Rachel Sandwell

Assistant Professor


I am a historian of modern Africa and transnational solidarity movements, with a focus on late decolonization, national liberation movements, and international support for national liberation movements. I am particularly interested in women’s work and the politics of gender in these contexts. Prior to coming to Cornell, I taught in the Department of History & Classical Studies and the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at McGill University and was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

My first book, entitled National Fantasies: Gender and the Politics of Exile in South Africa, argues that women played a key role in the anti-apartheid struggle, particularly within the exiled African National Congress, through engagements like their activism for sexual and reproductive health services within the organization. I argue that women worked actively to build a post-apartheid state where gender roles as well as race relations were transformed. This research explores transnational connections between thinkers in South Africa, the US, the UK, and across decolonizing African nations, highlighting women’s contributions to theorizing anti-colonial freedom in Africa. This book is forthcoming with Ohio University Press, New African Histories Series.

I am currently working on a new project tentatively entitled The National Liberation Moment: Armed Struggle and Solidarity in Africa’s Late Decolonization. This project examines the transnational history of support for belated decolonization movements in southern Africa and the Portuguese colonies, looking at ties between figures in these movements and their optimistic supporters in European and American universities and social movements. I am also interested in exploring biography as a mode of approaching histories of solidarity.  

Research Focus

  • Comparative and transnational
  • Modern African history
  • Gender and Sexuality


National Fantasies: Gender and the Politics of Exile in South Africa. Book manuscript under contract with Ohio University Press, New African Histories Series. Forthcoming 2025.

“South African Women and the Politics of Peace in the 1950s,” South African Historical Journal (forthcoming 2024).

“Fantasy States: Nationalism, Intimacy, and Transgression in South African Women’s Political Memoirs", Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Vol 47, no 3, (Spring 2022): 765-787.

"The Travels of Florence Mophosho: The African National Congress and Left Internationalism,” Journal of Women’s History, vol 30, no 4 (2018): 84-108.

“If Not Feminism, Then What? Women’s Work in the African National Congress, 1980-1990,” in Women’s Activism and "Second Wave" Feminism: Transnational Histories, (eds) Jennifer Nelson and Barbara Molony. (London, Bloomsbury Press: 2017).

 “Love I Cannot Begin to Explain: The politics of reproduction in the ANC in Exile, 1976-1990.” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol 4, No 1 (2015): 63-81.