Story of an African Farm

When 'The Story of an African Farm' was first published, it was considered an extremely controversial text - so controversial that Schreiner initially published it under the male pseudonym, Ralph Irons. The book was an excoriating look at the unequal relations between men and women at the end of the nineteenth century. Read the extracts that got men around the world hot under the collar.

"Don't you wish you were a woman, Waldo?"

"No," he answered readily.

"I thought not... I never met a man who did... It is delightful to be a woman; but every man thanks the Lord devoutly that he isn't one." ...

They reached the next camp.

"Let us sit at this camp and watch the birds," she said, as an ostrich hen came bounding towards them, with velvety wings outstretched, while far away over the bushes the head of the cock was visible as he sat brooding on the eggs...

"I like these birds," she said; "they share each other's work and are companions...

"This one thought stands - never goes - if I might but be one of those born in the future; then, perhaps, to be born a woman will not be to be born branded...

"It is not what is done to us, but what is made of us, that wrongs us. No man can be really injured but by what modifies himself. We all enter the world little plastic beings, with so much natural force, perhaps, but for the rest - blank, and the world tells us what we are to be, and shapes us by the ends it sets before us. To you it says - Work ! and to us it says - Seem ! To you it says - As you approximate to man's highest ideal of God, as your arm is strong and your knowledge great, and the power to labour is with you, so you shall gain all that human heart desires. To us it says - Strength shall not help you, nor knowledge, nor labour. You shall gain what men gain, but by other means. And so the world makes men and women.

"Look at this little chin of mine, with the dimple in it. It is but a small part of my person; but though I had a knowledge of all things under the sun, and the wisdom to use it, and the deep loving heart of an angel, it would not stead me through life like this little chin. I can win money with it, I can win love; I can win power with it, I can win fame. What would knowledge help me? The less a woman has in her head, the lighter she is for climbing. I once heard an old man say that he never saw intellect help a woman so much as a pretty ankle; and it was the truth. They begin to shape us to our cursed end when we are tiny things in shoes and socks. We sit with our little feet drawn up under us in the window, and look out at the boys in their happy play. We want to go. Then a loving hand is laid on us: 'Little one, you cannot go,' they say; 'your little face will burn and your nice white dress be spoiled.' We feel it must be for our good; it is so lovingly said; but we cannot understand; and we kneel still with one little cheek wistfully pressed against the pane. Afterwards we go and thread blue beads, and make a string for our neck; and we go and stand before the glass. We see the complexion we were not to spoil, and the white frock, and we look into our own great eyes. Then the curse begins to act on us. It finishes its work when we are grown women, who no more look out wistfully at a more healthy life; we are contented... In some of us the shaping to our end has been quite completed. The parts we are not to use have been quite atrophied, and have even dropped off; but in others, and we are not less to be pitied, they have been weakened and left. We wear the bandages, but our limbs have not grown to them; we know that we are compressed, and chafe against them.

"But what does it help? A little bitterness, a little longing when you are young, a little futile searching for work, a little passionate striving for room for the exercise of our powers - and then we go with the drove. A woman must march with her regiment. In the end she must be trodden down or go with it; and if she is wise she goes..."

We stand here at this gate this morning, both poor, both young, both friendless; there is not much to choose between us. Let us turn away just as we are to make our way in life. This evening you will come to a farmer's house. The farmer, albeit you come alone and on foot, will give you a pipe of tobacco and a cup of coffee and a bed. If he has no dam and no child to teach, to-morrow you can go on your way with a friendly greeting of the hand. I, if I come to the same place to-night, will have strange questions asked me, strange glances cast on me. The Boer-wife will shake her head and give me food to eat with the Kaffirs, and a right to sleep with the dogs. That would be the first step in our progress - a very little one, but every step to the end would repeat it. We were equals once when we lay new-born babes on our nurse's knees. We will be equals again when they tie up our jaws for the last sleep...

"But some women have power," said Waldo.
Do you think if Napoleon had been a woman that he would have been contented to give small tea-parties and talk small scandal?

