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Womens Suffrage Extended Essay Samples

From the book: Women and Gender in Southern Africa to 1945 edited by Cherryl Walker

Question: Do you favour votes for all women, irrespective of colour
Answer: As a woman, sir, yes”¦ but as a South African born person, I feel that it would be wiser if we gave the vote to the European woman only’ (from The Report of the Select Committee on the Enfranchisement of Women, SC12-1929:51)

Women's suffrage was a minor but persistent issue in white politics between 1892, when a motion calling for a qualified franchise for women was defeated in the Cape House of Assembly, and 1930, the year when a racially exclusive Act of Parliament finally enfranchised all white women over the age of 18.1 For the 4 000 or so members of the national women's suffrage body, the Women's Enfranchisement Association of the Union (WEAU), it was the culmination of many years of uphill work. White women had finally won their political majority and, the suffragists expected, would now take their rightful place as equals with men in political life.

It was a victory predicated on racial domination. It was not simply that black women were excluded from the vote. The enfranchisement of white women formed part of a much larger strategy of attack by General Hertzog and the ruling National Party on already enfranchised black male voters in the Cape Province. In the Cape, in contrast to the unambiguous whites-only policies of the three northern provinces, a formally non-racial but qualified franchise prevailed. Here, the number of black men who met certain statutory educational and property qualifications were entitled to vote alongside their white counterparts, and this privilege had, after much wrangling, been specifically protected in the Union constitution of 1909: a two thirds majority of both Houses of Parliament sitting together was required to amend it. A major political goal of Hertzog's government after it came to power in 1924 was to sweep away these rights and establish the unadulterated white supremacy of the northern provinces throughout the country. Thwarted in his efforts to abolish the Cape franchise outright, in the late 1920s Hertzog turned to women’s suffrage to launch what Henry Burton, a former South African Party cabinet minister, described as a 'flank attack' on the 'fortress of the Cape franchise' (Molteno, 1959: 7). Less than 20 per cent of the Cape electorate in 1929, black voters amounted in 1931, once white women had been enfranchised, to just under 11 per cent of voters in the Cape and less than 5 per cent of the electorate nationally (Walker, 1979:109).

The whites-only WEAU cooperated with the attack. Until the mid-1920s its policy was to secure the vote for women on the same terms as for men - that is, for white women only in the northern province and for those women who would meet the existing franchise qualifications in the Cape. The reach of its non-racialism was thus extremely limited, but even this came under fire. In the 1920s, under pressure to clarify its stance, the WEAU began to backtrack as self-interest and loyalty to the ruling white group became paramount consider. 'We know in our hearts we shall not get all that we ask, but we are very anxious for the half-loaf,' said Lady Rose Innes of the WE 1926. 'The other may come' (SC12-26: 17). Most suffragists resented having their own enfranchisement delayed by the haggling over Cape franchise and ultimately identified themselves with the government's segregationist policies. In the long years of struggle leading up to the 1930 debate, white self-interest in the WEAU had never been seriously challenged by its commitment to women's rights anyway since most members' understanding of 'women' did not extended women of other racial groups. Sex loyalty stopped at the heavily guarded boundaries of white privilege.

In black politics before World War Two women's suffrage was barely an issue at all. Relationships between the sexes were not on the agenda. They were sheltered from critique behind the sustained assault of white power on black living standards and political status and the further bulwark of the ideology of male superiority-female subordination within black society. The widespread assumption that politics was properly a male preserve went unchallenged while black leaders concentrated on more urgent matters. The overriding concern of political organisations such as the African National Congress (ANC), formed in 1912, a year after the WEAU was to defend the limited voting rights African people still enjoyed in the Cape against the rising tide of white segregationism. For most black politicians, campaigning to extend the franchise was beyond the bounds of feasible politics at that time. Campaigning to extended it to women, who were not even recognized as full members ANC, was even more of an irrelevancy compared to the central issue

