Man-made women: Gender, class and the ideology of the volksmoeder by Elsabe Brink

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


One of the means by which men in male-dominated societies control women is by giving them a well-defined but circumscribed position with in society, to which some status, honour and respectability are attached. The parameters of this position, within which may be found the notion of 'ideal womanhood', may evade exact definition but yet be widely acknowledged and accepted. Women who, even partially, begin to question society and their role within it, lose the privileges of this position, because, having questioned social norms and structures, they are no longer as controllable; society loses its power over them.

This chapter argues that the role allocated to women in Afrikaner society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was bounded by the notion’. In terms of volksmoeder or 'mother of the nation'.' In he volksmoeder concept, the Afrikaner woman was depicted not only as the cornerstone of the household but also as a central unifying force within Afrikanerdom and, as such, was expected to fufil a political role as well.

This notion of an idealised Afrikaner womanhood, which had its apologetic Dutch-South African historiography of the nineteenth century, is remarkable for its continuity until at least the mid-twentieth century. It came to form an integral part of emergent Afrikaner nationalism, and in addition, the white working class drew on its sub-themes of courage and resistance. It remained constant during a time of great industrial, political and social change in southern Africa, yet has been largely ignored, perhaps because Those -studying the twentieth century find it difficult not to become so 'involved in the obvious and fundamental changes which have occurred in almost all aspects of social life that the continuities are (Roberts, 1984:3).

In many respects the concept overlaps with notions of ideal womanhood found in other societies. Recent research into the social position of women in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain (Davin, 1978), America (Ryan, 1981), France (McMillan, 1981) and. Canada (Lewis, 1985) has identified a similar ideological framework, emphasising characteristics such as kindness, gentleness, care, frugality, discipline and conformity. The popular image of women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Quebec for example contains particularly striking similarities with that of idealised Afrikaner womanhood.

The content of the image of idealised womanhood is usually not defined with any precision by society. Roberts, in her study of British working-class women during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, concluded that oral evidence has shown that 'a large section of society [was] following and upholding a clearly understood, if infrequently discussed, set of mores. These produced women who were disciplined, inhibited, conforming and who placed perceived familial and social needs before those of the individual’ (1984:203, emphasis added). Victorian domestic ideology in Britain, which influenced Afrikaner notions of womanhood, contained clearly perceived yet not always clearly articulated notions of motherhood. In his study of the making of the British working class, E, P. Thompson argues: 'According to conventions which were deeply felt, the woman's status turned upon her success as a housewife in the family economy, in domestic management and forethought, baking and brewing, cleanliness and child-care' (1978:455). However, this notion was based on essentially middle-class mores and values, and was imposed on other strata society. Hence a working-class mother who did not fulfil these criteria, however hard she struggled against the vicissitudes of poverty 'would not appear as a model housewife, or as one properly dedicated to motherhood' (Davin, 1978: 33).

Over time, similar processes can be identified in the development of the image of the volksmoeder in South Africa. However, a distinctive role in the development and articulation of this concept was played in particular by the Anglo-Boer War and the emergence of Afrikaner nationalism during the early decades of the twentieth century. These developments contributed considerably to the 'style' with which the Afrikaner community was 'imagined', to use the terms employ Anderson (1983: 15). After the Anglo-Boer War the concept of volksmoeder added a further dimension to Afrikaner nationalism and propagated in a self-conscious manner by a new generation of Afrikaner nationalists who, in a manner reminiscent of the British occupation with working-class degeneracy, concerned themselves with the ever-increasing number of poor whites and the so-called degeneration of the Afrikaner (Brink, 1986:8). In this concern one can identify 'both a genuine, popular nationalist enthusiasm and a systematic, even Machiavellian, instilling of nationalist ideology through the mass media, the educational system, administrative regulations, and so forth' (Anderson, 1983: 104). For these cultural entrepreneurs the argument presented by Paul Thompson seems to have had validity: The unpaid labour of women within the household is not merely an essential contribution towards the maintenance of the existing structure at any time, but also, through the rearing of children, the foundation of the social economy of the future, and a mainspring of social change' (1981: 303).

In this chapter I describe the development of, as well as the content of and continuities evident in, the concept of the volksmoeder. I begin by analysing the emergence of the image of Boer men and women in the two Boer republics as a response to their negative portrayal in Cape colonial and European historiography at the time. I outline the impact of the Boer War and the experience of Afrikaner women during that war. Then I look at the way in which the concept of volksmoeder was propagated by nascent Afrikaner nationalism during the first decades of the twentieth century, and contrast this with contemporary research findings on the actual position of women during this period. Finally, I indicate how Afrikaner women, both middle and working class, identified with and internalised this idealised vision of Afrikaner womanhood.


British colonization and its positive, beneficial effects dominated nineteenth-century South African historiography written in English. Dutch settlement, as well as the Great Trek and the founding of the Boer republics, was regarded as peripheral to the saga of British settlement and government at the Cape. Works by Noble (1877) and Wilmot and Chase (1869) remained the standard source material on South African history until G. M. Theal began to publish research based more closely on archival material, during the latter part of the century. The writings of Noble and of Wilmot and Chase portrayed Boers settlers outside the Cape Colony as ignorant, illiterate and cruel, as ‘living on the margin of civilisation', their 'moral condition ... scarcely higher than the Hottentots or slaves who were household companions' (quoted by Van Jaarsveld, 1974: 52).

