Fellow nerds, I am SO excited for today’s installment of Feminist Fridays because I have the pleasure of discussing Olive Schreiner’s fantastic work Woman and Labour. One of the many perks of being in a Writing Feminisms tutorial at Oxford is that I’m introduced to numerous writers that I had never heard of before.
Olive Schreiner (1855-1920) is a South African writer most well-known for her novel The Story of an African Farm, which she began writing when she was a teenager. In addition to being a novelist, Schreiner was also a notable suffragist, anti-war campaigner, and political activist during her time. Interestingly, her life goal was to become a medical doctor; however, she was never able to make this goal a reality due to her poor health. Schreiner eventually turned to writing as one of the few professions she could feasibly do considering her serious issues with asthma.
Woman and Labour was published in 1911, during the last decade of her life, and discusses her views on the Woman’s Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The text begins with a comprehensive history of woman’s labor since the hunter-gatherer days of humans living in the wilderness before she turns to more modern concerns. Schreiner uses this important historical context to assert that the so-called “New Woman” of the moment is not new at all; rather, she is rooted in the feminine past.
The banner which we unfurl today is not new: it is the standard of the old, free, monogamous, laboring woman, which, twenty hundred years ago, floated over the forests of Europe…
She further emphasizes that the Woman’s Movement to gain more opportunities for women in labour fields other than domestic work was for the benefit of all women, both present and future– not for the advantage of the individual. If society was to improve over time, it would only be through the simultaneous and harmonious improvement of men and women together. The alternative path– continuing on with a male-dominated labor force– would only exacerbate the problem of sex-parasitism in which women were left dependent on their husbands for wealth, property, etc. Only through the emergence of the so-called New Woman could the “New Man” develop and prosper, for “if anywhere on earth exists the perfect ideal of that which the modern woman desires to be–of a laboring and virile womanhood, free, strong, fearless and tender– it will probably be found in the heart of the New Man.”
What struck me most about Woman and Labour is how incredibly relevant it is to our modern society. Of course, women have significantly more opportunities in the workplace today than in 1911 when this book was first published; however, many of the concerns that Schreiner expressed are ones we still face now. The Center for American Progress recently released “The Women’s Leadership Gap” in which they explain that despite the fact that women make up not only the majority of the national population but also the majority of those graduating with undergraduate and master’s degrees, they still do not hold nearly as many leadership positions as do men. Their following conclusion is even more alarming:
Women have outnumbered men on college campuses since 1988.56 They have earned at least one-third of law degrees since 198057 and accounted for fully one-third of medical school students by 1990.58 Yet they have not moved up to positions of prominence and power in America at anywhere near the rate that should have followed.
In a broad range of fields, their presence in top leadership positions—as equity law partners, medical school deans, and corporate executive officers—remains stuck at a mere 10 percent to 20 percent. As recently as 2012, their “share of voice”—the average proportion of their representation on op-ed pages and corporate boards; as TV pundits, Wikipedia contributors, Hollywood writers, producers, and directors; and as members of Congress—was just 18 percent.59
In fact, it has been estimated that, at the current rate of change, it will take until 2085 for women to reach parity with men in key leadership roles in the United States.60
It is undeniable that we have come a long way since the publication of Woman and Labour; yet it is also undeniable that we still have a long way to go before achieving gender equality for all. Reading works such as those of Olive Schreiner is a valuable way of reminding ourselves where we stand and why we need to continue standing up for this important cause.
What are your thoughts on Schreiner’s ideas in Woman and Labor? Have any recommendations for other works I should read? Let me know in the comments section below!