The Inspirational Women series concludes with Claire Cooke’s reflections on Charlotte Maxeke, a South African religious leader, social worker, and reformer.
Pioneer, activist, mother: Charlotte Manye Maxeke was a prominent Black South African woman who dedicated her life to others. At the turn of the twentieth century, a time when Black women were funnelled into domestic service, she defied the trend and became the first Black South African woman to earn attend university and gain a tertiary education.
Charlotte Maxeke faced increasing racial discrimination as a Black woman in early-twentieth-century South Africa. But she challenged these oppressive circumstances by etching out an identity that combined both modern and traditional ideas of womanhood. Maxeke was a wife committed to her ailing husband, a mother dedicated to ensuring the well-being and education of her son, and a public figure seeking alternative avenues for African women. What is inspiring is her unwavering commitment to improving the lives of African women.
Born on April 7, 1871 near Fort Beaufort in the Eastern Cape, South Africa into the Sotho people, fate – together with a heavy dose of ambition – shaped her extraordinary life. Her aspiring middle-class Christian parents fostered young Charlotte’s ambitions to gain a university education, even when racial discrimination prevented her and other Africans from enrolling. They, too, demonstrated an unyielding committed to self-improvement: her father went to night school to become a road construction foreman and her mother was a Christian schoolteacher. The young Charlotte followed in her mother’s footsteps by becoming a teacher in the bustling diamond mining town of Kimberley, Cape Province (since 1994, the Northern Cape Province). Keen to pursue her education even further, Charlotte began searching for a prospective university overseas.
It would be her extracurricular activities that eventually led to her obtaining a university degree. Through touring as part of an African choir, Charlotte travelled first to England where she performed for Queen Victoria. Returning to South Africa, she then embarked on a tour to the United States in approximately 1893. On this second choir tour, the stars aligned. The choir was abandoned in Cleveland, Ohio after the tour organisers ran out of travel funds. With the help of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Charlotte and some of her fellow choir members fortuitously enrolled at an African American tertiary institution, Wilberforce University. It must have surely been a relief for Charlotte. Finally, she could obtain a degree and wholeheartedly devote herself to her studies.
Wilberforce University would also prove to be influential beyond her studies. It was here, Charlotte was first exposed to the AME, an African American religious affiliation that ran Wilberforce. The African American church conservatively strove for racial equality, a mission towards which its denominations continues today. Charlotte wrote home to South Africa, and her uncle, Rev. Mangena Maake Mokone, an ordained Methodist member, invited the AME to begin missionary work within South Africa in 1896.
Wilberforce University also exposed Charlotte to African American intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who would soon become famous and highly influential. Charlotte studied under the tutelage of a budding Du Bois, who had reluctantly taken up a teaching post for one summer during her undergraduate years. He, too, noticed Charlotte’s unyielding dedication. DuBois later praised her “as a pioneer … working under extra-ordinarily difficult circumstances to lead a people, in the face of prejudice, not only against her race, but against her sex” in the foreword to Dr Alfred Bitini Xuma‘s book, Charlotte Manye (Mrs. Maxeke): “What an Educated African Girl Can Do” (1930).
Upon her return to South Africa in 1903, she dedicated herself to improving the lives of African women. Maxeke began by founding schools for Black African children under the auspices of the AME. Maxeke then became the first African woman appointed as a probation officer. From 1919 to 1922, she worked extensively within South African prisons to help women and children through the legal system. In 1923, she determined that this work only addressed the symptoms of racial discrimination, rapid urbanisation and the disruption of family networks. In response to these problems, Maxeke set up a bureau for African women seeking domestic service work – one of the few legal forms of work readily available to many.
Maxeke’s commitment to social welfare and justice did not go unnoticed. She was a popular public speaker who delivered several speeches that were so influential that they were published. These rousing speeches, delivered between 1925 and 1930, proposed African women dedicate themselves to being housewives and raising their children, thus making them the ‘keystone of the household’. Ideally, the husband would provide the sole income. “Home and family life,” Maxeke argued in her 1930 speech at the Bantu-European Student Christian Conference, “are successful only where husband and wife live happily together, bringing up their family in a sensible way, sharing the responsibilities naturally involved in a fair and wholehearted spirit”. This alternative mode of femininity for African women, while mimicking the respectable social and economic position of the (white) European housewife, was, however, virtually impossible in a racist and racially segregated society.
It is perhaps telling that Maxeke herself did not aspire to this alternative model of femininity. Upon her return to South Africa, Charlotte married Marshal Maxeke. She was never a housewife: instead, she was often the sole income earner. Her husband, a fellow South African also educated in the US, was often ill, especially during his later years. He was frequently unable to provide for the family. Charlotte also relied on the support of her mother-in-law to help raise her son, Clarke, who would later follow in his parents’ footsteps and study at Wilberforce University. Amidst these factors, Charlotte herself also suffered from poor health, no doubt exacerbated by her tireless community work, care commitments to her ailing husband’s health, and constant impoverished living conditions.
If Charlotte Maxeke were alive today, she would undoubtedly be at the forefront of (albeit comparatively conservative) protests campaigning to improve the lives of African women. I imagine she would have lead the marches held in solidarity for American women protesting the election of American President Donald Trump. It is perhaps timely that, in the wake of social unrest in South Africa and the United States, Maxeke has finally been the subject of a sole biographical study. Her life, including never-before-seen photographs, is painstakingly stitched together by South African journalist Zubeida Jaffer, in Beauty of the Heart: The Life and Times of Charlotte Mannya Maxeke (2016). This attests not only to the continued relevance of Charlotte Maxeke’s tireless campaigning for social equality for African women, but how much still remains to be done.
Claire Cooke is based at the University of Western Australia, where she received her Ph.D. in 2016. Her research focuses upon African American missionary women working within South Africa during the early twentieth century. In 2015, she was awarded the Florence A. Bell Award by Drew University and a Short-term Fellowship by Emory University to examine how ideas of masculinity shaped missionary work within South Africa. Her research has appeared in the Australasian Review of African Studies and Mission Studies. Claire is also a member of the Australian Women’s History Network’s Lilith Editorial Collective.
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