During the last quarter of the century, especially after the mineral discoveries and the Boer victories during the Transvaal War of Independence (1880-1), such criticism began to be countered by an apologist approach to the Boers in both English and Dutch historical writings (the latter emanating from the Netherlands as well as the Boer republics). Historians such as Klok, Van der Loo, and Du Plessis took great pains to paint a positive picture of Boer society, drawing close parallels between the Boers and their exemplary European heritage (Van Jaarsveld, 1974; Du Plessis, 1898).

In the new historiography Boer women received greater attention. They were described as extremely courageous (Van der Loo, 1897' 143) and, owing to their sufferings in the past, were considered by some writers to be 'the greatest patriots'. 'Taking all the sufferings a mothers and daughters during the early days into account, it is indeed no wonder that it is amongst the female sex, especially amongst the older generation, that the greatest patriots are found' (Weilbach and Du Plessis, 1882: 22; translated). These authors painted a detailed picture of the simple and unassuming Boer lifestyle, which was presented as an overt sign of a classless and egalitarian society (ibid-23-4). At the same time, their ordered and structured society was emphasised, by way of countering the negative images mentioned above. Van der Loo, in his work De Geschiedenis der Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek aan het Volk, lavished praise on Boer women. Despite their contact with 'wild barbarians' and their isolation from civilisation, they remained true to their traditions of 'virtue, moral sensibility' political independence and free institutions' (1896:63; translated). An added dimension was their purported racial superiority and purity. Symbol of her racial purity, the white complexion of the Boer woman - despite exposure to the African wilderness - was highlighted by Lion Cachet, who maintained 'a Transvaal woman is, for Africa white' (1898: 422; translated). This feature was likewise stress Klok in his description of Boer women. He also paid attention to their lips, implicitly contrasting them with Negroid features: 'thin lips, a round chin and a white neck.... Seldom does one see ugly, that is, really ugly women' (1901: 26; translated).

On the eve of the Anglo-Boer War, in his defence of the Boer republics, F. W. Reitz added to this image of Boer women by pr ting historical evidence of their bravery and courage, which he gleaned from the recently published work of Theal. Susanna Smit heavily built and well-spoken wife of the Reverend Erasmus Smit the unordained minister of the Voortrekkers, was immortalised I eloquent threat to the British Commissioner in Natal in 1843, that 'they had been deputed to express their fixed determination never to yield to British authority; that they were fully aware that resistance would be of no avail, but they would walk out by the Draakberg [sic] barefooted, to die in freedom, as death was dearer to them than the loss of liberty' (Bird, 1965: 258-59; see also chapter 13). Smit threat became part of the heroic vocabulary of Boer resistance to domination. Thus during the Anglo-Boer War, at a Day of the Covenant celebration. General Smuts used the heroism of the Voortrekker women to inspire male combatants: 'He reminded them how it was Boer vrouw to whose heroism they owed so much. The women I insisted that the men should trek out of Natal, although they could have stayed there in peace and plenty; they preferred to go barefoot over the Drakensberg and endure nameless sufferings among the Kaffirs, rather than submit to the British flag. This must main the inspiration of the men, the refusal of these heroines ever to submit' (Pakenham, 1979: 481).


The reputation which Afrikaner women had gained by the end of the nineteenth century was broadened considerably during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). One of the most controversial and best-documented aspects of the war was the suffering of Afrikaner women and children in the field and in the British concentration camps Warwick and Spies, 1980: 161). Their heroism, patriotism and defiance of the British enemy became bywords and were added to the already existent image of Boer women. However, Boer women did not owe their celebrated status primarily-to male politicians, apologists or cultural entrepreneurs, whether British or Boer. The prominence given to their sufferings during the war was largely the result of the work of a woman, Emily Hobhouse. She was an English philanthropist and pacifist, whose concern on learning of the sufferings of Boer women at the hands of the British military led to her active involvement in a campaign to improve conditions in the concentration camps.2 Her revelations prompted an investigation of these conditions by the British War Office. When Hobhouse herself tried to return to the Cape in 1901 she was promptly deported. However, after the war she returned and continued assisting destitute Boer families. (Pakenham rather deprecatingly depicts her lumpy, middle-aged English spinster' (1979: 501). A more comprehensive and sympathetic picture of her emerges in Rykie van Reenen's 1984 collection of her letters.) During her travels through war-torn southern Africa, both during and after the war, Hobhouse collected oral evidence of the war experiences of many of the Boer women she encountered. These she collated into an account of the war, published in 1902 under the title The Brunt of the War and Where It Fell.3 The aim of the book, completed just prior to the signing of the peace treaty in May 1902, was to inform the largely ignorant British public of the treatment of civilians during the war. Making use of the testimony of the people involved, it traced the ravages of the conflict on their lives. The personal evidence of the Boer women herded into the concentration camps is interspersed with an expose of the consequences of the British scorched-earth policy, which was based on Hobhouse's own observations during her visits to the concentration camps, as well as on those of other interested parties.

Hobhouse maintained that the book did not achieve its aim, for it was suppressed by the authorities in every way possible and barely found its way into bookshops in Britain and at the Cape (Van Reenen, 1984:173,180). Nevertheless, the book seems to have had a considerable influence on those who did read it - mainly patriotic Afrikaners. For example, Hobhouse once mentioned the positive reception of the book by an Afrikaner family, obviously members of the Orange Free State elite, who were all 'young, unmarried and full of vigour' (ibid-340, 201).

