“Equal power and glory to the Women of South Africa!” Words spoken by former President Mandela in 1996, at a speech commemorating the 9th of August 1956, which has become South African Women’s Day. On this day, 52 years ago, over 20,000 women from all over South Africa united in their cause to protest against the pass laws of the time, by marching onto the Union Buildings in Pretoria, singing “Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo; uzokufa!” [Strike a woman, Strike a rock!] This phrase has become synonymous with the inner strength, resilience and courage of South African women, in the face of severe circumstances. Not only were these women contending with racism, they also had to overcome the challenges of being female in a white man’s land, within a misogynist mindset.
What was it that made these women so angry? Angry enough to come together in what is known as the biggest mass gathering of women ever to be held in South Africa? Throughout history, this anger has spurred millions of women the world over to stand up and fight for equal rights in a patriarchal society. Yesterday’s woman was confined to a life of housekeeping, child-rearing, keeping her man happy and even seeing to the agricultural responsibilities of the homestead. Today’s woman can proudly claim her position on the social, political and economic ladders of success, with or without a male counterpart in her life.
The Cost of Freedom
A peek into the history books will show how a fighting spirit, partnered with fury over a social cause, has moved mountains, triumphed over wars and won the vote for the ‘meeker’ sex. We can go as far back as the 14th century, where Joan of Arc, as a peasant girl, was able to convince whole armies to fight according to the divine guidance she received. Even though the French army won many of their battles under her leadership, it did not end well for her, as she was burned at the stake as a witch in 1431. Another woman, Florence Nightingale, otherwise known as ‘The Lady with the Lamp’, was not only influential in the fields of nursing and mathematics, but also fought for women’s rights, writing a book about the over-feminisation of women in the later half of the 18th century.
The 19th century saw even more women leaving dishcloths, gardening tools and motherhood behind and instead becoming more involved in the running of their countries. From the burning of the first bra in 1968 in the USA – in sheer defiance, to the 1980s in South Africa, where many women suffered police detentions or were forced into exile for their indignation and refusal to stay detached from the torment of the times. One of the first women to fight for freedom from unequal conditions for African women in South Africa was Charlotte Maxeke in 1913, the first president of the Bantu Women’s League, an earlier version of the ANC Women’s League. Around that same time, esteemed writer and feminist Olive Schreiner wrote on the topic of equal rights for women in the country, in her widely acclaimed book, The Story of an African Farm. She also campaigned for the rights of black people in South Africa, befriending Mahatma Ghandi, who shared similar views on unity of the people.
Without these brave forerunners, South African women would still be fighting as fiercely as before. Now, with the South African Constitution of 1996 in place, women can scale the same heights as men – and even surpass them, as equal contenders in all spheres of life.
International Women’s Day
In the prefect scenario, women from every corner of the globe would be free, living in an equal society. Sadly, women in the Middle East, various African countries and other parts of the world, continue to suffer horrendous violations of their basic human rights. International Women’s Day, held annually on 8 March, since 1909, celebrates the rights wrought by women throughout history and also generates awareness around the plight many women continue to face. The day also commemorates the Triangle Fire of 1911, in New York City, where over 140 working women lost their lives. This devastating incident resulted in many changes to the labour legislation and working conditions in the USA and acted as a catalyst for change internationally.
Women of today are more assertive, more demanding and more ambitious than ever before. Today we have women in space, female presidents and prime ministers. We also have university graduates, career moms and female pastors. Celebrate South African National Women’s Day with pride and remember the words in the petition presented to the Prime Minister in Pretoria on 9 August, 1956; “We shall not rest until we have won for our children their fundamental rights of freedom, justice, and security.” Thanks to their persistence, women now control their own choices, as a result of the hard-won triumphs of the past.
Notable Milestones in the History of Women
- 1491 – Queen Isabella of Spain funds Christopher Columbus’ voyage, which leads to the discovery of America.
- 1786 – Astronomer and scientist Caroline Herschel of Germany becomes the first woman to ever discover a comet.
- 1895 – Annie Londonderry of America is the first woman to bicycle around the world in 15 months.
- 1905 – Charlotte Maxeke becomes the first black South African Black woman to receive a Bachelor’s degree.
- 1908 – Cecilia Makiwane becomes the first Black professional nurse in South Africa.
- 1912 – Canadian Mary Dawson develops the concept of minimum wage.
- 1915 – Audrey Munson of America is the first woman to appear nude in a motion picture in Inspiration.
- 1926 – American Gertrude Ederle is the first woman to swim across the English Channel.
- 1930 – White women in South Africa get the vote.
- 1947 – Mary Malahlela-Xakana becomes first female black doctor in South Africa.
- 1955 – Patricia Jobodwana becomes the youngest black woman in South Africa to enrol at a university, at age 14.
- 1956 – 20,000 march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa, to protest against passes for women.
- 1963 – Russian Valentina Tereshkova becomes the first woman to go to space.
- 1975 – Japanese Junko Tabei becomes the first woman to summit Mount Everest.
- 1979 – Margaret Thatcher becomes the first female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
- 1974 – Isabel Perón of Argentina, is the first woman with the title of President.
- 2006 – In celebration of National Women’s day 50 years before, women again march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, where they hand a memorandum of grievances to President Thabo Mbeki.
Author: Charlene Yared-West. Published in Go Gauteng Magazine, August 2008, p. 12.