Dr Mabel Palmer (nee Mabel Atkinson) was born on 22 May 1876 near Stocksfield in Northumberland, England. Her father, J.B. Atkinson, was a mine inspector, and her mother, Jane Atkinson, a militant suffragette. Her mother’s activism most likely had an impact on young Palmer, who would later become a prominent feminist campaigner.
Dr Palmer was one of the first women graduates of Glasgow University, Scotland. Soon after the university opened its doors to women, she enrolled and obtained her MA in 1900 before going on to pursue an academic career in economics. From 1904 to 1908, she was a lecturer at Armstrong College in the United States of America (USA) and King’s College for Women in London, England, from 1908 to 1915. At a time when lecturers were segregated according to gender and women could be dismissed for marrying (or even ‘living in sin’), Dr Palmer’s feminist views underpinned her determination to fight for women’s rights.
In 1920, she left England and moved to South Africa. In 1921, she started teaching at the then Durban Technical College (now the Durban University of Technology – DUT) in Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), becoming one of several staff members who were involved in the development of university work in Durban. Dr Palmer was later appointed lecturer in Economic History at the then Natal University College – NUC (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal - UKZN) in 1931.
It was not until she retired from teaching in 1936 that Dr Palmer undertook what would be her most notable accomplishment – spearheading a movement to provide university education to Black and Indian students in KwaZulu-Natal. Frustrated by NUC’s racial barriers, Dr Palmer, at one stage, coerced her friends into teaching ‘non-white’ classes in her living room. After a decade of providing free courses in her home, Dr Palmer became the director of the segregated courses offered by the Natal University College, a position she held from 1945 to 1955. She established part-time classes in the disciplines of law and humanities, however, the oppressive regime outlawed students from studying science. Nonetheless, Dr Palmer introduced holiday classes at Adams College, a taxi transport system to transport students, as well as a library service.
Dr Palmer achieved all of this with the aid of another courageous woman, Florence MacDonald. Together, they played an important role in increasing the number of Black students at the university from 13 to 300 and by 1963, their hard work had seen 666 Black students graduate.
Dr Palmer was an active member of numerous organisations. These included the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), the National Council of Women of South Africa (NCWSA) – of which she was the advisor on Indian affairs for four years, the South African Association of University Women (now the South African Association of Women Graduates - SAAWG), the Association for the Educational Advancement of Non-European Women and Girls, the Durban and District Adult Education Association, the Durban International Club, as well as the South African Association for the Advancement of Science (S2A3). She was also a trade unionist and pioneer of working-class adult education.
From 1929 to 1948, she served on the Senate of the University of South Africa (UNISA) and in 1947, she was awarded an honorary doctorate for her service to education by the university. Dr Palmer was the first to propose that UNISA become a correspondence university, which it later did.
She married Andrew Robert Barrett Palmer in 1914 but was soon separated from her husband who died in 1948 in Australia. Dr Mabel Palmer died in Durban on 16 November 1958. A women’s residence hall on UKZN’s campus is named in her honour.
Artefacts. (n.d). University of Natal, women’s hall of residence Mabel Palmer, [online], Available at: https://www.artefacts.co.za/main/Buildings/bldgframes.php?bldgid=11685. (Accessed on 9 October 2020)
Campbell Collections. (n.d). Mabel Palmer papers, [online], Available at: http://campbell.ukzn.ac.za/?q=node/24217. (Accessed on 7 October 2020)
Maharaj, N. (2010). Seminar gives perspectives on the origins of UKZN, [online], Available at: https://ukzn.ac.za/wp-content/miscFiles/publications/UKZNDABA%20September%202010.PDF. (Accessed on 8 October 2020)
News Break. (n.d). Mabel Palmer, [online], Available at: https://www.newsbreak.com/people/mabel-palmer. (Accessed on 8 October 2020)
UNISA. (n.d). Mabel Palmer, [online], Available at: https://www.unisa.ac.za/sites/corporate/default/Unisa-History-and-Memory-Project/Personalities/All-personalities/Mabel-Palmer. (Accessed on 7 October 2020)