-not till 1943 were women granted full membership, with voting rights, in the organisation.2 A similar preoccupation with the prevailing politics of racial power characterized the South African Indian Congress and African People's Organisation (APO). This is not to say that black women were politically invisible. The vigorous campaign against municipal pass laws and permits for women, which began in the Orange Free State in 1913 and spread to the Rand, indicated that African women could be roused to public demonstration over certain issues.3 Also in 1913, numbers of Indian women participated in the successful passive resistance campaign against a Supreme Court ruling which had invalidated the legal on the standing of marriages performed according to Hindu or Moslem religious rites (see chapter 6). Protests by African women in Natal in the late 1920s and on the Rand in the 1930s and 1940s, over a government crackdown on the home brewing of beer, were further evidence of black women's readiness to mobilise around issues that affected them and their families directly.

When measured against the political suppression of black people as whole, however, as well as the traumatic dislocation of black social and economic life in the early twentieth century, the question of votes for women shrank into insignificance. For the average woman toiling to survive in the reserves and rural areas or in the burgeoning locations and shantytowns of the urban areas, it was far too abstract and narrow a demand. The handful of middle-class black women who recognised that women were discriminated against as a sex and who consciously challenged the assumption of politics as a male preserve, still identified themselves with the overall programme for black advancement espoused by male-dominated organisations. For them women’s rights could not be separated from black rights; they formed only one strand in a much larger campaign for equality.

The operation of colour consciousness in the suffrage campaign is very clear. More difficult to measure is the operation of class interests. Certainly class was a factor. The WEAU was made up largely of middle-class women who were campaigning for all the privileges of their ass denied them by virtue of their sex. The Cape franchise, the source of much of the controversy in the suffrage campaign and the rallying point for African nationalists, was itself based on class-bound qualifications of property and of education - and the suffragists' ' proposal to apply it to white women in the Cape was, in fact, attacked by white populists. For the most part, however, their class interest were not called into the open. Race and class-consciousness converged, with the language of racial domination assuming ideological primacy. Supremacy, black dispossession - it is impossible to discuss the history of women's suffrage in South Africa without becomingcaught up in the racially charged struggle for control over resources and power. Overtly and covertly, this dictated much of the programme and the conduct of the movement before 1930, as well as attitudes towards the campaign then and since. In as much as the women's suffrage movement has been critically analysed, this is the perspective from which it has most often been viewed - subsequent commentators reflecting the same preoccupation with the ordering of relations between black and white and, to a lesser extent, property and labour, as most of the actors in the suffrage movement itself. Yet the history of the women's suffrage movement also has much to say about the politics of gender in the first decades of the twentieth century. In the suffrage debates spanning the forty-odd years of the movement it is possible to trace significant shifts in the dominant ideology of gender - that espoused by the white ruling class. These in turn related to a reformulation of women's roles in an industrializing age in which greater numbers of women were being drawn into wage labour, educational opportunities for women were expanding and the extended patriarchal family of the rural areas was being challenged by the new and unsettled conditions of South Africa’s fast-growing towns and cities. The progress of the suffrage camp was a particularly visible measure of the adjustment in attitudes towards women that took place in this time. By 1930 motherhood no longer seen as incompatible with political equality, female virtue was no longer coterminous with staying at home all one's life. The tight controls on women's independent standing of pre-industrial white society had loosened considerably.

Yet if the suffrage movement has something to tell us about changes in the organisation of gender in the first part of the twentieth century it also has much to say about continuity in the fundamental assumptions about women's role and nature. The granting of formal political equality to white women did not represent a revolution in male -female relations, not even within the white family. The principle of supreme male authority over the household, though less secure rooted than in the nineteenth century, was not overthrown. The persistence of the underlying principles of gender organisation, in time of economic and social change, is a basic theme of this chapter So too is the lack of commitment to any transcendent sex loyalty o the part of women - their primary identification lying with their own community, class and colour. Even among white women, ethnic loyalty to their own language group took first place, proving a major obstacle to the establishment of an organisation representative of both English and Afrikaner suffragists.

