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Champion of Gender Equality

Wolpe, like so many South African women during the Struggle years, would step in whenever a political crisis occurred.


Champion of Gender Equality

AnnMarie Wolpe who died in 2018 was a South African anti-apartheid activist, socialist and feminist.

In her lifetime, she wrote an autobiography, authored and co-authored several books on gender and education, contributed to numerous academic journals and was a founding member of the Feminist Review.

She was also a wife, mother and grandmother. Before her accomplishments though, she was a middle-class Jewish girl from Jozi.

Wolpe was born on December 1, 1930 in Johannesburg. She was the youngest daughter of Abraham and Pauline Kantor. She came from a generation where middle-class women didn’t go out to work. When Wolpe told her mother she wanted to go to university to study medicine, her mother said, “my God, you will land up like Rachel Getz” – their family doctor who never married.

While Wolpe never did study medicine, she did attend Wits University and completed a BA social sciences degree.

She was the first girl in her family to study. While at university she met many activists including Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Rusty and Hilda Bernstein and Harold Wolpe who she’d marry a few years later.

It was there that her interests in social justice and the role of gender began to take shape. Wolpe’s first job was as a social worker for the Johannesburg city council in 1951. Four years later, she began working as Helen Joseph’s assistant for the Transvaal Clothing Industries’ medical aid society where she ran a bursary fund for African students.

Wolpe, like so many South African women during the Struggle years, would step in whenever a political crisis occurred. The women hosted the political gatherings secretly in living rooms.

They looked after the children of those who were arrested, provided safe accommodation for those who needed it and took food to political prisoners.

While the men were largely actively engaged at the forefront of the Struggle, the women were active on the periphery while keeping their homes and families together. Wolpe once said: “I was Harold’s wife, just as Winnie then was Nelson’s wife. We were seen but not heard.”

Following the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre many activists, including Harold Wolpe, were arrested. Of the arrests, Wolpe wrote: “The prisons had never accommodated so many highly qualified literate and articulate people before.

“Conditions certainly for the white prisoners were relatively mild. Members of their families were allowed to visit regularly and bring with them the various delicacies they requested.”

In July 1963, the ANC’S top echelon, including Harold, were arrested.

Most of the arrests were at a farm called Liliesleaf in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia. The subsequent trial would become world famous as the Rivonia Trial. Harold would have been one of the accused, but escaped from Marshall Square, along with three other detainees, Arthur Goldreich, Mosie Moolla and Abdulhai Jassat.

While Harold was in prison, Wolpe was allowed to bring him food and clean clothes. She smuggled tungsten blades to him inside French loaves and roast chicken. They also exchanged notes by tucking them into the collars of his shirts that she was permitted to take home to clean. This is how Harold communicated their escape plans: they would bribe a guard to get them out and she would arrange for a getaway car to be waiting. Despite her fears, she did it.

Harold and his three comrades successfully escaped from their cells at Marshall Square in the early hours of Sunday morning, August 11, 1963 – a mere month after their arrest. Only hours later, Wolpe was arrested and taken into custody. The police assumed she had helped organise the escape.

She was interrogated and threatened for 10 hours, but admitted nothing.

It was clear that if she remained in South Africa she would be constantly at risk of arrest or worse. Acting on advice from comrades, she made the extremely difficult decision to flee the country, leaving her three young children.

The youngest was recovering from a rare form of virulent pneumonia. She left all she knew, carrying only a suitcase. She wrote: “My decision to leave the country and abandon the children was not taken lightly. I knew that should I be rearrested I was capable of breaking down altogether and could submit under interrogation to giving away details that could incriminate others.

“One has no idea of one’s own capability to withstand torture. And my absolute loathing and fear of violence perhaps would not prevent me from breaking. Apart from anything else my being in jail would not be of any use to the children even though Harold was safely out of the country.”

Photo by Sue Kramer

In England, Wolpe was reunited with Harold and a few months later their children arrived. Initially they had no home, no money and no jobs. She found work proofreading and compiling indexes for publishing companies, work she found tedious. Eventually she was able to move into academia where she obtained a position as a sociology lecturer at what is now Middlesex University.

There she developed and spearheaded the Women’s Studies Programme.

Her passion for feminism was borne out of her life experiences and exposure, as a participant in the Struggle, to the realities of life for women and an academic need to put women and feminism in the forefront, particularly in the realm of education.

Wolpe initially conducted a study on female engineers and the difficulties put in the paths of women who ventured into this area of work.

She became concerned about how girls fared in the education system and the opportunities for them to progress equally in the world. She questioned the different roles assigned to boys and girls, and why they were so readily accepted.

In 1979, she co-founded the feminist and socialist journal Feminist Review which aimed at bridging theory and political practice. Thirty years later it’s published triannually as a highly respected peer-reviewed academic journal. It was during this time that she also wrote and co-authored several books and academic papers.

Wolpe also strove for gender equality in her home and insisted that her daughters should be educated and able to make choices in their lives. She even had Harold and their children sharing in the domestic work. She not only ran her home, worked full time as a successful academic and gained her PHD, she also continued to support the Struggle while in exile as a member of the ANC’S welfare committee.

On her return to South Africa in 1991, she obtained a position at the University of the Western Cape.

Her last important contribution was heading the Gender Equity Task Team called for by Naledi Pandor, the minister of education at the time.

As a result of the recommendation of the Task Team’s report a Gender Equity Directorate was established in the National Department of Education.

Nelson Mandela, after his release from prison, said: “I pay tribute to the mothers and wives and sisters of our nation. You are the rock-hard foundation of our Struggle. Apartheid has inflicted more pain on you than on anyone else.” Yet despite these words and years of the feminist movement, women continue to be marginalised and struggle to have their voices heard as is evident in movements like Me Too.

Wolpe’s story demonstrates that women and gender experiences should be brought to the forefront of political, academic and social conversations.

It is time for this to change.

First published in The Sunday Independent (August 2020) and co-written with Peta Wolpe