Updated: May 25
Inspired by Charlotte Maxeke
"The very idea of politically-involved women is premised on a particular kind of publicness”.
Athambile Masola (2019)
n the first blog post in this series I stated that “I have determined to become a student and propagator of women’s history. My journey is just beginning. I lay no claim to knowing of any but the most famous past women. However, I have been challenged to begin at home, by finding out more about Charlotte Maxeke; activist, educator and writer.
People tend to promote and pay those who possess a particular level of public exposure. As a woman seeking to lead, you must somehow become known, gain credibility and attain a certain level of "publicness" (delicious word – thanks Athambile) - even if this is not something you desire or are comfortable with. Gaining this kind of influence is a challenging process, which does not always come naturally to women. Historically the odds were stacked against us. Whether intentionally or not, men had the podiums and they often actively or passively kept or pushed us off them.
Having said that, the reasons that women have not found their way into the spotlight to the same extent as men are complex and multi-dimensional. Some of these reasons vest in men and some of them vest in us:
Lack of clarity, boldness and cohesion of our vision and voice
Beliefs we have held
Choices we have made
Norms that we have individually and collectively accepted, tolerated and even celebrated
Insecurities and fears we have nurtured
Obstacles and limits to which we have yielded
Failures which we have allowed to intimidate us
Problems we have failed to solve
Comfort we have treasured
Opportunities we did not dare to tackle
Pain, discomfort, humiliation or embarrassment we were not willing to endure
Our focus on the resources we lack
Charlotte Maxeke was not born into a situation which would have predisposed her to public accolade. Although her father was the son of a tribal Headman, he worked as a roads foreman and her mother was a teacher. Tradition dictated that she should be restricted to her home and village and as a black South African woman, she was not considered “worthy of citizenship” (Masola, 2019).
Charlotte had one fundamental opportunity, the chance to be educated – an opportunity which she embraced with vigour, excelling in languages, mathematics and music. Even as a primary school learner she made personal sacrifices to tutor her peers, choosing to influence and encourage others, no doubt being considered a leader by her school friends and educators. Charlotte perpetuated her academic successes in high school achieving outstanding results in record time and continuing to develop her extraordinary musical talents. Honing her linguistic and singing skills opened two important doors for her. Firstly, she was able to earn money as a music and language tutor. Secondly her beautiful voice earned her a place in the African Jubilee choir and international "publicness" which included a performance at Queen Victoria’s jubilee.
Exciting as her choir tours to the United Kingdom and United States must have been, two significant incidents of humiliation and pain occurred during these travels. In the UK their host renamed the choir, “The Kaffir Choir” to attract patrons. This was deeply insulting to Charlotte and her compatriots, making them feel like objects to be put on display. A more practical trial happened in the USA when the European tour organiser left the choir stranded in New York without money or return tickets to get home. However, this event created another opportunity for Charlotte, who was offered a scholarship to study at Wilberforce University in Ohio. Accepting this offer resulted in Charlotte marrying Marshall Maxeke and eventually returning home as the first black South African woman to earn a degree. She was regarded as an individual with extraordinary intellect, determination, courage and principle and some of her other notable accomplishments include (African Feminist Forum, 2019):
Becoming one of the first women members of the South African Native National Congress (Later ANC)
Founding the Bantu Women’s League
Authoring a lot of the ANC’s earliest documents
Making electrifying speeches
Writing on political and social issues
Leading a delegation to Louis Botha regarding passes for women
Participating in low wage protests
Forming the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union
Testifying to government regarding African education
Serving as probation and court welfare officer in the Johannesburg Juvenile Magistrate’s Court
Getting Hastings Banda’s passport issued for him to travel to the USA to study
Gaining respect from Africans and Europeans alike
Co-founding the Widow’s Home and the Foreign Missionary Society
Setting up an employment agency for Africans in Johannesburg
Addressing the Women’s Reform Club
Sitting on the Joint Council of Europeans and Bantus
Serving as President of the Women’s Missionary Society
Creating broad networks of women from many backgrounds
Inspiring women to fight for their rights
A small number of people emerge into the public eye overnight, by being at the right place at the right time or having the right connections. But, for most people it takes sustained, intentional focus to create an authentic, inspiring public persona. Which of the following changes do you need to make in order to grow your “publicness”?
Clarify your vision, define your voice and build coalitions
Align your beliefs with the vision you have for your public profile
Make choices which increase your credibility
Question and challenge the norms which limit your boldness and impact
Stop nurturing your fears and insecurities
Rise above obstacles and limits
Do not let your failures intimidate you
Solve big problems
Be willing to suffer
Stop blaming lack of resources
African Feminist Forum, 2019. Charlotte Maxeke: African Feminist Ancestors. Found at http://www.africanfeministforum.com/charlotte-maxeke-south-africa/. Accessed 9 April 2019
Masola, A., 2018. The Politics of the 1920s Black Press: Charlotte Maxeke and Nontsizi Mgqwetho’s Critique of Congress. International Journal of African Renaissance Studies-Multi-, Inter-and Transdisciplinarity, 13(2), pp.59-76.