The discussion is organised in three main sections. After a brief look at the organisation of gender in settler society, the chapter outlines history of the suffrage campaign and the underlying developments in the economic and social order. Thereafter it looks at the ideological underpinnings of the campaign, noting the shift in emphasis from a preoccupation with the proper ordering of gender relations to that of are relations to that of race relations on the part of the ruling class.


The Boer tradition

The political culture that developed in the white settler societies of southern African was a thoroughly male one. From the earliest days of Dutch settlement at the Cape, government was seen as unquestionably a male responsibility. Settler society rested on a military foundation and war was the province of men. Throughout the eighteenth century there were fewer white women than men at the Cape, and competition amongst men for control over the fertility and sexuality of these women was fierce. Marriage and submission to the authority of their husbands, the supervision of the household, the bearing of children and the inculcation of the norms and values of their society into the next generation - these were the unquestioned duties of white women. If any justification of male political power were ever required, the Bible abounded with texts that confirmed it as fundamental to the God-ordained nature of the world.

The Boers took their guns, their Bibles and their large families into the polities they established in the interior. Yet although the place of Boer women was centred on the domestic, this did not mean they were unproductive members of society, or that they were excluded from community affairs. Farm and homestead, in which women's labour played an important part, formed the basis of the simple pastoral economy of Boer society. The feminine virtues emphasized on the frontier were not the passivity, modesty and decorativeness favoured in the Victorian drawing-room of metropolitan England. As elaborated in more detail by Brink in chapter 11, women needed to be strong and resourceful and played an important part in holding Boer society together. Spies notes 'a strong Afrikaner tradition of women's involvement in communal life and political affairs, although they were not accorded formal rights' (1980:162).

Thus it is not that surprising that the first recorded claim for political rights for women in South Africa was made by a group of Voortrekker women in Natal in 1843. A deputation of these women scandalized Henry Cloete, British High Commissioner to Natal, by declaring: 'that in consideration of the Battles in which they had been engaged with their husbands, they had obtained a promise that they would be entitled to a voice in all matters concerning the state of this country. That they had claimed this privilege, and although now repelled by the Volksraad, they had been deputed to express their fixed determination never to yield to British authority ”¦quoted in Van Rensburg, 1966: 111). The women's claim for a 'voice can be compared to developments in other nineteenth-century frontier societies where women's political rights were recognised long before they were conceded in the capitals of Europe. The first place where women were enfranchised above the local level was the American state of Wyoming, where women got the vote in 1869. This was followed by the enfranchisement of women at a national level in New Zealand in 1893 and Australia in 1902 (UNESCO, 1964). The exigencies of frontier life could create favourable conditions for the abandoning of gender stereotypes about women's capabilities and exclusively domestic preoccupations.

In South Africa, however, nothing came of the 1843 claim. Despite the historical precedent thus set, the suffrage movement that developed from the late nineteenth century drew its inspiration not from the conditions of frontier life but from the conditions of early South African capitalism and the example of the metropolitan, especially the English, suffragists. Its leaders were not rural or Afrikaner, but characteristically middle-class, urban and English-speaking. An ambiguous motion of the Transvaal Volksraad did go so far as to confer burgherreg (citizenship) on the wives of all burghers of the Republic in 1855, but there is no record of these women ever utilizing the vote. While continuing to wield considerable authority in the community, most Dutch, Afrikaans-speaking women were content to exercise their power indirectly, without questioning the principle of male hegemony until well into the twentieth century. The hold of the Dutch Reformed Church, with its fundamentalist reading of the Bible and rigid adherence to patriarchal ideology, remained a strongly conservative force, strenuously opposed to more liberal attitudes women's public role in the Afrikaner community. So too did nationalist ideology, which, in a way reminiscent of later black nationalist movements, subordinated sectional demands within the community to the overriding struggle of the Afrikaner people against British imperialism.

