Cover image for Wives of the leopard : gender, politics, and culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey
Wives of the leopard : gender, politics, and culture in the Kingdom of Dahomey
Bay, Edna G.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, [1998]

Physical Description:
xv, 376 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
JQ3376.A91 B39 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Wives of the Leopard explores power and culture in a pre-colonial West African state whose army of women and practice of human sacrifice earned it notoriety in the racist imagination of late nineteenth-century Europe and America. Tracing two hundred years of the history of Dahomey up to the French colonial conquest in 1894, the book follows change in two central institutions. One was the monarchy, the coalitions of men and women who seized and wielded power in the name of the king. The second was the palace, a household of several thousand wives of the king who supported and managed state functions.

Looking at Dahomey against the backdrop of the Atlantic slave trade and the growth of European imperialism, Edan G. Bay reaches for a distinctly Dahomean perspective as she weaves together evidence drawn from travelers' memoirs and local oral accounts, from the religious practices of vodun, and from ethnographic studies of the twentieth century. Wives of the Leopard thoroughly integrates gender into the political analysis of state systems, effectively creating a social history of power. More broadly, it argues that women as a whole and men of the lower classes were gradually squeezed out of access to power as economic resources contracted with the decline of the slave trade in the nineteenth century. In these and other ways, the book provides an accessible portrait of Dahomey's complex and fascinating culture without exoticizing it.

Author Notes

Edna G. Bay is Associate Professor at the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University and is the editor of several books in African studies.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Bay's work is an incredibly rich study of a fascinating precolonial African kingdom. Dahomey etched itself on the European imagination because of its militaristic character, its corps of women warriors, and its notorious practice of human sacrifice. Bay admirably explains the development and evolution of these institutions in their historical and cultural contexts. The focus is court history, and the theme running through the book is the changing position of elite women in the palace and monarchy from the kingdom's origins in the 18th century, when women exercised considerable power during secession disputes and provided valuable consul to the king, through a decline in their influence in the 19th century. Bay's descriptions of very complex subjects like the tension between lineage obligations and the demands of service to the palace, or the connections of the ancestors, myth, and religion to shifts in royal power, are remarkably lucid. Dahomey's fortunes are also examined in terms of the kingdom's enthusiastic participation in the Atlantic slave trade and the change to "legitimate" commerce in palm oil in the 19th century. The chapter on the French conquest of the kingdom in the 1890s reads like novel. An outstanding book. All levels. C. J. Gray; Florida International University