In 1924 she published another compilation. War Without Glamour: or Women's War Experiences Written by Themselves, 1899-1902.This appeared in response to the recent termination of the First World War, and in it Hobhouse stressed the universal plight of non-combatants during war. She also praised the specific qualities portrayed by Boer women during the Anglo-Boer War: 'The women maintained extraordinary composure and seldom lost mental control under this ordeal; a striking feature was their profound consciousness of the want of common-sense in those who initiated this movement against them’ (1924:ii). Public focus on the sufferings of the Boer women found expression in 1913 in the erection at Bloemfontein of the Vrouemonument (Women's Memorial), dedicated to the more than 26 000 women and children who had during the war. The project was initial 1906 by the ex-president of the Orange Free State, M. T. Steyn and enthusiastically supported by the Afrikaans poet Totius (J. D. du one of the main propagators of the Second Language (which sought recognition of Afrikaans as an official language in the place of Dutch). Emily Hobhouse, a close associate of Steyn and his wife, was instrumental in helping to finalise the design at the monument and was asked to present an opening address was read. Because of ill health she could not attend, but her address was read at the opening and subsequently published. In it she outlined a significant anomaly: 'I think for the first time, a woman is chosen to make the commemorative speech over the National Dead- not soldiers - but women - who gave their lives for their country’ (Van Reenen, 1984:402; her emphasis). To which could be added a further comment that it was an English woman commemorating the Afrikaner national dead.

This anomaly was carried still further by Hobhouse's eventual interment at the monument, ironically alongside mostly male such as President M. T. Steyn, General C. de Wet and Dominee J.D. Kestell - 'the ideal of Afrikaner statesman, warrior and churchman respectively' (Moodie, 1975: 19). The only other woman interred at the monument is Rachel Steyn, the wife of the president, who was honoured in this way because of this conjugal relation; she is universally hailed as a true volksmoeder in Afrikaner iconography - the hooggeagte en geeerde Volksmoeder' (highly esteemed and honoured volksmoeder), in the words of one biographer (Brink, 1986:187). Yet despite the prominence of Hobhouse's gravesite, she did not fit comfortably into the general conceptual framework of Afrikaner nationalists, who were to stress the racial purity and exclusivity of Afrikanerdom in relation to the English. 'No mention is made [of her] in any reported civil-religion speech during the 1930s and 1940s. Even speakers at the Vrouemonument itself chose to ignore her' (Moodie, 1915:407). Nevertheless, she did contribute considerably to the articulation and further development of the concept of volksmoeder. In the published version of her speech at the opening of the Vrouemonument she declared: 'Proudly I unveil the Monument to the brave South African Women, who, sharing the danger that beset their land and dying for it, affirmed for all times and for all peoples the power of Woman to sacrifice life and more than life for the common weal' (Van Reenen, 1984:407).

The sufferings of Boer women and Emily Hobhouse's documentation of their travail considerably broadened the range of characteristics ascribed to the volksmoeder and tended in effect to substantiate the claims made by nineteenth-century apologists for the Boers. In the of Afrikaner nationalist ideologues Hobhouse's material, she had placed in the context of a broad and non-sectarian of womanhood, was taken from its general framework and applied parochially to the role of women in Afrikaner society.


After 1902, Afrikaner women and their suffering during the war remained in the forefront of popular consciousness, serving an important political function in the development and deployment of Afrikaner nationalism. The glorification of Afrikaner women symbolized by the Vrouemonument served an overt political purpose. According to Hexham, the opening of the monument on 16 December 1913 gave the nationalist cause a symbolic victory over the advocates of conciliation' (1980: 397). This victory was consolidated by the steady literary production of the poet Totius and his brother-in-law, Willlem Postma, a Free State journalist and advocate of Afrikaner nationalism. Together these two men developed 'their cultural nationalism-and a sense of identity based upon Afrikaner traditions and the Calvinists religion' (Hexham, 1980:401).