The British legacy

The British, for their part, brought to southern Africa a sex-gender system that was also based on the putatively innate and unambiguous differences between men and women. The development of industrial capitalism in Britain during the eighteenth century was characterized by a fundamental shift in the social function of the home and family away from its earlier importance as a site of production, to a primarily, of reproduction and consumption. This separation between what became the essentially private domain of the home, which was the proper realm of women, and the public domain of productive work and politics, the realm of men, was basic to the organisation of gender relations in Britain in the nineteenth century. In Britain in the age of Darwin, the theological justification for patriarchy favoured by the Boers played a less prominent role than naturalist ones, however. As described by McClintock (chapter 4), the sexual division of labour was seen as grounded in biologically conditioned differences in aptitude and temperament between men and women - though God did remain useful as the supreme arbiter of the British patriarchal order.

The fact that working-class women formed a significant proportion of the industrial labour force did not challenge the fundamentals of this formulation. 'At the present day, when probably more than half the world's most laborious and ill-paid labour is still performed by women ... it is somewhat difficult to reply with gravity to the assertion "let women be content to be the divine child bearer and ask no more ‘’commented Olive Schreiner ironically in Woman and Labour 1911:81). Gender ideology was, however, riddled with precisely such lass-blinkered doublethink. Female employment did not weaken women's reproductive obligations as wives and mothers, although the growing participation of women in wage labour did necessitate adjustments in its operation. Rather, their new responsibilities as wage-workers were simply added onto the old - doublethink flowing smoothly into the double shift - while in factory and office, gender biologism rationalized the channelling of women into certain sex-stereotyped areas of work, such as in the food and clothing industries or teaching profession, and justified lower wages for female workers.
The industrial revolution did, however, create the conditions in which feminist movement to improve the social, economic, legal no political position of women could take root. The vicious exploitation of workers under early industrial capitalism, the appalling living conditions in working-class slums, which spawned not only physical disease but also social disease such as prostitution and alcoholism, spurred workers and middle-class sympathisers to agitate for reform. The suffrage movements that developed in the industrial world in the second half of the nineteenth century were originally linked closely to the major social and political reform movements of that time, in which middle-class women played an active part -temperance, prison reform, 'rescue work' among prostitutes, and, specially important in the United States, the anti-slavery campaign (Rowbotham, 1973; H. M. Lewis, 1949). In many respects these campaigns were infused with the sexual morality and gender ideology of the Victorian middle class, in which feminine modesty, domesticity and sexual purity were extolled. Yet in engaging in this work women reformers were forced to confront their societies' prejudices and prohibitions against female involvement in public life and thus to challenge in their own lives many of the social conventions that inspired them. Thus women campaigning against slavery in the United States 'found that in so doing they had to defend their right to do so, this leading to demands for their own political and legal emancipation' (T. H. Lewis, 1949:36). The vote became seen not only as a means to a reformist end, but also as a way of enhancing women’s status in society. The first society formed specifically to campaign for votes for women in England was established in 1867. Two years later a National Women's Suffrage Union was founded in the United States.

Gender and race relations in South Africa

In South Africa an organised challenge to women's subordinate status was slower to surface. Early-nineteenth-century ideas about female domesticity and submission to male authority were brought to the region by British settlers and adapted to the particular conditions of South African colonial life. Most women who immigrated to South Africa from Britain in the nineteenth century were not headed for a life of indolence. Like their Boer counterparts, the wives and daughters of the early settlers on the Eastern Cape frontier and in Natal were expected to pull their weight in housework and also farmwork.

She should know how to cook and bake and get up linen; she should be able upon a pinch to clean and place in order the sleeping and dwelling rooms of the house, and she should be well-skilled in the use of the needle. She ought to have energy enough to teach and rule the Kafirs entrusted with indoor occupations. Besides all this, she should have the temperament, and bodily strength which will enable her to find pleasure in these household engagements. The delicately nurtured lady, who can do none of these things, should on no account be transplanted to what must necessarily prove to her a sadly ungenial soil. Thus Robert Mann, Superintendent of Education in Natal between 1858 and 1870 (quoted in Beall, 1982:109-10). Also permeating British women's reproductive responsibilities in the colonies was the task producing healthy babies and raising loyal subjects for the Empire.

