Gertrude Shope was born in Johannesburg, but grew up in Zimbabwe. She was trained as a teacher, and went on to teach in Natal and Soweto. When she was 29 years old she decided to join the African National Congress (ANC), and soon afterwards left teaching as part of the campaign to boycott Bantu Education. She moved onto the Coronation Hospital and later began to work with training women in crafts and with youth rehabilitation. From 1958 to 1966 Shope was the chairperson of the Central Western Jabavu Branch of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW). In the late 1960s she was provincial secretary for the FEDSAW.
Shope got to know Bram Fischer very well, and in 1966 the ANC convinced her to leave South Africa and join her husband, Mark Shope, in exile. While in exile, Gertrude and her husband moved around a lot as representatives of the ANC. They lived in Prague, Botswana, Tanzania, Czechoslovakia, Zambia and Nigeria.
While in exile, from 1970-1971, Shope was secretary to the head of the ANC’s Woman’s Section, Florence Mophosho. Together these two women started the publication of Voice of the Women. Shope then became the ANC’s chief representative in Lusaka and in 1981 was promoted to head of the Women’s Section, and she became a member of the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC in 1985. As head, she led the Women’s Section to the End of the Decade Conference in Nairobi in 1985, and was secretary of the ANC mission to Nigeria. She held this position until 1991.
In 1991 Shope was elected president of the ANC’s Women’s League, a position she held until 1993. She worked together with Albertina Sisulu in convening the ANC’s Internal Leadership Corps Task Force from 1990-1991.
In 1994 Shope became a member of parliament in the Government of National Unity.