History Remarkable Women

Elizabeth Maria Molteno

I have always been fascinated by women’s role in history. Especially of those women who managed to gain power for themselves and impact their man dominated world. As a result of this fascination I decided to start a new monthly series on my blog where I explore the lives of many remarkable women. Today’s blogpost is dedicated to activist Elizabeth Maria Molteno.

Elizabeth in her youth

Birth and Early years

Elizabeth Maria Molteno was born in an influential Italian family. Her father, Sir John Charles Molteno, was the First Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. His three marriages blessed him with 19 kids, Elizabeth icluded, many of whom came to hold positions of influence in business and government.

Elizabeth lived her childhood years in the family’s Claremont Estate in Cape Town where she received her education. She was her father’s most beloved daughter.

John Molteno allowed his older children to accompany him on his frequent diplomatic and business trips. So, Elizabeth travelled a lot during her youth, especially to Italy and London and came to share her father’s interest in politics and current affairs.

Due to her parents encouraging debate in their family, Betty (as she preferred to be called) developed unconventional views and habits for a Victorian era girl. She soon decided to abandon the fine clothes and material privileges of her youth for a more simple lifestyle which included rough clothes and vegetarian habits.

After finishing her home-school education she choose not to mary but to study further at Newnham College, Cambridge.

Teaching Career

With only a few careers available for women in the 19th century she became a teacher and was soon made principal of the Collegiate School For Girls in Port Elizabeth.

It was at this school where she revolutionised the Victorian education system which was focused on rote learning and restricted to ”appropriate” subjects for women.

Applying methods which were considered advanced and liberate for the time, she even icluded the first system of sex education for girls in the country. Her belief in the importance of girls’ education made her refuse to draw a salary for her administrative and educational work.


Elizabeth’s opposition to the Anglo-Boer war made her unpopular with the British establishment of Port Elizabeth. She was asked to stop her activism and after her refusal she was forced to resign, despite the campaign of support her ex-pupils and colleagues held.

Elizabeth moved back to Cape Town in 1899 and became a founding member of the South Africa Coincilliation Committee, a British anti-war organisation opposed to the Second Boer War. She was a co-organiser of mass meetings to protest against the war and the ethnic divisions it caused.

Molteno establised a close friendship with fellow activists Emily Hobhouse and Olive Schreiner, with whom she held humanitarian and anti-war causes during the Second Boer War and the years that followed it, campaigning for the victims (especially the children) who lived in British concentration camps and against the pillaging of the Boer farms.

At Port Elizabeth she also made the acquaintance of Alice Greene, her employee as the vice-principal of the Collegiate School and also involved in anti-war activism.

After the Anglo-Boer War Molteno opposed the radical political developments in South Africa and left for England.

In 1909 and while still in England she met anti-colonial nationalist Gandhi. They soon became friends and over the next few decades corresponded regularly. She also joined the suffragette movement during her stay at London.

In 1912 she returned to South Africa and became highly involved in the cause of non-racialism. Her natural talent with public speaking along with her confidence and social standing made her popular in addressing public meetings on these causes.

Throughout her life she was also a writer of several British and South African publications, famous for their radical and at times anti-imperialistic language.

“Your gift of seeing into the heart of things is so great, and you have control of such exquisite language for expressing moral and spiritual aspects”

Emily Hobhouse about Elizabeth Molteno

Molteno often visited Mr and Mrs Gandhi at Phoenix Settlement and moved there to join the satyagraha campaign. Her cottage at Ohlanga acted as a base for her supporting of several movements operating in the area, included the Gandhis and African statesmen such as John Dube. While giving speeches with Gandhi at Durban meetings, she urged the Indians to side with Africa.

Elizabeth was involved with the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) from its founding in 1912. Together with her brothers, John and Percy Molteno, she supported the early fundraising activities of John L Dube and Sol Plaatje, and campaigned with them on issues such as the Natives Land Act of 1913.

In 1914 the Gandhis visited Cape Town and Molteno worked to arrange meetings between them and the most powerful political figures in South Africa. She also introduced them to Emily Hobhouse and Prime Minister General Botha (who had ignored Gandhi’s earlier requests for an interview.

One of the most important causes that Molteno participated in was about the abuse prisoners experienced at the hands of the South African police force. She worked with abused prisoners and testified at inquests. One of the prisoners she visited was “satyagrahi” Soorzai, a fatally assaulted man for his supposed leading role in a strike. The man succumbed to his injuries and Molteno became deeply involved in the (unsuccesful) legal proceedings concerning his treatment.

When the First World War broke out she along with Emily Hobhouse and Olive Schreiner worked with conscientious objectors (men who refused to perform military service) in wartime England. Molteno’s greatest work in the UK, however, had mainly to do with the cause of women’s rights and representation as she herself was a convert to the movement for women’s suffrage.

Final years and Death

Molteno never married or had any children. However she remained deeply devoted to her siblings until the end of her life and helped in raising her nephews and nieces.

She died in 1927 in southern England and has since been referred to as ”one of the most influential women in South Africa during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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