In the projects of these men there is a clear convergence between the development of the ideal of the volksmoeder and the rise of Afrikaner nationalism. In 1918 Postma (then retired because of ill-health) was requested by two Afrikaner organizations, the Nasionale Helpmekaar4 and the Kultuurvereniging of Reddersburg, to write a book entitled Die Boervrouw, Moeder van Haar Volk (The Boer Woman, the Mother of her Nation). The timing of this publication was important. It followed on the unveiling of the Vrouemonument, the Rebellion of 1914 and the termination of the First World War. The war was a significant event in the history of Afrikaner nationalism, for it was during this time that secondary industry, in particular labour intensive industries utilising mainly cheap female labour, began to flourish in South Africa. At the same time, a population explosion in the Afrikaner community, coinciding with the impoverishment of the rural areas, resulted in a massive influx of young, mostly unskilled Afrikaner men and women to this labour market in the urban areas (Brink, 1986). The presence of these unsupervised and unattached young men and women in the cities gave rise to grave concern for their moral safety in state, church and welfare organisations (ibid.; see also chapter 12). In this social context, the characteristics of the Boervrouw as enumerated by Postma gained particular relevance for reformers, cultural entrepreneurs and concerned Afrikaners in general. His book was both an articulation of the already established image of the volksmoeder and a glorification of Afrikaner women, aimed at the instruction of Afrikaner youth and young girls in particular. In his writing the volksmoeder ideal was propagated as a role model for a new generation of women. This involved the emulation of characteristics such as a sense of religion, bravery, a love of freedom, the spirit of sacrifice, self-reliance, housewifeliness (huismoederlikheid), nurturance of talents, integrity, virtue and the setting of an exam others. Of particular significance is that Postma extended the prevailing notion of ideal womanhood to include their nurturing of the volk as well. For the first time the Boer woman's role as mother and central focus of her family was expanded to include the concept of Boer women as mothers of the nation: The motherhood of the Boer woman extends itself to her volk just as it does to her child' (Postma, 1918 164; translated). To substantiate his argument he cited the demonstration of Afrikaner women at the Union Buildings in 1915, when a delegation marched to Pretoria to protest against the capture imprisonment of General Christiaan de Wet as a rebel. The idea o demonstration had originated with women suitably connected prominent men and thus well qualified to be regarded as mothers of the nation' – Mrs. Joubert, wife of the famous Boer general, and Elsie Eloff, the daughter of the late President Kruger. Yet the way in which Postman saw the demonstration taking form portrays a revealing disregard for the women’s initiative: ‘In true womanly fashion the call was complied with, without delay, not taking account of expense or trouble. Love called, love obeyed' (ibid.: 164; translated). The limitations of Postma's perception of the women's action are evident in these words: women did not argue, they did not stop to consider the consequences and they did not calculate the cost or the trouble of their actions. They were motivated irrationally, solely by love. But having disregarded any political significance in the women's action, Postma weeded to link the moral strength of the Afrikaner people to that its women: 'A people are what its women are. The woman is the conscience of her nation as well as the measure of its values. The moral life of a nation is controlled by the women, and by the women can we measure the moral condition of the people' (ibid.: 179; translated).

While Postma's book represented an ideological glorification of Afrikaner women, a 1921 publication by the educationist and historian Eric Stockenstrom, Die Vrou in die Geskiedenis van die Hollands-Afrikanse Volk, aimed to provide the historical context for this viewpoint. Stockenstrom set out to write a condensed history of the book played by Dutch women in South Africa from 1568 to 1918. His book was possibly more widely read and utilised by the Afrikaner elite and cultural entrepreneurs than by the general populace. In it many of the characteristics already outlined by Postma emerge: Afrikaner women had a purifying and ennobling influence on their menfolk; they would sacrifice much for their families and were loyal housewives and tender nurses, earnest in prayer, sage in advice, with sat love of freedom and steadfastly anti-British (ibid.: 38, 233). Stockenstrom maintained adamantly that Voortrekker women were ire of their calling as volksmoeders: 'The women profoundly realised that they were the mothers of the future Afrikaner nation, and were fully conscious of the fact that their children and grand-children could never develop into a virtuous and glorious nation unless they were absolutely independent and free' (ibid.: 232).

What is striking about this early period is the near-total absence of female voices, except that of Emily Hobhouse - an English woman – in the construction of the ideal Afrikaner womanhood. In 1921, in contrast to Stockenstroom’s rather stereotyped portrayal of women, Marie du Toit, sister of the poet Totius, published a book, Vrou en feminist - Of lets oor die Vroue-Vraagstuk, which was an attack on generally accepted notions of womanhood - she was an Afrikaans counterpart to Olive Schreiner, it would seem. However, Du Toit's is virtually unknown, even today. It was not widely read at the aid has received little or no mention in subsequent literature on woman in South Africa. This is hardly surprising, for unlike Postma's and Stockenstroom's work, it questioned the ideological parameters of their idealised notion of Afrikaner womanhood: 'continually we hear only of lesser, of lower value, inferior, weak, weak, [women] yes, but we still have to carry most without complaining! We are reminded of duties, responsibilities, even recrimination comes ... and that is aunties the aunties call our position of honour. A beast-of-burden position of honour indeed!' (Du Toit, 1921:138-9).

In the following two decades the position of white women did receive attention in three important studies conducted by women. These, however, were more concerned with the actual than the idealised lives of women. Du Toit's critical appraisal of women’s roles was overshadowed by a growing concern with the so-called poor white problem in South Africa: the social, economic and moral impoverishment or 'degeneration' of whites, mostly Afrikaners. This concern, which generated considerable academic and public interest culminated in the investigation of the Carnegie Commission from1930 to 1932. As the only female member of the Carnegie Commission, M. E. Rothmann (MER), a celebrated Afrikaans author, conducted sociological study of the problems of mothers and daughters in the poor white family. In contrast to the writings of Postma and Stockenstrom, Rothmann painted a very realistic picture of the plight impoverished white women in the rural areas, towns and cities.

In the initial conceptualisation of the tasks of the commission question of women did not feature as a separate category, but of Rothmann's input 'her studies were considered so valuable that Commission decided to publish her report as a separate whole (Carnegie Commission, vol. 5, 1932: 2). It is not difficult to see Rothmann's report merited separate inclusion. Albeit from a middle perspective, she approached her subjects with respect and sympathy, as is evident from her description of a widow, impoverished by drought and lack of education: 'She is careworn and slot speech, so that it is difficult to keep one's attention fixed on her, it is worth the trouble, for she thinks' (ibid: 163). Rothmann did fall into the trap of maintaining that these women 'do not...feel the coarseness and roughness as we [middle-class women) do (Ibid: 182). Instead, she quoted the pregnant wife of a shepherd: when I off-load the wagon and I know I must soon load it again with my things, and with such a burden to carry, then I think, why should I go on' (ibid.: 182). She did, however, accept the prevailing notion that women's primary responsibility was to fulfil a nurturing role centred on the family. Like her male counterparts, Rothmann showed great concern for the moral and social development of young girls," the rural and urban areas, and maintained that for them, 'the potential mothers of our nation, there is no normal social or home (ibid.: 198). Nevertheless, she also found that in the urban areas very few young girls remained unemployed; instead the young 'snatches at the chance of employment' (ibid.: 208).