Many British women who immigrated to South Africa during the middle and latter part of the nineteenth century came alone, as governesses or domestic servants, from a lower middle-class or working-class background (Cock, 1980). They saw immigration as a route to social advancement, benefiting from the relative shortage of white women to marry out of service and settle quickly into membership of the ruling racial elite. In this process the contours of their gender-defined subordination were altered by the infusion into their SOCIAL relationships of a racially defined hierarchy of status and power, that elevated white women into a position of privilege and authority over blacks, both men and women. Much of the burden of white women's reproductive work was lessened by the presence of a vast underclass of black servants, male and female, to whom more and more of the onerous housework and child-care was directed (see chapter 3). White women's role in running the household became a supervisory one. A similar pattern of white female 'rule' over 'the Kafirs entrusted with indoor occupation' applied in the Boer household. In the private domain of the white household, a distinctive patterning of gender and race relations developed, in which the institution of black domestic service played a critical part. The white home became the arena in which white children were socialised not only into their gender roles, is little men and little women, but also into their roles as members of the ruling group. While relationships between white mistress and black servant were characterised by a certain enforced intimacy, the social gulf between the two was enormous. In the home whites learned that blacks were 'other'. The racial attitudes reproduced daily in domestic setting white women took into the world with them, and into movements such as the suffrage campaign. At the same time, white women's role as wives and mothers took on a new symbolic significance in the context of white supremacy - white women were custodians of 'civilised values', icons to the ideology of racial superiority, to be revered, protected and firmly controlled by their men. White male control over their sexuality took on added dimension of racial hegemony. In her thesis on the political economy of colonial Natal, Beall quotes an extract from the 1913 Report of the Commission Appointed to Enquire into Assaults on Women, which brings out this point clearly: 'Violated chastity, especially where the offender is a male of inferior race, is keenly felt amongst white people as an reparable wrong to the victim and her relatives and an outrage upon the white race...' (1982:133-1).

The origins of the South African suffrage movement

As in Europe, the movement to enfranchise women in South Africa took root and grew in the unsettled conditions surrounding the transition to industrial capitalism. While the ideology of female domesticity was never seriously in question during this time, the profound transformation of the region as a result of the opening up of, first, the diamond and, later, the gold mines compelled certain readjustments in the organisation of gender (and other) relationships in society. This did not happen overnight, but with time the spread of capitalist relations of production into the furthest reaches of the region affect attitudes towards women at all levels of society.

As in Europe, although more slowly and on a smaller scale, the economic role of women began to expand beyond the overwhelmingly domestic, and to require redefinition. Although the mining industry in South Africa developed on the backs of male labour, the rapid development of commerce and secondary industry that followed in its wake drew directly on women as an additional source of labour, with important consequences for their economic standing as well as their perceptions of the world. While this process did not get under way fully until after World War One, already in the late nineteenth century new occupations were opening up for women in the towns, especially for young, unmarried white women with some education, Thus in the Cape Colony between 1891 and 1904 the number of women of all races employed in the professional category increased from 4 925 to 8 886. Of these, 83,1 percent in 1891 and 82,6 percent in 1904 were white (G19 -1905:320-1; these figures have been adjusted to exclude from account the African territories annexed to the Cape after 1891).

Teaching was already a predominantly female profession. In 1891 almost 75 per cent of white teachers in the Cape were women, and as the demand for skilled labour increased, so the regional need for more women to train as teachers grew (ibid.: cxiv). In the period 1891-1904 the number of women working in Textile Fabrics, in Dress, and in Fibrous Materials' in the Cape also increased, from 4 727 (of whom 3 671 were white) to 6 326 (of whom 5 177 were white), while the 1904 Cape census notes a 'striking' increase in the proportion of white females in the category of 'Shorthand Writer, Typist, Reporter'. None in 1891, they accounted for a remarkable 85,23 percent of this category of workers in 1904 (ibid.).

