Our team's thoughts on womanhood and the women that have influenced, motivated, encouraged, inspired, and emboldened us.
As South Africa was celebrating Women's Month this August, the women of the Otto Foundation have been thinking about the women that have inspired us, how our womanhood shapes our work, and how to ensure that our conversations with our learners both teach them about the strong, brave women that have shaped our world, and help them to recognise their own agency in ensuring that the world keeps changing for the better.
Otto Foundation Literacy Project Manager and Spatial Designer, Xanelé Puren, connected with the poetry and essays of Walt Whitman - a man who clearly understood both the world-shifting power of women, and the transformative potential of literature.
Before terms such as intersectionality, inclusivity and feminism existed, Walt Witman (1819 - 1892) wrote that society will always be lacking, unless all genders are given the same opportunity. He said that "women are central to democracy", and that "a robust society is a feminist society".
"The creation is womanhood;
Have I not said that womanhood involves all?
Have I not told how the universe has nothing better than the best womanhood?"
- Walt Witman, Leaves of Grass (1855)
Our team sees this as a call to action. A challenge to bring our "best womanhood" to our work every day.
Witman also recognised the influence of literature. When America was still a young democracy, Witman called for a great body of original literature to shape people's mentality, character, and ideals:
"In the civilisation of today, it is undeniable that literature serves beyond all...Its scope is indeed unparalleled. The literature of a country is of importance principally because it furnishes the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men of that country, and enforce them in a thousand effective ways"
Our team shares Whitman's belief in the power of literature to shape our country and the world. We are passionate about providing children with access to safe and friendly library spaces where they can explore contextually relevant books (that serve as mirrors in which they can see and recognise themselves) as well as books that provide insight into the world at large (portals through which they can see and understand the lived experiences of others, and start to conceptualise how they want to live in, and contribute to, the world).
Recognising that our "best womanhood" has been informed by that of others, each of our team members penned some thoughts on the women that have influenced the way in which they engage with the world around them.
Otto Foundation CEO, Zephne Ladbrook, writes:
Inspiration and inspiring women came in many shapes and forms. I have been encouraged and emboldened in different ways at different times. A constant (and perhaps subliminal) source of inspiration were my two grandmothers. Both widows since before my birth, I saw them as strong, independent and highly capable. My maternal grandmother, who I am named after, even started a new 'career' in the 60s when she became a teacher. She was absolutely brilliant and very loved.
My mom is naturally an inspiration. If there is an opposite of someone who procrastinates- she is it! And everything she does, she does beautifully. Her generosity, compassion and empathy know no bounds, especially when it comes to time and energy for her kids and family.
My prep school headmistress drilled into us that "Tidy cupboards = tidy minds". This mantra was an influential foundation for our work.
I had two prep school teachers who most certainly did not believe in me. It could have scarred me. Perhaps it did (and still does), but it also served as fuel and fire. I am not sure if the teachers of young kids know their power or sphere of influence. If I were to be a teacher to young girls right now, I would spend time every day telling them how amazing, capable and strong they are.
My daily source of female inspiration comes from women who have the courage of their convictions, who stay the course despite all obstacles, and do so with diplomacy. In my next life, I will come back with the ability to be diplomatic.
My latest "woman crush" (and I have many) is Thuli Madonsela. Her ability to stand up for what she believes is right is well documented. She has summited Kilimanjaro twice (literally!). At the centre of her everyday mission is an intrinsic belief in social justice and kindness.
Otto Foundation Literacy Director, Nonikiwe Mashologu, writes:
I am very passionate about exposing children to books and stories from all over the country and world. As a nature lover, I prioritise taking regular forest walks. There are many parallels between the forest and the libraries I manage. Both are beautiful, peaceful and safe spaces that, when cared for and nurtured, allow for growth, creativity, and infinite possibilities. Library spaces aim to enhance the magic in children by 'watering' them with words and stories.
I am influenced and inspired by my dear friend Kehiloe Ntsekhe, a psychologist, mindfulness practitioner, diversity & inclusion facilitator, and anti-racism educator.
Everyone whose path crosses with, Kehiloe is touched by her warmth and compassion. Her gift is that of being a 'connector'. She has a remarkable ability to find the right balance between all the hats she wears (including being a wife and mother). She has achieved so much but continues to stay grounded.
Otto Foundation Literacy Project Manager, Chané Jacobs, writes:
Earlier this year, I met "Penguin and Bear" author Deidré Matthee through an online reading at our Protea Library. Not only is Deidré deeply passionate about stories, she is also a wonderful example of a woman who shows love so easily to people around her.
While improving people's lives in substantial and far-reaching ways will always be important, Deidré has made me aware of the powerful impact that smaller gestures can have. This includes the way you speak to people in everyday conversations and how you make people feel when you are around them, which Deidré does so sincerely.
Otto Foundation Literacy Project Manager and Spatial Designer, Xanelé Puren, writes:
Jonathan Safran Foer wrote, "my story is the story of everyone I've met". To view that quote through the lens of women's month and the purpose of this post, I am truly grateful for the women in my life who have shaped my view on identity, the world, and how I relate to people.
Dani and I met in 2017 when she spent two years living in Cape Town, after which she moved to Italy (she is now based in the UK). During her time in SA, we formed a strong bond and our friendship has since existed exclusively on digital platforms.
Dani has a gift to be able to reminisce about big philosophical themes and to simultaneously see (and seek) beauty in small, everyday moments. She shares her thoughts with me, with great intent, and I am grateful for our exchange of stories.
Dani continually reminds me of the boundless wonder and magic that this world has to offer, but has a rare ability to not shy away from speaking about grief, pain and loss. Themes that are part of our shared human experience and can teach us a great deal about ourselves if we allow it to.
Otto Foundation Chief Operating Officer, Frouwien Bosman, writes:
Watching the Olympics this month I have been thinking about how sport has shaped my life. (In case this is not clear. I am not comparing myself to an olympian. Watching sporting events has just made me think about sport!)
One of the inspirational figures in my life as a sportswoman was a lady by the name of Sandra du Plessis. She was the Maties netball coach for years, she later founded the netball institute in Stellenbosch, and is still a highly respected netball guru hosting coaching clinics all over the country.
Her absolute commitment to the sport, and to her players, makes every single player on her squad feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. She championed “squad goals” before they were a hashtag. Our team talked about our shared purpose just as often as we talked about our game-plans.
Sandra lived (and instilled in her players) the ideas of Abby Wambach’s Wolfpack long before they became part of the lexicon of strong women around the globe. She understood that successful teams rely on both the technical skill and flair of individual players and the magic that is generated when women have a shared goal, champion each other, and play off each other’s strengths.
I learned from Sandra that you have to invest in the physical and mental strength of both yourself and your teammates in a disciplined and consistent manner. These investments don’t come easy, and they are not always enjoyable in the moment (woe beget you if a particular aspect of your attack, defence or attitude was the focus of her laser-sharp attention during practice!) but they yield results when it matters.
Sandra showed me that there are few greater joys than achieving a shared goal with a group of like-minded people.
In my professional life this has helped me to see that the “why” and the “with whom” is as important as the “how”.
We encourage you to think about the women that have influenced, motivated, encouraged, inspired, and emboldened YOU. Tell a young person about these women. If you are able to do so, get in touch with the women that have helped to make you the person that you are. They deserve to be celebrated.
- The Otto Foundation Team