In another contemporary study, Hansi Pollak investigated extensively the working conditions of white women in Witswatersrand industry during the Depression years from 1930 to 1932. In her thesis, completed in 1932, she found that some 90 per cent of the women employed in the manufacturing sector were located in the food and drink, tobacco, chemical, leather and clothing industries (Pollak, 1932:572). Of these, the clothing industry was the major employer of white women. Pollak discussed matters such as working conditions in the factories, the place of birth, age and financial contribution to family income of these women, and was struck by both the extreme youth of many of them, as well as the financial burden they carried on behalf of their families. Like Rothmann, Pollak felt an empathy with the women she investigated, as emerges clearly in her notes describing their home circumstances. One respondent wrote to her: 'Often when get home from work I feel as if I'm too tired even to lift anything. I KNOW you won't think anything of me for writing all this, but the way you spoke to us this afternoon made me think I wouldn't be ashamed to tell you anything' (ibid., addendum: 56).

During the 1930s Erika Theron (supervised by Dr. H. F. Verwoerd, then professor of sociology at Stellenbosch University) conducted a similar investigation into the lives of 'coloured' and white women factory workers in Cape Town. She visited some 500-factory workers and analysed these women's level of education, their home and working life, as well as the recreational opportunities available to them. This third major academic study on the vicissitudes of women's working completes a picture, drawn from reality, which bears resemblance to the idealised and glorified portrayal of Afrikaner women by Postma and Stockenstrom. However, the impact of these pioneering works on popular consciousness appears to have been limited. In the absence of publication and sales records, their impact can best be assessed by the subsequent use made of them. Rothmann's study, incorporated into the Carnegie Commission Report, has been widely available ever since publication and, it would seem, was used as documentary evidence to promote efforts to establish craft schools for young indigent girls. Pollak's research had a very limited impact, for her thesis were never published and only two articles by her appeared in academic journals at the time (Pollak: 1931,1933). (During the past decade, however, her work has regarded with renewed interest by academics researching labour history during the inter-war years.) Theron's study, published in Afrikaans, had an equally limited impact and was not generally known or used. By contrast, the works of Postma and Stockenstrom were to exert a considerable and pervasive, though indirect, influence on the way the notion of an idealised Afrikaner womanhood was assimilated within Afrikaans popular culture. This is clearly evident when one considers how a refrain of ideas and notions formulated and expounded by them was echoed in the popular press and other publications, especially during the 1930s and culminating in the celebrations surrounding the Voortrekker Centenary in 1938.

These celebrations, which centred on symbolic ox-wagon trek across the country, culminated in a huge volksfees (people's fest at the unveiling of the cornerstone of the Voortrekker Monument by three female descendants of the Voortrekker leaders. The ox-wagons represented the Voortrekker leaders and well-known Voortrekker women, such as Magrieta Prinsloo and Johanna van der Merwe. One wagon was called, significantly, Vrou en Moeder (Wife and Mothers) and represented women's contribution to the Great Trek. Women featured prominently during the celebrations and in the commemorative books published after the event. The process of glorification commenced by Postma and Stockenstrom was taken up and carried forward at this time, and their work provided the blueprint on which these writings on Afrikaner women were modelled. Thus in a speech at the Voortrekker Monument on 14 December 1938, Judith Pellissier glorified the contribution of Voortrekker women in terms reminiscent of Postma. She felt that it was fitting to praise the honour and memory of the Mother of our nation ’(Mostert 1940:26;translated). She suggested that one should listen to a self mother-love again links her fearless courage, trust in God sorrow and her sufferings in a crying lament to the lament groaning of the frail journeying little wagon’ (ibid., 26;translated) The influence of Stockenstrom's book can also be seen in which appeared during 1938 in popular magazines such as Die Huisgenoot. J. Conradie, wife of the Administrator of the Cape, brought together the characteristics of Afrikaner women and their history in a speech presented to the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuurvereniging and published as 'Die Bydrae tot die Geskiedenis van Ons Volk deur Suid- Afrikaanse Moeders en Dogters' (The Contribution of South African Mothers and Daughters to the History of Our People) Die Huisgenoot, 19.8.1938: 67). A speech by P. du Toit on 'Die Involved van die Afrikaanse Moeder en Dogter op die Volkskarakter' (The Influence of the Afrikaner Mother and Daughter on the Character of the Volk) published in the following issue (ibid., 26.8.1938: 75). The historical role of prominent Afrikaner women was further elaborated article entitled 'Vrouefigure uit die Verhaal van Suid-Afrika (Female Figures from the Story of South Africa), by one Annette Jackson (ibid. 16.12.1938: 85).

