History of Women’s struggle in South Africa

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Women’s Enfranchisement Association of the Union (WEAU)

The WEAU and votes for white women

Until 1930 there were no women in South Africa who had the right to vote. It was felt that a women's place was in the home and that politics was the domain of men. A small group of suffragists met in Durban in 1911 and formed the Women's Enfranchisement Association of the Union (WEAU) to work for their cause: to gain the vote. Even in its early days the WEAU, while not specifically excluding black women, was an exclusively white movement made up largely of educated English-speaking women. Prominent members included Lady Rose-Innes and Edith Woods. The WEAU tried to gain support by holding meetings and writing newspaper articles; it was a mild, non-confrontational movement and the conservative male politicians of the time at first thought they were a bit of a joke. The men regarded the efforts of the WEAU with bored but stubborn indifference.

By the 1920s, with Afrikaner women workers beginning to enter the labour market it appears that the WEAU was accorded more credibility and gained more support. In 1921 the women delivered a petition with 54 000 signatures to Smuts, the prime minister - who deferred the issue, but undertook to consider it in the future. When JBM Hertzog took over 3 years later, and set up his Pact government in 1924, he used the granting of votes to white women as a political tool. By passing legislation to give the vote to white women in 1930 he doubled the white electorate and simultaneously minimized the importance of the black male franchise in the Cape. Black men in had made up 19, 9 % of the electorate in 1929, but after 1930 (when white women were enfranchised) this percentage dropped to 10, 9% (Walker 1991, 23).

Last updated : 05-Aug-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011