mabel Dove’s ‘A Woman in Jade.’”
4) “Ghana Association of Writers, 100 Years International Centenary Evenings with Aggrey.” Ghana Association of Writers (1975). (see K.A.B. Jones-Quartey’s essay “Profiles: First Lady of Pen and Parliament—A Portrait”).
5) A.B. Chinbuah. “Heroes of Our Time—Ms. Mabel Ellen Dove.” Modernghana.
6) Esi Sutherland-Addy (ed) & Aminata Diaw (ed). “Women Writing: West Africa and the Sahel.”
7) Kathleen E. Sheldon. “Historical Dictionary of Women in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
8) Kwame Botwe-Asamoah. “Kwame Nkrumah’s Politico-Cultural Thought and Politics.”
9) Kwame Arhin. “The Life and Work of Kwame Nkrumah.” (see Takyiwah Manuh’s essay “Women and Their Organizations During the Covention Peoples’ Party Period”).
10) Oyeronke Oyewumi (ed). “African Gender Studies: A Reader.” (see Audrey Gadzekpo’s paper “The Hidden History of Gender in Ghanaian Print Culture”).
11) Ama Biney. “The Political and Social Thought of Kwame Nkrumah.”
12) J.D.Y. Peel (ed) & J.F. Ade Ajayi (ed). “People and Empires in African History: Essays in Memory of Michael Crowder.” (see LaRay Denzer’s paper “Gender and Decolonization: A Study of Three Women in West African Public Life,” p. 217-236).
13) Cheryl Johnson-Odim. “For Their Freedoms: The Anti-Imperialist and International Feminist Activity of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti of Nigeria.” “Women’s Studies International Forum 32 (2009), p. 51-59.
14) L.W. Conolly (ed) & Eugene Benson (ed0. “Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures.”
15) Toyin Falola & Steven J. Salm. “Culture and Customs of Ghana.”
16) Cheikh Anta Diop. “African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality.”
17) Cheikh Anta Diop. “Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology”
18) Cheikh Anta Diop. “The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: The Domains of Matriarchy & of Patriarchy in Classical Antiquity."
19) Helen Yitah. “Strong-Headed and Masculine Hearted Women: Female Subjectivity in Mabel Dove-Danquah’s Fiction.”
20) Helen Yitah. “‘The More Storytellers, The Better’: Diversity, Ghanaian Literature and Mabel Dove-Danquah’s Fiction.”
21) Oyekan Owomoyela. “The Columbia Guide to West African Literature in English Since 1945.”
22) Charlortte H. Bruner (ed). “Unwinding Threads: Writing by Women in Africa.”
23) “Gold Coast’s First Assembly Woman.” West African Review. September 1954, p. 829.
End of story!
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Francis Kwarteng and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana.