Strike a woman, strike a rock, as we all know. Yet some rocks who have also played crucial roles in making Cape Town the city it is today are so often overlooked. In the light of Women’s Day, on the 59th anniversary of the 9 August 1956 march of some 20 000 women on the Union Buildings in Pretoria to petition against the country’s pass laws, we highlight 13 of Cape Town’s most notable women.

1. First coloured female lawyer and politician: Cissie Gool

Better known as Cissie, Zainunnisa Gool (6 November 1897 – 1 July 1963) founded the National Liberation League (NLL) in 1936 and served as the organisation’s first president. Along with the ANC, the NLL participated in the South African Communist Party’s United Front campaign of strikes, boycotts and demonstrations. As the District Six representative on the Cape Town City Council from 1938 to 1951, for many years Cissie served as the only woman on the council. Elected as president of the Non-European Front during the 1940s, Cissie became more active in the passive resistance campaign and was ultimately detained for these activities. Banned under the Suppression of Communism Act in 1954, Cissie studied towards a law degree, and earned her LLB degree from UCT in 1962 – the year before her death. This made her the first coloured woman to receive a Master’s degree from UCT, to graduate from law in South Africa and to be called to the Cape Bar.

2. Surgeon who performed first emergency caesarean: James Barry

Born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Ireland some time during the late 1700s, James Barry (c 1795 – 25 July 1865) assumed the name of her maternal uncle and lived her life as a man in order to study medicine at the male-only University of Edinburgh. Enrolling in 1810 and graduating in 1812, for this alone, James could be considered pioneering  – the first woman would only be admitted to the School of Medicine in 1869, and this for a limited number of classes!)

James joined the British Army as a surgeon and in 1826 during her Cape Town posting, she performed the world’s first emergency caesarean, and the first caesarean in Africa. Both mother and child survived the operation and the boy was named James Barry Munnik in honour of the adroit doctor. Later promoted to Colonial Medical Inspector of the Cape, James enacted numerous public health reforms with her view on the deplorable conditions in the leper colony and local jail, earning her quite a few enemies. In all this, she was protected by Governor Lord Charles Somerset, with whom she was widely speculated to have been involved in a (homosexual) relationship.

After departing Cape Town in 1827, James continued to enjoy an illustrious – and tempestuous – career. But it was in her death that she achieved true notoriety: when the charwoman who dressed her body revealed the secret of her gender.

3. Donor in world’s first successful heart transplant: Denise Ann Darvall

In her death, Denise Ann Darvall (27 February 1942 – 3 December 1967) made history as the donor in the world’s first successful heart transplant, performed at Groote Schuur Hospital by a team led by Professor Christiaan Barnard. The 25-year-old Denise had sustained serious injuries in a motor accident. Doctors informed her father, who’d lost his wife in the same accident, that his daughter would not regain consciousness. Remembering her generosity, Mr Darvall agreed to donate his daughter’s organs – her heart to 53-year-old Louis Washkansky, and her right kidney to 10-year-old Jonathan van Wyk.

4. Landmark housing activist: Irene Grootboom

Approximately 40-years-old at the time of her death, Irene Grootman (c 1969 – 30 July 2008) distinguished herself as a housing rights activist. In 2000, she headed a Constitutional Court case fighting eviction and seeking proper housing for the poor on behalf of 290 adults and 510 children living in miserable conditions in an area of Wallacedene informal settlement. In what was considered a landmark decision, Judge Richard Goldstone ruled that the state was obliged to provide “a comprehensive and coordinated programme to realise the right of access to adequate housing”. However, this ruling had no demonstrable effect on Irene’s life. She died in poverty, still awaiting her own house in the shack she shared with her partner, children, sister-in-law and the latter’s children. The Social Justice Coalition have memorialised her by naming their annual lecture series after her.

5. The Khoi mother of our nation: Krotoa Eva

At a young age, the Khoi Krotoa(c 1643 – 29 July 1674) became a servant to Jan van Riebeeck, first Dutch commander of the Cape. In Van Riebeeck’s household, Eva – as she was known there – became the first indigenous South African woman fluent in Dutch and Portuguese, and baptised into the Christian faith. These attributes stood her in good stead to act as an interpreter between the Dutch and Khoi. Yet both groups viewed her with suspicion.

