Helen Joseph, Anti-Apartheid Activist
With gratitude, confidence, and pride, I say that what every woman wants most is to be just—to see meaning in the whole world as the one authentic means of taking care of herself. I learned this from Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by poet and critic Eli Siegel, and it is what I now teach to women in consultations at the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City.
In the late 1960’s, even as I was proud of my opposition to the Vietnam War and demonstrated on the Boston Common, I was worried about the fact that things didn’t mean enough to me. I found it hard to get along with people, easily lost my temper, and fought with nearly everyone I knew. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson I was fortunate to have some years later, Eli Siegel asked me: “Do you believe in justice?” At the time, my answer was No. I felt I had endured a great deal in life and saw other people as representing a world which made me suffer, and which I had a right to be angry with and despise. Mr. Siegel asked: “Have you tried to find flaws in people?” Yes, I did.
I remember a 1969 meeting of the Boston Women’s Health Course Collective, in which I made mental notes on how the women dressed, their weight, their mannerisms, looking for anything to bolster myself up. I didn’t know that this unjust purpose made for my nervousness and tormenting self-doubt which, increasingly, I tried to extinguish through alcohol.
In the international periodical, The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #274, Eli Siegel writes:
I love the fact that I heard exact and ever so kind criticism of the fake superiority that was ruining my life, and that I learned what I really wanted: to believe in and care for justice. This large study continues in professional classes taught by Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss. As a result, my life is happier and more useful than I once could have imagined.
In this paper, as I speak about myself, what women are learning in Aesthetic Realism consultations, and aspects of the life of Helen Joseph—a courageous opponent of apartheid in South Africa—I will show that criticism of our hope to be superior is the most liberating thing in life.
When Does the Hope to Be Superior Begin?
As a child, my desire to like things showed in my love for reading books like Black Beauty,The Bobsey Twins, and fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. But I also used the praise I got for reading to feel I was smarter than everyone, including my parents who struggled to raise five children, and had little time to read. They would often fight, and at a young age I felt that I was surrounded by adults who had made a mess of their lives and had no right to tell me what to do. More than I realized, I judged my friends by whether or not I felt superior to them.
When I was 8, I had a friend Joyce whose family was poor and she didn’t have many friends. I wanted to be kind, but I also remember seeing her with cardboard in her shoes and smugly thinking, “I’m better off than she is.” I was envious of other girls’ educations, their middle class backgrounds, the money they had, and ashamed that my father was “only a mailman.” I thought the relatives on my mother’s side, who were Italian, were fun to be with. But I thought my father’s side, the Irish, were more “high-class”—so I told people I was Irish. I spent hours imagining I was a heroine, with other people subservient, praising of me, and needing my advice. By the time I was an adult, I tried to put into practice what had gone on in my mind secretly—managing everyone’s life.
As an office manager in the Ophthalmology Department of a Boston hospital, I assumed I was the most efficient person there and alternately hovered over people and gave them orders. Once someone saluted me. When Wendy showed me how she did a skilled eye test, I was impressed. But I didn’t like her knowing something I didn’t. I thought, “I’m in charge here.” I had satisfaction when I found a minor mistake in paperwork she had done, and insisted she do things my way until we were both shouting furiously at each other. I still remember the deadly silence in the office afterward—no one knew what to say, and I felt mortified.
In one of the first Aesthetic Realism classes I attended in 1972, Eli Siegel asked me: “Do you like being superior to the person you are talking to?” I said, “Yes,” and Mr. Siegel said, “Why don’t you use some New England good sense!” And he explained, “People can feel superior and we look for that. Do you believe in yourself now?” I said hesitantly, “I think I do,” and Mr. Siegel asked: “Could you believe in yourself more?” He continued:
Eli Siegel: Do you like to get into fights with people?
I was learning the true basis for believing in myself, by seeing the world and people justly. What I feel today, wanting to understand people and seeing how every person adds to me, is infinitely more satisfying than the fake superiority I once thought I couldn’t live without. It enabled me to have a passion about the justice people deserve—including from me!
A Woman of South Africa Makes a Choice about Justice
"How strong is the need for justice in the world and in a person?" asks Eli Siegel in The Right Of #167. Helen Joseph (1905-1992), whose life I speak about now, shows vividly and valuably how strong this need is. Described as one of "South Africa's greatest freedom fighters" because of her opposition to apartheid—the institutionalized racism in South Africa—she shows that when a woman sees the hideous effects of the hope to be superior, she is compelled to make a different choice. She was born and raised in England. In 1931 at age 26, she moved to South Africa where the white minority controlled the country’s vast wealth under the brutal, dehumanizing, government system of racial separation. Apartheid, and every form that racism has ever taken, Aesthetic Realism explains, comes from contempt. It is the desire to be superior in its most ugly and virulent form.
For a while, Helen Joseph tried to adapt herself to a life of white privilege. "In those days," a 1986 article said of her. " she was known as beautiful and flighty, leading a life of wining and dining and bridge parties."
But she wanted something more—the desire in her for justice was insistent and strong. By 1950, wrote Mrs. Joseph, "I had...learned to use my eyes. I saw the terrible poverty....too many of the graves in cemeteries were for children." For forty-two years, until her death in 1992, she dedicated her life to opposing apartheid. She helped to found the Federation of South African Women, an organization allied to the African National Congress which she respected and loved.
In 1956 the South African government tried to extend the infamous “pass laws” to women—laws requiring Africans to carry identification at all times and subjected them to arrest if they did not. Helen Joseph was one of the leaders in a protest by 20,000 women, mostly African, who marched on the capital in Pretoria. She saw this as her greatest achievement and proudest moment, and that day, August 9, 1956 is celebrated throughout South Africa today as National Women’s Day. When she died in 1992, the African National Congress stated:
“[Helen Joseph] was not someone to see injustice and suffering and allow it to go unchallenged. The terrible cancer of racist oppression was for her an evil that had to be fought uncompromisingly. In not only being aware of the pain of oppression, but actually making that pain her own, Helen became a South African in the fullest sense of the word....She knew the regime would try to destroy her, but within her was such a deep anger against injustice that she faced the attacks of the government with a strength, courage and dignity that brought her oppressors to shame.”
Helen Joseph showed clearly and courageously that she didn’t like herself for the cold, contemptuous way she had earlier seen people. Her life is important evidence of the strength of a woman’s desire to be just to the world and other people.
Carol Driscoll is a consultant on the faculty of the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City. Originally from Boston, in 1971 she was a member of the Boston Women’s Health Collective, and contributed to Our Bodies, Ourselves [Simon and Schuster, NY]. She is a public speaker at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation and gives seminars on matters affecting women’s lives, including, Can a Woman be Assertive and Yielding Too?; What Should a Woman Do About Her Sureness and Unsureness?; Can a Woman Be Independent and Still Love? She is married to Harvey Spears, Art Director, Aesthetic Realism Associate, and one of the authors of Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism, [Orange Angle Press, 2004].