On a more critical level, M. E. Rothmann, also actively involved at this time in the Afrikaanse Christelike Vroue Vereniging (ACVV) addressed the problem of the position of Afrikaner women (though she accepted its inherent limitations), by asking what they had achieved during the past century. She argued that feminism, born from increased self-knowledge amongst women, manifested itself amongst Afrikaner women in their involvement in various welfare organisations in the country. She saw these organisations as an 'education' for the Afrikaner woman where she could learn 'to try to do for her volk as a whole what every mother does for her children' (ibid., 2.12.1938:105).


During the inter-war years the figure of the actual and the imagined Afrikaner woman took literary shape. Postma and Stockenstrom drew together the available historical material in an image which glorified Afrikaner women, whilst Rothmann, Pollak and Theron worked on a more scientific level, creating a picture of Afrikaner women far removed from the heroic, rather one-dimensional rendering of their male counterparts. However, the former image was more readily appropriated by various cultural and political agencies, in order to woo their constituencies, whilst the latter was relegated to virtual obscurity. It is difficult to gauge precisely the extent to which Afrikaner women responded to and assimilated the ideals upheld in the volksmoeder literature. Nevertheless, by considering two organisations in the Transvaal, the Suid-Afrikaanse Vroue Federasie (SAVF) and the Garment Workers' Union (GWU), whose constituencies were middle-class and working-class women respectively, it is possible to assess the impact of the concept of volksmoeder on two different but representative groupings of Afrikaner women. The SAVF can be viewed as representative of middle-class women; in all four provinces scores of middle-class women belonged to similar regional welfare organisations for instance the Oranje Vroue Vereniging in the Orange Free State, the Afrikaanse Christelike Vroue Vereniging in the Cape and the Natalse Christelike Vroue Vereniging in Natal, to name but a few. The GWU can also used as an example because it included a considerable number of urban working-class women, concentrated on the Rand. During the inter-war years the clothing industry employed about half of all white women in manufacturing industry, and some 90 per cent of these 'women were Afrikaans-speaking (Pollak, 1932:6). Furthermore, recent research has shown that the majority of Afrikaner women on and during this period were economically active; they were not housewives, but gainfully employed (Brink, 1986:16-17).

The middle-class women of the SAVF, coopted into a more narrowly nationalistic ideological framework, used the term volksmoeder to underpin their work on the welfare front with an ideologically acceptable. At the same time, the GWU incorporated the ideal into a wider working-class perspective, thereby giving newly urbanisedand exploited Afrikaner workingwomen a firmer foothold in to industrialized society taking shape around them.


The SAVF was founded in 1905 by Georgina Solomon, yet another English woman, the widow of the Cape liberal Saul Solomon and friend of Emily Hobhouse. Inspired by Annie Botha, wife of General Louis Botha, who informed her about the destitution in the two to republics, Solomon returned to South Africa in 1904 to help personally with the rehabilitation of the Boers. With Annie Botha she visited the devastated areas and decided to found a women's welfare organization to work towards the upliftment of impoverished white.

The SAVF was an organisation of predominantly middle-Afrikaner women who undertook numerous welfare functions on an entirely voluntary basis. They were actively supported by the state for the obvious reason that they fulfilled very necessary functions for which the state did not have to pay; their work also conformed to women's perceived domestic role. Their involvement offered them outlet for work outside the home, at a time when it was still widely unacceptable for women who were not financially forced to do so, to enter paid employment. As Eisenberg (1987) has indicated, the SAVF inculcated a fierce loyalty amongst its membership, perhaps because it provided its constituents with a sphere of influence and so degree of autonomy and independence in a socially restrictive society. Within this sphere, these women worked hard to provide a diverse number of social services, such as poor relief; hostels for unmarried mothers and young working girls; health-care and aid to poor whites. This organisation, along with similar organisations in the Orange Free State, Natal and Rhodesia, collaborated in the publication of work quarterly entitled Vrou en Moeder. Its slogan very aptly summarised their energy and determination as well as the limitations under which they operated: 'Ons sien haar wen, want haar ... vrou en moeder' (We see her win, because her name is...wife and mother).

The SAVF anchored its activities firmly on the principles of the Bible, the religious orientation of the organisation being clearly outlined in its anthem:
‘ Tis glorious to carry the name of daughters of South Africa
There's work, there's work, my sisters, work for women dev
And free and strong! To serve her nation, honour her God,
O Lord, guide her Yourself, the woman, in service of her nation
In honour of her God, guide her Yourself, the woman,
(Eisenberg, 1987:57; translated)

For the SAVF, of equal importance to the moral and economic regeneration of Afrikanerdom after the devastations of war was its political regeneration. The organisation demanded 'freedom, true equality, self-government for our suffering volk' (ibid.). It found validation for its task of rebuilding the nation in the historical precedents so clearly elaborated by Postma and Stockenstrom. The history of Afrikaner women in South Africa as portrayed by these writers was often harnessed in the writings of the SAVF to inspire their members to greater effort. Their task was given a solid foundation by coupling it to the activities of the earliest female Dutch settlers and all their successors: 'Should we not take our children by the hand and together look for the spoors of our devout ancestors?' (Vrou en Moeder, March 1942:3; translated). As Eisenberg (1987) has indicated, during the inter-war years the organisation had strong links with Afrikaner nationalist organisations, including the Broederbond, the Dutch Reformed Church and its sister churches, as well as with the Smuts and Hertzog governments. During the 1930s the organisation came to espouse many of the ideals of the Purified National Party under Dr D. F. Malan, specially that of racial purity and the dangers of miscegenation: 'the failed poor white on his unhappily low standard of living can so easily become the companion and roommate of the non-white. Here, as well sat the communist meeting, the non-white learns to resist the idea f white guardianship and to regard himself as at least equal to the white [man]' (Vrou en Moeder, September 1943:1; translated). This middle-class perception of the 'degeneration' of the poor white and the imminent danger of fraternisation with non-whites coloured the attitude of the SAVF towards the recipients of its welfare activities. Eisenberg (1987) indicates an ambivalent attitude towards working-class women in the organisation. On the one hand the nobility of the poor was praised, and on the other a hopeless picture was drawn of 'the shy, alienated, sensitive, poverty-stricken, sometimes backward and usually hopeless little woman with neither initiative nor ambition' (Eisenberg, 1987: 61-2, quoting Vrou en Moeder, June 1944:14 translated).

