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A World of Their Own is the first book to explore the meanings of black women’s education in the making of modern South Africa. Meghan Healy-Clancy examines this theme through the history of Inanda Seminary: the oldest extant high school for southern African girls, operating outside of Durban since 1869.

Previous histories of South African education have focused overwhelmingly on the experiences of young men. Yet by the early 20th century, over half of all African students in South Africa were female. And during apartheid, women began to meet or exceed the educational achievements of men at all levels. This was an unusual gendered pattern for the continent, and a pattern that presaged the global feminisation of education in the 21st century.

Drawing upon extensive archival and oral historical research, Healy-Clancy explains the expansion of black South African women’s education as an outcome of a ‘politics of social reproduction’. Since the late nineteenth century, educated black women’s association with nurturance had made them seem not only less politically threatening to officials than their male counterparts, but also more socially useful. Thus apartheid policies encouraged women’s education as teachers and nurses, to tend cheaply and compliantly to black bodies and minds. In Healy-Clancy’s revisionist reading, Bantu Education emerges not only as a racialised policy, but also as a product of a deeply gendered history.

Through vivid examples from Inanda Seminary, this book demonstrates how colonial and apartheid officials’ attempts to harness women’s education to their narrow goals failed. Instead of fulfilling official expectations that they would reproduce a divided society, women used their schooling to push at professional and political boundaries – nurturing alternative visions of personal and national development. Ultimately, this book underscores the gendered ironies of segregation and apartheid, and their legacies in a democratic South Africa.

In its gendered analysis and choice of subject matter this study can make an important contribution to South African education history. There are few studies of African women’s schooling in South Africa, and none of this academic weight.

— Dr Helen Ludlow, School of Education, University of the Witwatersrand

The author has deftly woven theoretical arguments about social reproduction and gender into the narrative, without these arguments obscuring the fascinating people and places she describes. The portraits of the successive headmistresses of the school are compelling, and she writes with great sensitivity and compassion about them and the constraints and opportunities in the era in which they pursued their calling.

— Sue Krige, Johannesburg-based heritage specialist

Meghan Healy-Clancy is a social historian trained at Harvard University, where she now teaches in the programs in History and Literature and in Social Studies. She has published articles on the politics of gender in South African history in several academic journals. This is her first book.

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