The long-delayed film Winnie Mandela, staring Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard, came out this month, shining a spotlight on the wife of one of history’s most famous activists. Prominent political figures don't just depend on the support of their base but of their partners, whether they're Chinese labor activists or Belarusian opposition politicians. Here are five wives whose dedication and hard work made their husbands' activism possible.
Winnie Madikizela–Mandela stood up against the South African government throughout her husband's decades of imprisonment, and was exiled because of her stance. She even spent a year and a half in solitary confinement during the late 1960s. Her post-apartheid stance was much less peaceable than her partner's, and her aggressive tendencies and legal troubles made her a polarizing character on the South African national stage. But her work as a social justice fighter, politician, and vital anti-apartheid figure deserves to be remembered.
While Coretta Scott King was an avid promoter of the peaceful social justice and civil rights philosophy of her husband, Martin Luther King Jr., she was also an independent woman who balanced her family's needs with fighting for racial justice in the United States. According to the New York Times, "She stunned Dr. King's father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., who presided over the wedding, by demanding that the promise to obey her husband be removed from the wedding vows." King played a crucial role in the civil rights movement after her husband’s assassination, as she continued his work and led the charge to create a holiday in his honor.
A less well-known figure, Helen Fabela Chavez worked with her husband, Cesar. In addition to birthing and raising eight children and laboring as a farm worker, she participated in the movement that would bring her husband renown as a civil rights crusader. Born of a Mexican revolutionary, Helen was poised to follow in her father’s footsteps, but because of the times, many of her achievements went unnoticed and were overshadowed by her husband’s accomplishments. Chavez played a behind-the-scenes but essential role in organizing the United Farm Workers of America.
Leah Tutu met her husband Desmond when he attended the college at which she was teaching. The two married shortly thereafter, in 1955. She single-handedly supported their family after 1957, when Desmond quit teaching in response to the Bantu Education Act, which allowed for racial inequality in the educational system. After taking on odd jobs, she drew on her experience as the daughter of a domestic worker, as well as her work as a nurse and teacher, to cofound the South African Domestic Workers Association, which tasked itself with improving the lives of South African domestic workers.
Kasturba Gandhi's marriage to her husband Mohandas was arranged in 1882. She stayed behind to raise their son when Mohandas went to study in London, but followed her husband to South Africa, where the two fought for Indian civil rights (she even served a hard-labor prison sentence due to her political pursuits). Kasturba later followed her husband back to India, where she supported him and his struggle for Indian independence.