'A living testimony of the heights to which a woman can rise’: Sarojini Naidu, Cissie Gool and the Politics of Women’s Leadership in South Africa in the 1920s

21 Aug 2013

A leading force in the Indian National Congress, Sarojini Naidu arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the end of February 1924 after receiving an invitation to support South African Indian political organisations in their struggle against the Class Areas Bill. Intending to leave South Africa after two weeks, Naidu remained for several months. In this paper we explore Naidu’s relationship with ‘the Joan of Arc of District Six’, Cissie Gool. We suggest that Naidu’s visit was significant for South African women’s political histories in general and Gool’s in particular. Insisting that women be respected as political activists, Naidu’s visit redefined the place of women, not only as participants in politics, but also as leaders. She provided a role model for women, such as Gool, who might otherwise not have imagined it possible to exercise power and authority within South Africa’s profoundly patriarchal political mainstream. Against the broader context of South African women’s activism Sarojini Naidu’s South African visit expands our vision to encompass the doubly marginal: women acting at the margins of women’s political history and at the margins of patriarchal politics - and further marginalised within the historiographies of each.