NEH grant supports recovering women’s role in the struggle against apartheid
If women are restored to their rightful place in the history of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, Kim Miller’s scholarship may be part of the reason why.
The assistant professor of women’s studies and art history is researching a book that will examine visual representations of women political activists in South Africa during and after the struggle against apartheid.
Miller’s project received a big boost from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which has awarded her an NEH Fellowship for University Teachers to finish researching and writing the book. The $50,000 grant will allow Miller to take a yearlong sabbatical to complete her research in South Africa as well as finish writing the book.
“I am so excited about the grant,” said Miller. “They are nearly impossible to get, and I never anticipated a positive response. Senator (John) Kerry's office called me to congratulate me on the award and to wish me luck on my project.”
NEH university teaching fellowships are particularly noteworthy due to the difficulty of winning one. In fact, fewer than one in ten scholars who applied for the awards this year received a positive response.
Professor Miller’s scholarship focuses on the relationship between visual culture, gender, and power in African arts.
“At its core, my book argues that the memory of women’s actions in the past is changing in favor of a more narrow vision, and that women’s experiences are generally neglected in the context of the new national identity,” Miller says.
In some ways, the current state of affairs reflects the reassertion the reassertion of apartheid-era patriarchal culture. While women played a prominent and visible role during the anti-apartheid movement, their activities were greatly restricted by the government as well as by many of the resistance organizations, Miller said.
“In fact, women were not formally admitted as members into the African National Congress (ANC) until 1943, and even then they were assigned primarily supportive roles, including cooking and catering for the men. It was even longer before women were welcomed to serve on the executive leadership committee.”
Despite those barriers, women were active in the movement, some quite prominently. At the same time, visual representations of women, specific individuals and iconic images were common.
Today, however, women’s roles and images have been largely removed from the history of the anti-apartheid movement, Miller said. “I argue that the rich visual rhetoric that once helped create political identities and recognition for women has now largely disappeared.”
The fruits of Miller’s scholarship has resulted in a number of articles in scholarly journals in recent years, including the article “Moms with Guns: Women's Political Agency in Anti-Apartheid Visual Culture” in African Arts. The South African Historical Journal will soon be publishing one of her papers, which will eventually be a section in her book.
With support from the NEH fellowship, Miller plans to return to South Africa for archival research as well as interviews, largely in Johannesberg but also in Durban, Cape Town and surrounding townships.