Evidently SAVF members did not share the participatory empathy of researchers such as Rothmann and Pollak. While they strove to fullfil the demands made on them by male cultural entrepreneurs in the home and in the context of the volk, elevating the role of volks-moeder to a position of supreme service, they did not easily acknowledge the existence of volksmoeders beyond their own sphere of influence or work. The title did not extend to working-class women, 'even though the only criterion for membership was to be respectable (Eisenberg, 1987: 54). Indeed, very few working-class women ever bridged the gap between client and patron within the organisation, though in a recent interview Johanna Raath, president of the SAVF from 1947 to 1980, maintained that the 'most rewarding fruit of their work was seeing working-class women rise above their circumstances and aid the SAVF in their noble work' (ibid.).

Life-long work, valiantly and voluntarily executed amongst a constituency both idealised and patronised, was rewarded. After twenty years of service and loyalty, many members were awarded commemorative buttons - volksmoederknopies. These buttons, which were returned to the SAVF at the death of the recipient and placed in a commemorative album, symbolised the life-long commitment of members to the organisation (ibid.: 48). 'Once you become a member of the Federation you remain one. Yes, it's not easy to break away' (ibid.: 52; translated).

Besides being awarded these buttons, several prominent members of the SAVF were formally honoured with the title of volksmoeder. For example, when she died in 1944, A. Frost, who had chaired the SAVF branch in Krugersdorp for thirty years, was hailed as a true volks-moeder. 'Her volk, especially the poor were very close to her heart. Nobody ever left her empty-handed' (Vrou en Moeder, September 1944: 5; translated). Even greater praise was accorded to S. B. Broers, president of the SAVF during the 1940s. On her death she was conveyed to the cemetery in a Voortrekker wagon drawn by nurses employed at the SAVF Moedersbond Hospital in Pretoria. Her coffin was covered with the word volksmoeder written in flowers. The message which accompanied her to the grave was: 'Thus far has the Lord also helped us, by means of Afrikaner volksmoeders such as Mrs. Broers (Vrou en Moeder, November 1947: 6-8; translated).

The ideal characteristics of a good SAVF woman, of a volksmoeder self-sacrifice, patriotism, religious commitment, moral conviction determination, energy, courage, insight, desire to serve one's fell beings, love and profound compassion - drew on strong historical precedents, rooted in the heroic ideology inadvertently around the Boer women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Their reproductive skills were utilised not only in the home but also in the nurturing of the volk. 'If it could ever be said of a nation that its women, alongside their menfolk, had brought about growth and security of the nation, it can certainly be said of Afrikaans woman' (Vrou en Moeder, June 1944: 3; translated).

The Garment Workers' Union

While social and economic obstacles prevented working-class women from becoming members of the SAVF and achieving status of volksmoeder through voluntary community service, their enforced entry into the labour market did not prevent them from also laying claim to the title. This is clearly discernible in the ranks of Afrikaner women who were members of the GWU, one of the most militant unions during the inter-war years (Brink, 1986).

During the mid-1930s several Afrikaner women, including the Cornelius sisters (Hester and Johanna), Anna Scheepers, Katie Viljoen and Dulcie Hartwell, became prominent trade-union officials in the GWU, under the leadership of Solly Sachs, the union's general secretary. These female trade unionists worked at different levels. They extended the aid of the union from the factory floor, where it was successful in improving working conditions, to the home lives of its members. The union responded very positively to a wide range of personal demands and requests put to it by garment workers in need. In addition, on a cultural level, the Garment Worker/Klerewerker, official mouthpiece of the union, was issued as a bilingual publication that incorporated a wide range of literary efforts by trade-union officials, shop stewards and rank-and-file members. Towards the end of the 1930s the union also produced numerous plays, written mostly by Hester and Johanna Cornelius, for its members.

These writings, influenced by the 1938 centenary celebrations, laid claim to the common Afrikaner cultural heritage so enthusiastically espoused by Afrikaner nationalists at the time. However, the garment workers linked the struggles of the Voortrekkers with their own struggles in an industrial environment, developing a consciousness of themselves as women and their plight as working women in an alienating industrial environment. When the garment workers were derided for not being respectable, decent or virtuous, they adamantly claimed the contrary: In the factories there are just as many decent or virtuous and women as in any other place' (Garment Worker/ Klerewerker, October 1938: 9; translated). They were not ashamed to earn their living honestly in the factory: 'Amongst us factory girls there are many decent and noble daughters and we do not stand back for you. 'We are willing to do our work, but we demand to be treated with respect '(ibid., June 1939: 9; translated).

