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The experiences of women leaders in the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (SADTU)

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This study answers the critical question: How do women leaders experience gender equality in the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU)? It focuses on five women leaders in the union, illuminating their experiences and evolving gender consciousness. This qualitative study addresses a gap in research on gender in teacher unions, to understand and reveal how women who have accessed previously male-dominated spaces experience gender equality. The women leaders’ experiences are a prism through which to understand the “depth” of the substantive experience of gender equality in the union. It examines how the union through its organisational bureaucracy, culture and politics shapes their experiences. Through a historical analysis of the gender and liberation struggle, I demonstrate the trajectory of achievements, challenges and visions for gender equity in South Africa within the trade union movement, noting the achievements and highlighting lost opportunities to advance gender struggles of its members. The study theorises different conceptions of feminisms and imagings of organisations to understand the women’s experiences in relation to the union and to broader society, within the culture, politics and bureaucracy of the organisation. I extended this lens by exploring differing conceptions of feminisms to understand the gendered experiences of the women leaders as they traverse life from childhood to adulthood. Conceived with the broader realm of feminist methodology, I use elements of life history research, notably in-depth interviews to produce narratives in the form of “harmonised poems” to illuminate the public and private experiences of the research participants, providing deep insights into their evolving gender consciousness. The analysis is multi-dimensional, traversing the influence of the family, school, and the historical and political contexts that shaped the women’s gender consciousness. The findings indicate that teachers’ contradictory class location, history of patriarchy and acceptance of sexual division of labour contribute to the women leaders’ experiences of gender inequality in the union. These experiences of inequality were magnified by apartheid’s1 structural and ideological roots, which shaped gender roles while simultaneously catalysing the development of gender consciousness and advancing political activism. In this regard, the family served as a crucial site of gender socialisation, while the school formally reproduced a hierarchical gendered society. At the organisational level, hierarchically bureaucratic structures maintained and reinforced particular patterns of control and power through the formal system of trade union governance in which gender oppression is institutionalised and legitimised under its banner of emancipatory politics. However, women in the organisation are by no means innocent victims of hostile patriarchal forces, but are active participants in their own oppression as they strategically comply with institutional norms. Significantly, the findings indicate that equality of opportunity for women leaders in the union does not translate into equality of outcome. This thesis contributes to the theoretical debates on evolving gendered consciousness by advancing an extended conceptual lens to interrogate women’s gendered experiences in predominantly patriarchal spaces. It identifies four domains of evolving consciousness. Starting with the divided self in the domain of home, girl children imbibe the dominant hierarchical social structures, and fixed gender roles are inscribed here. However, the family domain provides the catalyst for a developing consciousness among the women as children. The socialised self emerging in the domain of the school emphasises the gender socialisation, both overt and covert, that occurs in schools. It illuminates their evolving gender consciousness by resisting such subjugation initially as students and later as radical teachers. Progressing to the domain of the union, the women embody a strategic self in response to gender inequality in SADTU, which often takes an organisational form that contradicts its espoused policy and public pronouncements. Armed with the maturity to transcend their individualised gender consciousness, the women leaders emerge with a collective consciousness determined to break down the barriers to equality at the structural level. Finally, in the emerging collective self, the women simultaneously embody elements that constrain their individual emancipatory impulses while trajecting them to potentially higher levels of consciousness as change agents. Their willingness to embrace a shared consciousness and their call for activism indicate a shift towards heightened collective consciousness. As they move from their individual subjugated selves to their heightened collective, transformed consciousness, they express a compelling desire for collective agency to challenge structural drivers of inequality and enact change at the systemic level.


Thesis (Ph.D.) - University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, 2008.


South African Democratic Teachers' Union., Women labour leaders--South Africa., Women in education--South Africa., Theses--Education.