Olive Schreiner’s 1911 book is, as we learn in the lengthy introduction, a retelling of a chapter of a longer book she wrote but that was burned in the Boer War. While this smaller section was a worthy read, I’m somewhat grateful that we’re not saddled with the massive tome it originated from. She warns that the increasingly mechanized society is doing away with the jobs that men had already taken from women (agriculture, making of clothes, brewing of beer and baking of bread). More men are becoming unemployed unless they focus on intellectual jobs, and where does that leave women who are barred from the same training (and also barred from the vote still, when this was written)? She asserts that women have been made into parasites, having to find a host to feed on since banned from independently making their own way.
Even that tired chestnut of women’s role only being to bear children had broken apart by the time Schreiner wrote this; now women exhorted to only have as many children as they could properly care for, since infant mortality was dropping and there was no glory in popping out 20 children over a lifetime dedicated to breeding. Learned a terrible quote from Martin Luther, that old German sexist, who wrote in the 16th century “If a woman becomes weary or at last dead from bearing, that matters not; let her only die from bearing, she is there to do it.” This is flipped on its head in the 20th (and 21st) century, and reproduction becomes a right only of the wealthy. Poor women no longer needed to push out huge armies of laborers since everything is becoming mechanized.
Schreiner’s main thrust is that women need proper work in a challenging intellectual sphere. Equal access to work, labor is key.
From the introduction, an eye to the future generations nearly breaks my heart:
I should like to say to the men and women of the generations which will come after us-“You will look back at us with astonishment! You will wonder at passionate struggles that accomplished so little; at the, to you, obvious paths to attain our ends which we did not take; at the intolerable evils before which it will seem to you we sat down passive; at the great truths staring us in the face, which we failed to see; at the truths we grasped at, but never quite got our fingers round. You will marvel at the labour that ended in so little;-but, what you will never know is how it was thinking of you and for you, that we struggled as we did and accomplished the little which we have done; that it was in the thought of your larger realisation and fuller life, that we found consolation for the futilities of our own.”
On women writing and engaging in the only intellectual pursuits available to them, emphasis in the below is mine:
It is sometimes stated, that as several women of genius in modern times have sought to find expression for their creative powers in the art of fiction, there must be some inherent connection in the human brain between the ovarian sex function and the art of fiction. The fact is, that modern fiction being merely a description of human life in any of its phases, and being the only art that can be exercised without special training or special appliances, and produced in the moments stolen from the multifarious, brain-destroying occupations which fill the average woman’s life, they have been driven to find this outlet for their powers as the only one presenting itself. How far otherwise might have been the directions in which their genius would naturally have expressed itself can be known only partially even to the women themselves; what the world has lost by that compulsory expression of genius, in a form which may not have been its most natural form of expression, or only one of its forms, no one can ever know. Even in the little third-rate novelist whose works cumber the ground, we see often a pathetic figure, when we recognise that beneath that failure in a complex and difficult art, may lie buried a sound legislator, an able architect, an original scientific investigator, or a good judge. Scientifically speaking, it is as unproven that there is any organic relation between the brain of the female and the production of art in the form of fiction, as that there is an organic relation between the hand of woman and a typewriting machine. Both the creative writer and the typist, in their respective spheres, are merely finding outlets for their powers in the direction of least resistance. The tendency of women at the present day to undertake certain forms of labour, proves only that in the crabbed, walled-in, and bound conditions surrounding woman at the present day, these are the lines along which action is most possible to her.