In 1664, Eva married Danish soldier Pieter van Meerhof. The following year the couple and their children moved to Robben Island, where Van Meerhof had been appointed superintendent, a rather fancy title for his job of catching snakes and so on. When Van Meerhof was killed during a skirmish in Madagascar, Eva and her three children returned to the mainland in 1668. After attempting to maintain an upright existence in the eyes of the colonisers, Eva began to drink heavily and turned to prostitution. In 1669 she was charged with disorderly conduct and banished to Robben Island, where she died five years later.

Her descendants include Paul Kruger, Prime Minister Jan Smuts and President FW de Klerk.

6. ǀXam and !Kung anthropological linguist: Lucy Lloyd

The English-born Lucy Lloyd (7 November 1834 – 31 August 1914) began her ǀXam transcription work with her brother-in-law Wilhelm Bleek in 1870, and was responsible for two-thirds of the texts recorded. After Wilhelm’s death in 1875, Lucy was appointed to his position, at half the pay. In 1880, Lucy’s employment was terminated and Dr Theophilus Hahn appointed in her place.

In 1989, Lucy submitted a third report to the Cape Government, titled “Bushman Researches”, which added 4 534 half-pages or columns to the collection. She edited a selection of texts from her and Wilhelm’s project, which was published as Specimens of Bushman Folklore (1911). In 1913, Lucy received an honorary doctorate from the University of the Cape of Good Hope, the first awarded to a woman in South Africa, in recognition of her research.

7. First South African female architect: Magda Sauer

After matriculating from high school with top honours, Magdalena Gertruide Sauer (6 May 1890 – 10 October 1983) enrolled at the South African College (University of Cape Town). Here she majored in mathematics, physics and dynamics, and in 1911 earned a Bachelor of Arts (Science) degree. An interest in architecture led her to train with Gordon Pilkington, but realising the need for professional qualification, Magda left to study at the Architectural Association in London in the 1920s.

On her return to South Africa in 1927, Magdalena registered with the Institute of Architects. She was briefly married to Norwegian engineer Trygve Strömsöe, builder of the Table Mountain Cableway. Magdalena was keenly interested in the preservation and restoration of historic buildings. The last assignment of her career was the adaptation of the Old Supreme Court building in Adderley Street into the South African Cultural History Museum in the early 1960s.

8. Influential feminist and writer: Olive Schreiner

Novelist, feminist and human rights campaigner, Olive Schreiner(24 March 1855 to 11 December 1920) was the ninth child born to a missionary couple of a precarious financial position. As a teenager, Olive began questioning the strict religious beliefs with which she’d been raised. In this, she was influenced by the work of Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Forced to accept a governess position at the age of 19, for the next seven years, Olive worked in a number of homes.

During this time, she completed the novel for which she is best known: The Story of an African Farm, and another, Undine, which was published after her death. Published in 1883 under the pseudonym Ralph Irons, The Story of an African Farm deals with issues of gender roles and garnered notoriety for the illegitimate child born to one of the main characters. The novel’s publication catapulted Olive to fame, and by the turn of the century, had sold 100 000 copies.

A pacifist, Olive campaigned against the South African War and in the course of her life would consistently challenge British Imperialism, particularly in respect to the rights of black people. Women’s rights remained a lifelong concern and her book Woman and Labour (1909) called for the employment of woman.

9. Anti-apartheid activist: Dora Tamana

Born in the Transkei, Dora Tamana (11 November 1901 to 23 July 1983) built one of the first shacks in Blouvlei, now part of Retreat. Here, she became a community leader and built Blouvlei’s first crèche, inspired by the idea that Russian workers were given childcare.

Dora joined the Communist Party in 1942, and the ANC the following year. She became an active campaigner against the pass system, and helped organise the first conference of the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) in April 1954, which saw her elected to the organisation’s National Executive Committee. Along with Lilian Ngoyi, she was chosen to attend a World Congress of Mothers in Switzerland, after which she visited Russia and China.

On her return to South Africa in 1955, she was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. A period of sustained police harassment followed, including two periods of arrest. In 1960, Dora and her family were removed to Gugulethu, when Blouvlei was designated as a coloured area under the Group Areas Act. Dora remained active politically until close to her death at the age of 82.

