Publication Date


Document Type



This article reexamines the roots of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW), the first national organization of women from all state-defined racial groups united against apartheid, founded in 1954. It argues that the deep history of public motherhood in southern Africa was what made FEDSAW possible: biological and symbolic motherhood had long been associated with responsibility for public social life in the region. Moreover, the article demonstrates that the first half of the twentieth century represented a time of profound transformation in the ways that women in southern Africa talked about and experienced motherhood. The influences of both missionary Christianity and international socialism encouraged women to claim that long-standing regional cultural forms of public engagements were an extension of private maternal responsibilities. African women talked about their public activism as emanating from an idealized private sphere to make themselves legible as social actors, both to agents of the white-controlled state and to allies in South Africa and across transnational networks. In turn, these allies emphasized their own public motherhood to legitimate themselves to African activists. Motherhood became a potent political discourse, even as activist women’s control over their actual homes and family lives diminished under state oppression. This analysis therefore intervenes in a long-standing debate within South African feminist scholarship over whether FEDSAW’s maternal politics were inherently conservative or radical by demonstrating that neither characterization is sufficient. FEDSAW’s maternal politics were multivalent because of the history of gendered political communication and compromise out of which they emerged.

Original Citation

Healy-Clancy, M. (2017). The Family Politics of the Federation of South African Women: A History of Public Motherhood in Women’s Antiracist Activism. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 42(4), 843-866.


© 2017 by The University of Chicago.