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With Election Day around the corner (8 May 2019 will be the sixth democratic elections in South Africa) it is important that we are once again reminded of and celebrate our right to vote.

Throughout history most societies believed women to be inferior to men. Women were also thought to be less intelligent. Since ancient times the lives of most women centered around their children and homemaking. In most countries women had no or a very limited political voice.

In South Africa the situation wasn’t any different. However after the Anglo Boer War (1899-1902), South African women slowly started to demand more from society. This was in part thanks to the influence of Emily Hobhouse who was not only a humanitarian (her work during the War among women and children in the concentration camps are legendary) but a champion of equality and women’s rights.  Contemporaries and close friends of Emily in South Africa included Olive Schreiner (author) and Petronella van Heerden (the first Afrikaans speaking woman to become a doctor in 1915). Both these ladies played an important role in the enfranchisement of white women in South Africa.

In Olive’s first and most famous novel The Story of an African Farm (1883) she voiced her ideas on women’s equality and emancipation through one of the main characters Lyndall.  These were very progressive thoughts for the conservative Victorian era she lived in.  In 1907 Schreiner was one of the founding members of the Women’s Enfranchisement League in the Cape but later she distanced herself from the league because it excluded black women.

During the 1920s and 1930s Sophie Leviseur, a prominent Bloemfontein resident, became a powerful voice for the enfranchisement of white women. She was a founding member of the Women’s Enfranchisement League and later became vice president of the League. It was mainly due to her struggle and inspiration that white women, thirty years and over, got the right to vote in 1930 (their first opportunity to vote was in 1933). This was no easy victory since men tried their best to prevent it from happening. Members of the senate were told that it was a scientific fact that a woman’s brain was less developed than that of a man’s and C.J. Langenhovencondemned the movement as being part of a worldwide movement against authority and discipline. Langenhoven felt that women were responsible for “the duties of the heart”  namely to “watch over the cradles of our young, nurse our aged and sick, brighten our homes with cheer and lighten our burdens with sympathy, comfort us in distress and encourage us in adversity, adorn our lives with the sweet influences of affection.”

This enfranchisement however did not apply to black women and the black people of South Africa (male and female) only got the right to vote in 1994 during the first democratic elections. Black women as their white counterparts were part of a patriarchal society. When the African National Congress (ANC) was formed in 1912 women were not allowed to join. Only in 1943 were black women allowed full membership. Black women however did not sit idly by. As early as 1910 they started to protest against the then pass laws which required all non-white people to carry a pass document. The first of these demonstrations were held in Bloemfontein in 1913. The direct result of this anti-pass law campaign was the formation of the Native and Coloured Women’s Association in 1912 and soon after the Bantu Women’s league (BWL) under the leadership of Charlotte Maxeke. By the 1940s the ANC acknowledged the powerful roll women could play in the struggle for freedom. This led to the formation of the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) in 1943. It was however made clear that the national struggle for freedom and not women’s rights were to be the focus.

The spread of suffrage in the rest of the world:

New-Zealand   1893    Ceylon             1932

Australia          1902    (Sri Lanka)

Finland                        1906    Philippines       1937

Norway                        1913  Jamaica                        1944

Denmark          1915    France              1945

Soviet Union    1917    Italy                 1945

Britain              1918*  Japan               1945

Germany          1918    China               1949

Poland             1918    India                1949

Netherlands     1919    Mexico                        1952

Canada                        1920    Egypt               1956

U.S.A.              1920    Kenya              1964

Ireland             1922    Switzerland      1971

Brazil               1934    Jordan              1982

Women in Norway gained partial suffrage in 1907.
*British women aged 30 and over were granted the vote in 1918. In 1928 this was extended to women aged 21 and over.

As late as 2012 Saudi women were granted the right to vote for the first time. They were allowed to take part in the municipal elections of 2015 (elections does not happen often as Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy).   This was a huge victory for women’s rights in Saudi but a system of male guardianship makes it difficult for women to vote. Patriarchal societies are still a huge barrier and found specifically in countries that follow Sharia law. In Zanzibar 50 women were divorced during the 2015 elections for disobeying their husband’s orders not to vote.

The textile collection of the National Museum houses a number of valuable items that belonged to Emily Hobhouse and Sophie Leviseur. In the document collection a handwritten letter by Olive Schreiner in 1898 to a Mrs. Ross is preserved.


Botes, M. 2019. Rachel Thoka – A forgotten heroine and leader. Culna 73. pp. 12-13.

Brits, E. 2016. Emily Hobhouse. GeliefdeVerraaier. NB Publishers. Cape Town.

Here are the countries where it’s still really difficult for women to vote.

History of Women’s struggle in South Africa.South African History Online. africa.

Langenhoven, G.J. 1909. The Female Franchise and the Native Franchise.The State Vol. II. pp. 58-65.

Lund, R. 2008. Olive Schreiner a woman of conscience, compassion and courage. ToGoTo Vol. 23 June/July 20018. pp. 40-42.

Schreiner, O. 1975.The Story of an African Farm.AD Donker Publishers. Johannesburg.

The South African Woman’s Who’s Who. 1938. Johannesburg.

Van Heerden, P. 1963. Kerssnuitsels.Tafelberg Publishers. Cape Town.

Notes:      In this text the word Bantu is only used within its original historical context

Sudre Havenga

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