10. Union founder and activist: Ray Alexander

Forced to leave her native Latvia in Eastern Europe at the age of 15 for fear that she would be arrested for her socialist activities, Ray Alexander (31 December 1913 – 12 September 2004) was sent to join her brother and sister in Cape Town. Within five days of her arrival, she joined the South African Communist Party.

She became involved in organising workers’ unions, founding the influential Food and Canning Workers’ Union (FCWU) in the Western Cape in 1941. In 1953, Ray was banned from trade union and civic organisations, but went on to found the Federation of South African Women (FEDSAW) along with Helen Joseph, Lilian Ngoyi and Florence Mkhize in April 1954. She successfully stood for parliament as a Native Representative, but was stopped when her ban spread to parliament. While unable to attend the 1956 Women’s March to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, she helped organise it and recruited 175 Cape Town women to attend.

Ray and her husband, academic Jack Simons, went into exile in 1965. They returned to South Africa in 1990.

11. First woman to write about SA: Lady Anne Barnard 

Lady Anne Barnard (12 December 1750 – 6 May 1825) was the eldest child of the Earl and Countess of Balcarres. In 1771, she wrote the popular ballad “Auld Robin Gray” – which she only claimed in 1823.

At the age of 43, Lady Anne married Andrew Barnard, 15 years her junior. Andrew was appointed secretary of the conquered Cape Colony under Governor Lord Macartney. Arriving in May 1797 and resident for five years, as first lady of the British occupation, Lady Anne was possibly better known as a socialite. Yet, this gave her the perfect position to capture the geography, politics and intrigues of the Cape’s citizens in her letters. Published in 1910 under the title South Africa A Century Ago, they provide a first-hand record of life in cape Town during the first British occupation.

12. Sex work social worker: Anna “Nannie” Tempo

Anna Tempo (23 September 1867 – 30 May 1946) was born in Worcester to Mozambican slaves William and Magavi Tempo, though William had been freed by the time of her birth. Anna went into service, helping Henrietta Schreiner care for her orphaned nephews. Henrietta, a well-known temperance worker, influenced Anna to become involved with her social work, and together they visited hospitals and prisons.

Anna was particularly interested in assisting girls and young women who had “gone astray”. Two years after Henrietta’s death in 1912, Anna became matron of the newly opened Stakesby Lewis hostels. During this time, Anna regularly visited brothels and the docks area where she encouraged young girls to take refuge in the small Napier Street house she’d acquired for that purpose. She also attempted to influence the men she encountered not to go off with their ladies of the night.

By 1922, public pressure against the type of work she was doing forced Anna to vacate her Napier Street house. She lived under extreme deprivation until 1924 when assistance from the Dutch Reformed Church enabled Anna to relocate to a small house in Castle Street. In 1928 she acquired two cottages in Jordaan Street. With aid from the Dutch Reformed Church and her own, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (DRMC), Anna was able to build a home for the girls who she made it her life’s work to redeem. This was named Nannie House, after her.

In 1937, Anna received the King George Coronation Medal in recognition of “her years of work among the prostitutes of Cape Town”. She died in Nannie House, which after her death was taken over by the synod of the DRMC. A new building was completed in 1950, but in 1960, the home was forced to relocate to Athlone in terms of the Group Areas Act.

[Source: New Dictionary of South African Biography, Volume 1, edited by EJ Verwey.]

13. World-renowned SA artist: Irma Stern

Born in the Transvaal to German-Jewish parents, Irma Stern (1894 – 23 August 1966) moved to Cape Town during the second South African War, when her father was interned for his pro-Boer sentiments. After the war, the Stern family moved to Germany where Irma studied at the Weimar Academy of Art and was strongly influenced by the Expressionist Max Pechstein.

Irma’s first exhibition – in Berlin in 1919 – was well-received. However, her first South African exhibition on her return in 1920 was less so. Amid accusations of immorality, the showing could only go ahead once a dominee and two policemen deemed it fit for public sensitivities. Held at Ashbey’s Galleries in 1922, the scandalous exhibition saw gawkers form long lunchtime queues in Long Street.

Despite this criticism, Irma was a successful artist during her lifetime and remains one of South Africa’s highest-selling artists long after her death – alongside Tretchikoff and Pierneef . In recognition of her work, the Iziko South African National Gallery is currently showing a retrospective until 1 November 2015: 22 oils, the proofs of her first German publication, numerous gouaches and works on paper from the Permanent Collection form the context of the Brushing Up On Stern.