Olive Schreiner was a writer and feminist and one of the first campaigners for women’s rights. She was also a pacifist. She did not agree with British imperialism in South Africa or with the South African (Anglo-Boer) War 1899-1902 that was fought to achieve it. She opposed racism in whatever form, whether against Boers or Black people, both of whom were ‘underdogs’ in the early part of the 20th century.
Olive was the ninth of twelve children born in 1855 to a Wesleyan missionary couple at Wittebergen near Herschel in the Eastern Cape. She was named Olive Emilie Albertina Schreiner after her three older brothers, Oliver (1848-1854), Albert (1843-1843) and Emile (1852-1852), who died before she was born. Her childhood was unsettled and harsh. The family moved from mission station in remote parts of the Eastern Cape, until her father was expelled from the mission for supplementing his income by trading. Her mother was a stern, rigid woman in a society that was strongly patriarchal. It was probably from her mother that Olive got the idea that ‘to be born a woman was to be born branded’.
Olive was largely self educated and very bright. She would have liked to be a doctor or nurse, but lack of money and her own poor health (she suffered from asthma) prevented her from following either of those careers. She had various brief jobs as a governess and others, and eventually turned to writing as a way of staving off depression.
In 1883, she wrote The Story of an African Farm (1883) which dealt with the lives of three characters, first as children and then as adults who lived on a farm in the Karoo. The characters displayed strong similarities to Olive’s own life and philosophy. Olive had rejected her parents’ Christian beliefs when she was 15 years old, and she rebelled against stereotypical images of women as dependent on men. Free thinking, progressive views about marriage, premarital sex and pregnancy out of wedlock, are all themes in this book, and the main character, Lyndall is an unconventional heroine who does not believe in God. It was revolutionary feminist writing for the time and the book became a best seller in Europe and the United States. It was praised by feminists who approved of the strong heroine who controls her own destiny.
Olive wrote the book under a pseudonym, Ralph Irons, because of prejudice against women authors at the time. She was only able to reveal her true identity when the second edition was published in 1891. She was in London at the time, and London’s intelligentsia began to seek her out. She began a relationship with another writer, Havelock Ellis. They shared the same views on sexuality, sexual equality, the emancipation of women and birth control. It became a lifelong friendship and they wrote letters to each other for the next thirty-six years.
She later wrote a number of political works - for example Trooper Peter Halkett of Mashonaland (1897) which attacked British imperialism and racism in South Africa and championed the causes of the Boers and Black people. She was particularly critical of Cecil John Rhodes and his policies when he was prime minister of the Cape (1890-1896). When the South African (Anglo-Boer) War broke out in 1899, the English burned her house and her manuscripts and sent her to a concentration camp for several years because of her public support of the Afrikaner cause.
In 1909, her book Closer Union was published. In it she argued for more rights for Black people and for women. She was one of the first people to anticipate the consequences of colonial exclusion of Blacks from power in South Africa, and to push for gender equality. In 1907, she joined the Cape branch of the Women’s Enfranchisement League and became its vice-president. She then withdrew her support for the League after she discovered other branches intended to exclude Black women.
One of Olive’s brothers, William Philip Schreiner held similar views. He was prime minister of the Cape Colony in 1898-1900. In 1909, he accompanied a delegation of Black and Coloured leaders to London to ask for a better deal for black people in South Africa. A Union of the four provinces was being proposed and black people were left out of the ‘National’ Convention which met to discuss it. The delegation was unsuccessful.
In 1911, Olive Schreiner published Women and Labour which influenced the women's emancipation movement in England and America in the 1910s-1930s. Women, she wrote, tended to be ‘parasitic’ and social conditions ‘robbed them of all forms of active, conscious social labour . . . reducing them, like the field tick, to the passive exercise of their sex functions alone’. She looked forward to the day when women shared in governance and external affairs, and believed that when that day came, there would be less war as a way of settling differences. Women, she said, ‘understand what unites the races better than men because of their common experience of mothering’.
She also believed women should be paid the same as men. ‘The fact that for equal work equally well performed by a man and by a woman, it is ordained that the woman on the ground of her sex alone shall receive a less recompense’, she said, ‘is the nearest approach to a willful and unqualified "wrong" in the whole relation of woman to society today’.
Olive was a troubled and mostly lonely person. She had several unsatisfactory relationships before marrying a farmer, Samuel Cromwright in 1894. In 1895 she gave birth to a daughter who died a few hours later. She had other miscarriages which affected her deeply although in her first book, The Story of an African Farm, she makes the point she would not like ‘to bring another soul into this world’, for when it sinned it would come back on her. She struggled with depression, her relationship with her husband deteriorated and they lived apart. Years of chronic asthma also took their toll and she developed a heart condition.
She died in December 1920, aged 65 years. She had asked a few months beforehand that she be buried in the same grave as her baby daughter and a little dog who had been her faithful companion. She had bought land at Buffels Hoek, near Cradock in the Eastern Cape for this purpose. Her grave in a rock outface at Buffels Hoek overlooks the Karoo desert.
It would still take most of the century for women to achieve equal rights with men in our country, but hers was an eloquent, early voice which could not be ignored.