During this time opportunities for higher education for white women began to expand beyond the private tutoring and finishing schools for the daughters of the wealthy. The first university college, to allow women to enrol officially in its classes was the South African College in Cape Town which, in 1886, nearly 60 years after its establishment, opened its chemistry department to women on a trial basis for one year, before throwing open all its courses the following year (E. A. Walker, 1929: 72). Many women graduates were destined for marriage or for 'womanly' professions such as teaching - indeed, it has been argued that in the United States the expansion of tertiary education for women must be seen in relation to the need for more teachers in an expanding economy (Simmons, 1976) - but a tiny number of women now began knocking on the doors of previously men-only professions such as law and medicine. At the same time, the rapid growth of towns from the late nineteenth century introduced unsettling changes in all spheres of social life. Over time the patriarchal family of the rural areas (both black and white) underwent significant modification. The full history of this complex and uneven process has yet to be written, but certain of its components can be identified. Young wage-earners were no longer as economically dependent on their fathers as before; the extended family household of several generations made way for smaller, less uniform units, while the ideological norm of the two-generation nuclear family began to predominate. In the towns a new and more cosmopolitan culture emerged. The European immigrants streaming into the country in search of jobs and riches brought with them new ideas about relationships between rich and poor, men and women, its and children, which fed into the ideological ferment. The influence of European and especially British social movements and on South African intellectual life became stronger.

All this was beginning to apply pressure to the established organisation of relationships between the sexes, not only at work but in the home and family too. As early as 1883 Olive Schreiner's novel The story of an African Farm raised a storm wherever it was read because of its outspoken criticism of women's subordinate status in society. I'm sorry you don't care for the position of women,' stated Lyndall, a central character in the book, on one occasion;'... it is the only thing about which I think or feel much' (1883:197). Although Schreiner later distanced herself from the WEAU, because of the narrow and racist policies it adopted, she was an important source of inspiration for the South African suffrage movement, both through her writings and as a founding member of a Women's Enfranchisement League in the Cape in 1907 (Walker, 1979:19-21).

The immediate impact of these developments on social attitudes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries should, however, not be exaggerated; they were, rather, small pointers to what was to come. While a few radical thinkers dared to question old certitudes, they operated in a climate still very hostile to any suggestion of greater female emancipation. The 1904 Cape census concluded its discussion ON the extent to which 'married women of the European Race are employed in occupations which are likely to interfere with the proper performance of home duties' on a cautiously congratulatory note: very few married or widowed women were thus engaged, it noted, the figures pointing to a 'not unsatisfactory state of affairs' (G19-1905: cxiv). In 1892 an attempt to introduce an amendment to the Franchise and Ballot Act in the Cape, to extend the franchise to suitably qualified men, was roundly defeated in the legislature. J. X. Merriman, archconservative on the issue of women's rights, drew cheers and laughter with a speech which mixed folk sayings and Scripture to condemn the proposal out of hand. Citing a 'good old Dutch proverb', he cautioned that 'women's counsel and brandy are two capital things but you must use them very cautiously', and invoked 'God Almighty [who] had made the sexes separate' (Cape Debates, 1892: 254). Many of the themes of subsequent suffrage debates surfaced at this opening round in the discussion. Merriman also argued that 'in the last resource' men were duty-bound to take up arms to defend the country, and at times of war, women's counsel was brushed aside (ibid.). The Act itself raised the required property and education qualifications for male voters in the Cape and was introduced It prevent the 'swamping' of the voters' roll by black voters with the incorporation of the Transkeian Territories to the Cape. J. M. Orpen, who proposed the women's suffrage amendment, based much of the argument on the need to increase the 'civilised vote' by bringing ii women of property and 'mental development'. The fundamental idea of our franchise was the representation of property, of wealth, he pointed out - so to exclude women on the grounds of their sex was 'to subvert the very principle of representation' (ibid.: 253). In his speech whiteness, civilisation and property blurred into each other. The injustice done to white women by denying them the vote was exacerbated by the subversion of the proper racial hierarchy as a result of the inclusion of black men: 'Imagine a gentleman visiting some lady who was, say, managing a farm ... and telling her that they had made provision for her own coloured servants in the franchise of the Colony, but that she alone - who possessed the whole farm - was excluded' (ibid.: 252).

