ALL her life Olive Schreiner advocated equality of the sexes and, in her defence of freedom and independence, often found herself at odds with the British colonial government.
The Women’s Enfranchisement League of the Cape Colony was established in 1907 "to promote an intelligent interest in the question of the political enfranchisement of women in the Cape Colony, and to advocate for the granting of the vote to them on the same terms as men".
In 1909 Schreiner wrote to a friend: "If a race or class is willing to demonstrate and do and die for freedom, they will ultimately be free — their spirits are free now."
Born in 1855, Schreiner intended to train as a nurse and went to England in 1881 to do so, but her asthma twice forced her to abandon this course. She decided that the only life that she was cut out for was "scribbling".
In 1883, to worldwide acclaim, she published The Story of an African Farm, which she had written as a 21-year-old governess working in the Karoo. The protagonist in the novel is Lyndall, a fiercely independent young woman who baulks at the strictures of Victorian society and the accepted role of women.
It is delightful to be a woman, but every man thanks the Lord devoutly that he isn’t one
In the novel she famously declares: "When I am strong, I will hate everything that has power, and help everything that is weak." She further mocks male hypocrisy by observing: "It is delightful to be a woman, but every man thanks the Lord devoutly that he isn’t one."
The publication of The Story of an African Farm in 1883 became an important milestone in the women’s suffrage movement. Six years later, in 1889, two pioneer women’s societies were established in South Africa — the Vrouesendingbond and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).
It was at a meeting of the WCTU in 1907 that the Cape Women’s Enfranchisement League was formed. Other similar leagues had already been established in Durban (1902) and Port Elizabeth (1905).
The aims of the league were articulated on its membership card: "The object of this society is to promote an intelligent interest in the question of the political enfranchisement of women in the Cape Colony, and to advocate for the granting of the vote to them on the same terms as men." Olive Schreiner and her friend Mary Brown both served as vice-presidents.
In a book published three years after her death by "Mrs John Brown", her friend described the vigour with which Schreiner pursued certain causes in which she believed. "I have alluded to her strong sense of justice and her brave defence of what she felt was right and true, but these feelings sometimes carried her beyond all reason, and any who witnessed one of her nerve storms would not easily forget how entirely she was swept away and carried beyond herself."
Any who witnessed one of her nerve storms would not easily forget how entirely she was swept away and carried beyond herself
Schreiner enjoyed a long friendship with Emily Hobhouse, another pioneering woman who also believed in the equality of women and had criticised the conduct of British forces during the Anglo-Boer War.
Writing from her home in De Aar on October 3, 1908, Schreiner expressed to Hobhouse her frustration with the slow pace of change in the British colony: "It seems so sad that you are really going away from Africa, and yet I feel it’s best. I too would go if I could. That is, I feel I could do so much more in Europe than I can here. No one needs me here except the natives — and that is indeed hard and stern work that calls to all the bravest souls in South Africa for many years to come…
"We shall have an uphill fight here to rouse and educate our women to their public duties. You see, we are just 60 years behind Europe in this, as in so many other matters. I wish you were coming this way on your journey home. It is a noble page of a woman’s work that you are closing as you go away…"
In a letter to Francis Smith, in November 1909, Schreiner passionately tries to make her friend see the value of the women’s suffrage movement: "Dear one, don’t you see, it’s not the vote they are fighting for? It’s freedom for women! It’s the fact, that, in some cause they believe to be of benefit to women and promoting human freedom, there are found women ready to fight, to face ridicule, abuse, suffering, and even death if necessary, that is so grand!
"If I didn’t believe in the vote being of use, the fight would be equally glorious to me! If it put the vote off in England for twenty years, the freedom of action they have given an example of to all women, makes their fight of infinite value.
"If a race or class is willing to demonstrate and do and die for freedom, they will ultimately be free — their spirits are free now. The true freedom of women is something that cannot be given her; that she has to work out within herself."
However, it was this same passion and sense of commitment that led Schreiner to resign from the league because it would not broaden its struggle to include all South African women, black and white.
In a joint letter from the committee they begged her to reconsider: "To many of us you are a dear and honoured friend — to all of us a living force of inspiration. You have stood for the cause of Woman’s Enfranchisement for nearly thirty years.
"Your courage, your political insight, your love of freedom and the honour of your world-renowned name are indispensable to the League. If we could make you realise all that we feel in losing you, we are convinced you could not refuse our request."
Schreiner did not change her mind.
A chronic asthma sufferer all her life, she left for Europe "in search of her health" in December 1913 and remained abroad for the duration of World War One, enduring considerable abuse in England for her German surname as well as her pacifist views. She returned to South Africa in August 1920 and died in her sleep on December 10, 1920 in Wynberg, Cape Town. She was 65.
The woman writer who has done most to spread the idea of women’s suffrage throughout the world is a born South African, Olive Schreiner
In a letter to the Cape Argus in 1920, an executive member of the Women’s Enfranchisement League, Julia Solly, wrote: "The woman writer who has done most to spread the idea of women’s suffrage throughout the world is a born South African, Olive Schreiner."
The campaign to win the right to vote for white women from the all-white Union government took 20 years. Close to midnight on April 11, 1930, by a majority of 40 votes, the government of Prime Minister Albert Hertzog gave white women the same voting rights as white men. Coloured and African men had a qualified franchise in certain parts of South Africa.
Researched by Sue Valentine with acknowledgments and thanks to:
• 7th Annual Report, Women’s Enfranchisement League, April 1 1914
• Liz Stanley, Professor of Sociology, University of Edinburgh — personal conversation and notes (August 2006)
• Cherryl Walker, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in South Africa (Centre for African Studies, UCT, No. 2, 1979)
• Ruth First & Ann Scott (eds) Olive Schreiner (The Women’s Press, 1989; first published André Deutsch, 1980)
• Mrs John Brown, Olive Schreiner: Memories of a Friendship (Cape Town, 1923)
• SC Cronwright-Schreiner (ed), The Letters of Olive Schreiner (1924)
• Cherry Clayton (ed), Olive Schreiner (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1983)
• Karel Schoeman, Only an Anguish to Live Here: Olive Schreiner and the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 (Human & Rousseau, Cape Town, 1992)
• Photographs, "English Church Schoolroom", Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Kalk Bay