The garment workers were well aware of and mostly supported the prevailing view that a woman's place was at home raising her family. However, they also recognised that women confronted with financial hardship in their families were faced with a dilemma. When a garment worker, Anna Jacobs, was disapprovingly accused by a male opponent of the union of working outside the home, she retorted:
Does it serve any purpose if we women work among the pots and the pans and these are empty? Must we fold hands and wait until food falls the pots automatically?' (ibid., February 1940:4; translated). In same article Jacobs linked the fortitude of the Voortrekker and Susanna Smit's famous threat of 1843 to the struggles of working women: 'We, workers of our state and for all the women in our country, shall take the lead and climb the Drakensberg again.'

Her words were echoed by Anna Scheepers, who claimed in another article that working women had an important contribution to make, not only to progress in general, but to the trade-union movement in particular: In every country in the world and like the Voortrekker woman in this country, women workers contribute their share towards the progress of the trade union movement and of the nation as a whole' (ibid. October-November 1940: 10; translated).

The exploits of the Voortrekker women and of women in the Anglo-Boer War featured in the plays written by and for garment workers. Here this theme was used to rally the audience to greater effort and fortitude and to serve as an inspiration in their home and working lives (Brink, 1984: 41).

The garment workers, representative of at least part of the Afrikaner female working-class community on the Witwatersrand, did indeed see themselves as successors to the heroic tradition of Voortrekker women. As such they were hailed as volksmoeders and workers by Sachs in his open letter to them, written Just prior to his departure from South Africa under a banning order in 1952. 'Hail, Mother of the Nation, Worker.'... The Afrikaner woman has always played a heroic role in the history of the Afrikaner volk. Continue in this tradition' (Garment Worker/Klerewerker, May-June 1952: 3; translated). During the 1930s and early 1940s, therefore, the notion of idealised Afrikaner womanhood became a contested idea. The image of volksmoeder found resonance and wide appeal, not only among middle-class Afrikaner women, but also among their working-class counterparts. The Afrikaner nationalists who aimed to gain the political support of these constituencies had succeeded in creating a role model to guide, instruct and appeal to Afrikaans women in general. However, its appeal was so widespread, particularly in the inter-war years, that a radical trade-unionist grouping within Afrikaner ranks, which from the nationalist point of view needed to be saved and brought back to the volk, also claimed this ideal to rally women to wider cause.


Although the notion of the volksmoeder defies precise definition, nevertheless incorporated a clear role model for Afrikaner women. It was a deliberately constructed ideal, the work of male cultural entrepreneurs who deliberately promoted a set of images surrounding women; these centred mainly on their nurturing and home-making roles. Even though women themselves produced some of the images, they were utilised in an utterly different context, and ultimately the volksmoeder became part and parcel of an Afrikaner nationalist mythology.

The idealised image of Afrikaner women and their role in the shaping of South African society was based on the exploits of Voortrekker women, as these were popularised in the late nineteenth century. The Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 and the sufferings of Boer women in the concentration camps provided further opportunity to flesh out this heroic vocabulary for political ends. It is ironic that it was through the efforts of an English woman, Emily Hobhouse, that the plight of women during the war was recorded and made public. However, whereas Hobhouse meant to demonstrate the universal plight of women, emergent Afrikaner nationalism appropriated her work to its own ends.

What lay behind the propagation of the concept of the volksmoeder? The early twentieth century was a time of intense social change. Against a background of Afrikaner youth flooding onto an ever-expanding industrialising labour market and the emergence of the poor white issue, Postma and Stockenstrom composed a historically based role model for young Afrikaner girls to emulate. In order to contain the impact of these developments, men presented - and women ultimately accepted - the socially sanctioned role embodied in the image of the volksmoeder. At one level, then, the notion represented the ideological incorporation of women into a male-dominated nationalism. In this way a socially, morally, economically and politically subordinate place was clearly defined for Afrikaner women within society. The volksmoeder ideal promoted a dependent position for women, as participants in the lives of their husbands and children rather than active in their own lives. Only within this circumstances role could women achieve social recognition.

Both middle- and working-class women identified with the image of the idealised volksmoeder, but for different reasons. Marie du Toit’s feminist voice was a lone cry in the dark, which did not take hold in either middle-class or working-class Afrikaner circles. The volk-smoeder ideal found resonance among middle-class women because it gave legitimacy to their role in society as wives, mothers and voluntary workers. Equally, it gave them a sense of stability and purpose in a rapidly changing world. So strong was middle-class acceptance of the concept of volksmoeder that it placed working-class women on the defensive. Working-class women adopted the symbols ad terms of the volksmoeder and then proceeded to redefine it for themselves. In so doing they claimed their own legitimacy, as valid members of society,

The reunion movement and especially the Garment Workers' Union of the Transvaal formed a bastion of alternative thought on the position of women in society for a short period before the Second World War. However, changes in the workforce undermined this alternative option. During the 1950s semi-skilled clerical work, which did not allow for a unifying union voice, superseded factory work for white women. This process dissipated any potential resistance to the ideology of the volksmoeder. Working-class women's identity was fragmented, and they succumbed to the powerful prescriptions of the volksmoeder ideology. In the second half of the century the image of the volksmoeder still remains deeply rooted in Afrikaner nationalist ideology.

Women and Gender in Southern Africa to 1945