Orpen also pointed to developments in other parts of the world where women's suffrage was making its way and condemned the 'brutal assertion of the inferiority of women' - if women were the weaker sex, then that was all the more reason why they should seek protective legislation through the vote (ibid. 253).


In South Africa the first organisation formally to espouse women’s suffrage was the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCT), which was founded in 1889 to campaign against the trade in alcoholic beverages. Six years after its establishment it set up a Franchise Department because members had come to the conclusion that until women had the vote and thus exercised some political leverage over male legislators, their temperance campaign would be ignored. As in Britain, the first organised advocates of women's suffrage in South Africa were thus middle-class reformers, imbued with a strong sense of Christian duty and women's higher moral purpose. For them I vote was a means to an end which was not, in the first instance connected to the status of women. The WCTU was to remain important component of the suffrage movement, imparting its particular flavour of Christian reformism and sobriety to the subsequent campaign.

Women's organisations formed specifically around the issue of the suffrage first appeared in the early years of the twentieth century. The first Women's Enfranchisement League (WEL) in the country was established in Durban in 1902, the work primarily of an English couple, the Ancketills, who had emigrated to Natal in 1896 and quickly become active in labour and other progressive organisations in the colony. Following the establishment of the Durban WEL, suffrage societies were founded in all the major and several of the smaller TOWNS - Port Elizabeth (1905), Cape Town (1907), Johannesburg, Pretoria and Bloemfontein (1908), Pietermaritzburg (1910) and Kimberley, Grahamstown, East London and Somerset East in 1911.

In the years after the Anglo-Boer War, however, the status of women in general and women's suffrage in particular remained side issues in white politics, completely overshadowed by the events lading up to the political union of the four British colonies in 1910. In 1907 a motion calling on the Cape House of Assembly to recognise that 'the time has come when the welfare of the people of the Cape of Good Hope will be most effectually conserved by conferring on women the privilege of voting' was soundly defeated by 66 votes to 24. For the most part it was a lighthearted debate. Once again J. X. Merriman drew cheers, laughter and applause in opposing the motion rousing one legislator to protest indignantly at the injustice being done to women in making them the subject of such merriment (Cape Debates, 1907: 95-8).

Women's suffrage was raised, but only very briefly, at the National Convention. While controversy over the franchise raged at the convention, its concern was the status of the black voters of the Cape in the future Union of South Africa, not that of women. In December 1908 Prime Minister Moor of Natal moved that provision be made in the new constitution for the enfranchisement of women of 'European descent' - significantly, the first reference to women's suffrage on a national platform was in racially exclusive terms (Minutes of the National Convention, 1911:133). Subsequently a Cape delegate, Colonel Stanford, moved to protect the Cape franchise by proposing that the words 'of European descent' be deleted (ibid.: 142-3). However, after the Christmas recess all discussion on women's suffrage ceased. Colonel Stanford's amendment had opened up 'new and alarming vistas to some of those present', wrote a contemporary commentator, and 'the advocates of Female Suffrage were brought to see the wisdom of leaving the question to Parliament' (Walton, 1912:306).

