Encyclopedia Womannica

Beautiful Minds: Olive Schreiner

Episode Summary

Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) was a South African author, social commentator, and activist.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard. Theme music by Andi Kristins.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I'm Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today, we're talking about one of the first South African writers to earn worldwide acclaim. She was a radical social commentator whose work helped to shape  future women's movements. Let's talk about Olive Schreiner.

Olive Emily Albertina Schreiner was born on March 24, 1855, in Wittebergen, Cape Colony, what’s now modern day South Africa. She didn't receive formal education, but her missionary mother strongly encouraged her to read a variety of books throughout her childhood.

Olive became a governess and, at age 19, started writing her first books.  They were published after she moved to England in 1881.

First, she published Story of an African Farm in 1883, under the pseudonym Ralph Iron. The book was a hit throughout Europe and North America. Though Olive published under a different name, the story was deeply personal and semi-autobiographical. 

In Story of an African Farm, Olive wrote of a girl fighting to maintain her independence amidst the strict social roles typical of African colonizers. The book emphasizes unique, feminist views about religion, individualism, and women’s careers. These were some of the most topical issues of the time, and that propelled the book into notoriety and fame.

Olive’s radical tendencies extended beyond her political opinions. She disregarded the standards of appearance expected of women in the Victorian era, rejecting rigid undergarments, hats, and gloves.

In 1889, Olive returned to South Africa and married a farmer-politician. She kept her maiden name, which was highly unusual at the time.

Olive was a public voice against war and colonization in South Africa. After returning to the country, she wrote several articles and books attacking imperialism and prominent political figures, including Cecil John Rhodes during his time as prime minister of the Cape. In 1899, a war broke out between the English colonizers and South Africans. Because of Olive’s support of the Afrikaner plight, English troops burned her house down and sent her to a concentration camp for several years.

After her release, she continued speaking out with  her unpopular political opinions. In 1911, Olive published another acclaimed work, called Woman and Labour. In this book, she asserted that the authority of men isn’t innate, and that one day in the future women and men will become true “comrades and co-workers.”

Throughout her life, Olive published books with themes of anti-war, gender equality, and racial equality. She stood up for those  affected by British Imperialism,

Olive passed away on December 11, 1920 at age 65. Her husband published two of her novels posthumously, one called From Man to Man and another called Undine.

Like the rest of her work, From Man to Man explores feminist themes. In the novel, the central character attempts to educate herself and her children about racist and sexist social structures of the era.

Olive Schreiner's work broke barriers throughout her career and  is still worth studying today!

Join us tomorrow for the story of another Beautiful Mind!

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator!

Talk to you tomorrow!