Music of ‘56 challenged gender roles

Not only was this event an extraordinary display of political resistance, it also challenged commonly accepted gender roles. In the 1950s very few women, and even fewer black women, claimed a public space to voice their feelings or demands. The marchers did both.

There were, however, a handful of other women who enjoyed the unusual privilege of a public platform, who had voice when township women were largely voiceless. They were the stars of stage and screen. In 1956, the top female artists were Dolly Rathebe, Tandie Klaasen, Dorothy Masuka and Miriam Makeba, shortly followed by a slightly younger group of singers now associated with the 1950s: Sophie Mgcina, Abigail Kubeka and Letta Mbulu.

So what did these women do with their limelight? Did they advocate for women’s rights like the anti-pass marchers? Did they challenge patriarchal gender relations? Yes and no. More exactly, yes they did seriously undermine men’s authority over women, but not as an intentional political act. They were accidental feminists.

Whether they intended it or not, once Dolly, Dorothy, Tandie and Miriam had hit the stage, neither the music industry nor the limits around the imaginations of township women would ever be the same again.

The famous women musicians of the 1930s and 1940s were very elite and very respectable. The likes of Emily Kwenane, Margorie Pretorius and Emily Motsieloa belonged to such elite bands as the Jazz Maniacs and the Merry Blackbirds. To retain their feminine respect and social status they never drank or smoked in public, and a protective male chaperone accompanied them everywhere.

Not so the music belles of the 1950s. They rebelled against the moral respectability of their parents’ generation with exceptional panache. Sassy Sophiatown sirens like Tandie Klaasen and Dolly Rathebe were as tough as they were beautiful. They drank copiously, smoked ostentatiously and defended themselves physically when necessary. Not all their colleagues were quite as streetwise, but surviving the music profession in those days required dogged determination, toughness, and an unswaying commitment to one’s art.

As the late Sophie Mgcina explained, “being a woman musician – I always say it’s like being in a college. You learn to defend yourself. You learn to believe you’re a woman. There’s a song – ‘I’m invincible….’ You know if you’re going to be able to survive you’ve gotta catch the bull by the horns. Otherwise if you can’t swim, you will sink.” No one, and particularly no man, was going to push the new generation of female stars around.

This was partially made possible by the sudden growth of the mass media after World War Two that created opportunities for women to negotiate new professional and artistic spaces for themselves. The recording industry started investing in the local township market and the radio was starting to give more airplay to black music.

Large stage shows were showcasing black artists for white audiences for the first time, and a small local film industry was starting to take off. Most importantly, a number of pictorial newspapers were creating and disseminating a new kind of township popular culture.

A cross between today’s tabloid newspapers and magazines, publications like Drum Magazine, Zonk, and Golden City Post turned musicians into icons – examples of womanhood that ordinary township people could admire, emanate or reject, but certainly not ignore.

Photographers liked stage women as models because they emitted the desired charisma and seductive charm. As a result, jazz singer Dolly Rathebe became not only South Africa’s first black film star, but also the country’s first black cover-girl. Throughout the 1950s there was a great deal of crossover between beauty queens, cover-girls, film stars and vocalists.

The demand for such high-powered public sexuality had the potential to be degrading and exploitative, but the top female stars of the 1950s held the reigns and experienced the scene as empowering and emancipatory. They created a mode of black, urban, cosmopolitan sophistication that redefined of beauty as black rather than white.

All of this constituted a direct denial of the government’s perception of black culture. Furthermore, although they expressed an open, confident sexuality, they saw themselves as fashion models not sex objects, consistently refusing to undress or wear anything they felt to be demeaning. Their proud public presentation of their glamorously clothed bodies was primarily a display of their material independence and power.

Another myth they challenged is the belief that public, particularly stage women, make bad mothers. Many women musicians managed to raise well-adjusted, well-educated children, with whom they enjoy good relationships. They point out that they were able to provide financially for their children more effectively than women who stayed at home.

By incorporating the usually private role of motherhood into their public identity, women musicians forged a link between the public and domestic spheres, proving that women are able to function simultaneously in both.

Ultimately, although their goal was not the general emancipation of women, but the right to function within their chosen professional sphere, that had a radical influence that was in so many ways ahead of their time.

Long before the civil rights movement in the US and Black Consciousness in South Africa they proved that black is beautiful. Long before the new South African designer ranges like Stoned Cherrie and Sun Goddess, they proved that black beauty could be cosmopolitan, sophisticated, glamorous and costly.

Long before Madonna and Brenda, they showed that women singers can be powerfully sexual, and retain that power for themselves.

Long before the feminist revolution rocked the industrialised world they proved that women can be public icons and still be good mothers, that women can earn independently, have successful careers and head households.

Dolly, Dorothy, Tandie and Miriam, the great solo women’s voices of 1956 – South Africa would have been a different place without you.

l Dr Lara Allen is a research fellow at the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

August 2006
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