The only white political organisations actively to espouse women's suffrage at this stage were a number of small, left-wing labour parties and debating societies on the fringes of the political establishment. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a flurry of trade-union and socialist activity amongst white workers in the urban centres, much of it organised by British immigrants. Women's suffrage was part of the package of ideas for political reform that these activists had brought with them. In 1910 these tiny left-wing organisations came together to form the South African Labour Party, which for many years was the only party in the South African parliament to include women's suffrage as part of its official platform. In the early years the white labour movement's support for women's suffrage confirmed the fears of the establishment that the enfranchisement of women was a dangerous proposal, part of a larger revolutionary onslaught on the existing order of society. Ultimately, however, the significance of this alliance was minor. The larger political sympathies of most suffragists were moderate: they wanted women to be incorporated into, not to overthrow, the status quo. A comparison can be made with developments in other industrial countries, such as Britain, the United States and Germany, where over time the organised suffrage movement tended to diverge from more radical trade-union and socialist organisations and espouse essentially reformist rather than revolutionary politics. Those feminists were socialists took their feminism into socialist organisations, rather than their socialism into narrowly feminist structures such as the suffrage societies.

There were, furthermore, very strict limitations to the radicalism of the South African Labour Party. It was a staunchly segregationist body, dedicated only to the cause of white workers in the struggle against capital. Black workers, in their numbers, the cheapness of their labour and the alienness of their culture, it perceived as a dangerous threat. In this regard it merely confirmed the racial prejudices already embedded in the thinking of most suffragists. The WEAU welcomed its support on the suffrage issue, concurred its racism, but left its socialist ideas alone. The WEAU: establishment and direction The establishment of the Union or South Africa paved the way for the local Enfranchisement Leagues scattered across the country form a national body In 1911 the WEAU held its inaugural conference in Durban. Mindful of the bitter debates within the white community over the Cape franchise, the new organisation adopted a pragmatic non-confrontational approach to the issue of black eligibility for vote, one that accepted the parameters of the compromise already hammered out at the National Convention and would, it was hoped appeal to as broad a section of whites as possible. Its aim was to work on 'non-sectarian, non-partisan lines', its objective to win the vote women on 'the same terms as it is or may be granted to men' (Cross 1913: 306).

Responses to its formation ranged from indifference to hostility. Two public meetings held in conjunction with the conference were poorly attended while the Natal Mercury commented sourly in an editorial: We hope the women suffragists have enjoyed their picnic in Durban, but we do not think the political effect of their visit can be rewarded their endeavours, and we cannot pretend that we have any regrets at their non-success' (20.10.1911). For the next 29 years this organisation led the campaign to enfranchise women. Never a large Movement, it grew in fits and starts to encompass 38 local leagues around the country by 1921. What the total membership of its affiliates was is difficult to say - not only are figures hard to come by, but many local leagues were often dormant or very inactive for long stretches of time. Woman's Outlook, the Association's monthly magazine from 1912 to 1922, estimated national membership at about 4 000 in 1918 September 1918: 7) and there is little reason to believe that this figure would have increased much by 1930. In later years paid-up membership was not an accurate reflection of support for either the WEAU which secured 54 500 signatures for a petition in 1921) or for the principle of women's suffrage, which during the 1920s began to gain w adherents among women who, for ideological reasons, would not identify themselves with the WEAU. Nevertheless, it is clear that the latter's organizational strength was always very limited. Communications between head office and branch organisations were poor, funds very limited and much of the workload fell on a few, hard-working members of the national executive.

Extended essay

Using the Sources section to support your extended essay

Over 50 archive sources on this site will help those of you who are thinking of producing an Extended Essay on the theme of the women's suffrage movement in Scotland.

You'll know already that once you've chosen your issue and your title, you need to use a variety of historical sources to support your arguments. You can use the sources on this site to illustrate and strengthen different points that you want to make in your essay.

Remember to think about the origin and purpose of each source, i.e. who wrote or published it, and why? Is the writer known to be pro- or anti-women's suffrage? Is the writer or photographer aiming to influence public opinion about the women's suffrage campaign?

The archive material in the sources section has been organised into the following topic areas:


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