It was American academic, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who famously said “well-behaved women seldom make history”.
She should know. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian, specialising in early American history. She is also a Harvard professor.
Ulrich later explained that what she had meant was that historians tended to ignore women who were considered “well-behaved”, and that she did not in any way imply that women should be rabble-rousers or rebels if they were to be in history books.
Many women in South Africa are expected to “know their place” — to be well-behaved in Ulrich’s language — and act as if they are unfeeling, unthinking and unreflective entities, rather than as intelligent and decisive human beings with the capacity to know what they want for themselves and their communities, and how to get it.
As we celebrate Women’s Month in South Africa, I reflect on that significant ninth day in August which we commemorate almost 70 years later. I consider the notions of “a woman’s place” that those courageous activists broke at a time where the confines of “good behaviour” were even more stringent than they are today.
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The march to the Union Buildings by the 20,000-strong group of women was a political act against the oppressive regime of the day; it was a move to protect the economic participation of their communities; and it was a public proclamation of the position those women held as leaders in society.
I consider it an indictment that the commemoration of such a significant moment in history has been diluted to what a visitor from another country would consider to be a “Mother’s Day” instead of a day to acknowledge the contribution of women to society, the economy and institutions at large.
Recognition, not platitudes needed
At a time when we face multiple crises and socioeconomic challenges at the hands of a failing government, what should be central to this Women’s Month is a recognition of how, in many instances, it is women who are against all odds keeping the lights on, quite literally, in many parts of society.
What should be at the centre of the Women’s Month narrative is what women do in a country where they fear for their safety, and that of their children. Seventy years after the march, South African women still have to fight for material equity in the economy, for bona fide power in public leadership, and for recognition as the leaders that they already are in society.
Women’s Day and Month commemorations do not always reflect the original — and contemporary — importance in the annual August calendar.
Many women all over the country on 9 August dress up, have high teas, get pampered with gifts, spa treatments, and receive many encouraging words about their femininity.
Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with this. What is problematic is when we — consciously or not — reduce the importance of Women’s Day at a time when this country needs the fearless leadership of the Charlotte Maxekes, Helen Josephs and Lilian Ngoyis of today.
If women are to make history, they cannot do so by accepting the stereotypical gender role imposed by history and circumstances. In Ulrich’s language, women cannot continue to be polite, and hope to make history.
They must turn the tables.
They must be willing to have uncomfortable conversations in their families, workplaces, faith organisations, political parties and anywhere that they find themselves in the role of women leaders.
We must ask ourselves how this year’s Women’s Month and Day celebrations have advanced the women’s agenda and the rescue mission for this country.
Indeed, we must ask if the term “celebration” is even appropriate, given the ever-rising levels of gender-based violence and femicide cases in our country; the poor quality of education dealt to our children; the unemployed status of more than half of the youth in our country; and the face of poverty in South Africa, which remains that of a black woman.
Silence fuels patriarchy
Should we continue to term 9 August a “celebration” when this is the status of our country, despite the existence of formidable women who are either not given the platform to lead, are unable to endure the inequitable path to recognised leadership, or bow out on account of the toxicity of the sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle, marginalisation of powerful women?
While I appreciate the pampering, chocolates and the flowers, what I really want as a woman, and for other women, is economic equity, recognised leadership positions, and political power for Women’s Month.
It must be pointed out that I fully respect the right of individual women to opt for pampering on Women’s Day. Women work hard and are often self-sacrificing for the sake of their children, and partners, and do deserve to stop, take a breather, and bask in the spoiling. It would be an act of buying in to paternalism to dictate to women how they must feel and think about Women’s Day.
That said, as women, we must continue to challenge ourselves and one another with regard to how the women’s agenda is being taken forward. We must be willing to have the uncomfortable conversations among ourselves before we take them to the spaces we share with men.
Silence enables oppression
What we cannot afford to do, is to say nothing, or skirt around our language because it may be impolite, or not in keeping with what it means to be “a lady”, to raise topics related to the advancement or in some cases, the reversal of the women leadership agenda.
If we accept as true that the face of poverty in South Africa is that of a black woman, then all our energies must be focused on improving the lot of this group. In practical terms, it means economically advancing women and giving them the political power to change the things that we are no longer willing to accept.
It means women going out of their way to take political power, and to build equity, to have a place in the committee rooms where the political and economic futures of their country are being discussed.
We know enough from many anecdotal stories and court records, that for some women, the bouquet of flowers they brought home from a Women’s Day event was a trigger for their already violently jealous partner to harm or even kill her.
If we accept as true that the face of the gender-based violence victim is a woman, we need to fight for women to be in positions where they will enforce their political will to ensure that gender-based violence is treated at all times like the serious crime it is.
In a country where, as was the case in 1956, women still bear the brunt of spatial injustice, economic deprivation, and social instability, we need to remember the unifying force of the women of 1956 who dared to rise above their circumstances and lead. DM