The Role of Women in the Shaping of Eastern Cape History

Role of Women

Virtual Tour

The Role of Women in the Shaping of Eastern Cape History exhibition, focusses on the likes of Saartjie Baartman, Dora Nginza and Molly Blackburn – names synonymous with changing times in the Province.

Homage is paid to women of all races and ages who played a critical role in shaping the Eastern Cape by sharing their stories from the late 1700s to modern times.

Factual and anecdotal information, poetry and photographs are contained on 18 ceiling-high panels. Filling the first panel is the story of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, the orphaned Khoi woman who was lured to England and France on account of her unusual buttocks and genitalia, to be exhibited in freak shows.

Subsequent panels feature the province’s early missionary women like Janet Soga, a Scot who was married to the first black Xhosa minister, Tiyo Soga. They had eight children, of which the province’s first medical missionary, the first Xhosa historian and the country’s first veterinary surgeon were among them.

Victorian-era settlers Harriet Ward, the province’s first journalist, and botanist Mary Elizabeth Barber, who used to exchange ideas with Charles Darwin, are contrasted with the hardier “trekker” women, like Susanna Smit, who said she would rather die than put up with British authority.

The start of urbanisation and industrialisation comes next and with it, the filling of factories by women, and the rise of that urban ill, prostitution, which was most popular among visiting soldiers to Port Elizabeth’s Fort Frederick.

With the factories came the earliest trade unions, where strong women emerged like Katie Gelvan (after whom Gelvan Township, later Gelvandale, was named) and Yetta Barenblatt in East London, a skilled union negotiator.

The “Lovedale women” - those involved in the famed Lovedale College, attended by Nelson Mandela - are also documented.  Dora Nginza, who would become an iconic nursing sister in New Brighton, was an early Lovedale graduate.

The exhibition goes on to tell the story of rural women and provides insight into the changing dynamics of rural communities, when the discovery of gold and diamonds saw farming men moving to cities to work in mines.

In another panel, viewers get a glimpse of the prophetess Nontetha Nkwenkwe, who in the 1920s preached a synthesis of Christian and Xhosa spirituality but was regarded as a subversive by the government.

Apartheid is the theme of the last few panels, from black farmers evicted from white-owned farms to the devastation of forced removals. These panels pay tribute to the many women who fought apartheid playing key roles, along with the fearless trade unionists and white women like the Black Sash’s Molly Blackburn and Janet Cherry, now an associate professor at the University.