"Power! Did you ever hear of men being asked whether other souls should have power or not? It is born in them. You may dam up the fountain of water, and make it a stagnant marsh or you may let it run free, and do its work; but you cannot say whether it shall be there: it is there. And it will act, if not openly for good, then covertly for evil; but it will act... Do you think if Napoleon had been a woman that he would have been contented to give small tea-parties and talk small scandal? He would have risen; but the world would not have heard of him as it hears of him now - a man, great and kingly, with all his sins; he would have left one of those names that stain the leaf of every history - the names of women, who, having power, but being denied the right to exercise it openly, rule in the dark, covertly, and by stealth, through the men whose passions they feed on, and by whom they climb.

"Power! Yes, we have power; and since we are not to expend it in tunnelling mountains, nor healing diseases, nor making laws, nor money, nor on any extraneous object, we expend it on you. You are our goods, our merchandise, our material for operating on; we buy you, we sell you, we make fools of you, we act the wily old Jew 1 with you, we keep six of you crawling to our little feet, and praying only for a touch of our little hand; and they say truly, there was never an ache or a pain or a broken heart but a woman was at the bottom of it. We are not to study law, nor science, nor art; so we study you. There is never a nerve or a fibre in your man's nature but we know it...

"They bring weighty arguments against us when we ask for the perfect freedom of woman... but, when you come to the objections, they are like pumpkin-devils with candles inside; hollow, and can't bite. They say that women do not wish for the sphere and freedom we ask for them and would not use it!

"If the bird does like its cage, and does like its sugar and will not leave it, why keep the door so very carefully shut? Why not open it, only a little? Do they know there is many a bird will not break its wings against the bars, but would fly if the doors were open...

"Then they say, 'If the women have the liberty you ask for, they will be found in positions for which they are not fitted!' If two men climb one ladder, did you ever see the weakest anywhere but at the foot? The surest sign of fitness is success. The weakest never win, except where there is handicapping. Nature left to herself will as beautifully apportion a man's work to his capacities as long ages ago she graduated the colours on the bird's breast. If we are not fit, you give us to no purpose the right to labour; the work will fall out of our hands into those that are wiser..."

"And then, when they have no other argument against us, they say - 'Go on; but when you have made women what you wish, and her children inherit her culture, you will defeat yourself. Man will suddenly become extinct from excess of intellect, the passions which replenish the race will die.' Fools! ... A Hottentot sits at the roadside and feeds on a rotten bone he has found there, and takes out his bottle of Cape-smoke and swills at it, and grunts with satisfaction; and the cultured child of the nineteenth century sits in his arm-chair, and sips choice wines with the lip of a connoisseur, and tastes delicate dishes with a delicate palate, and with a satisfaction of which the Hottentot knows nothing. Heavy jaw and sloping forehead - all have gone with increasing intellect; but the animal appetites are there still - refined, discriminative, but immeasurably intensified. Fools! Before men forgave or worshipped, while they were still weak on their hind legs, did they not eat and fight for wives? When all the later additions to humanity have vanished, will not the foundation on which they are built remain? ...

"They ask, 'What will you gain, even if man does not become extinct? - You will have brought justice and equality on to the earth, and sent love from it. When men and women are equals they will love no more. Your highly cultured women will not be lovable, will not love.'

"Do they see nothing, understand nothing? ... It is the hard-headed, deep thinker who, when the wife who has thought and worked with him goes, can find no rest, and lingers near her till he finds sleep beside her.
When love is no more bought or sold, when it is not a means of making bread, when each woman's life is filled with earnest, independent labour, then love will come to her

"A great soul draws and is drawn with a more fierce intensity than any small one. By every inch we grow in intellectual height our love strikes down its roots deeper, and spreads out its arms wider. It is for love's sake yet more than for any other that we look for that new time... Then when that time comes... when love is no more bought or sold, when it is not a means of making bread, when each woman's life is filled with earnest, independent labour, then love will come to her, a strange sudden weakness breaking in upon her earnest work; not sought for, but found. Then, but not now..." 

"You got my short letter?"

"Yes; that is why I came. You sent a very foolish reply, you must take it back. Who is this fellow you talk of marrying?"

"A young farmer."

"Lives here?"

"Yes; he has gone to town to get things for our wedding."

"What kind of a fellow is he?"

"A fool."

"And you would rather marry him than me?"

"Yes; because you are not one."

"That is a novel reason for refusing to marry a man," he said, leaning his elbow on the table, and watching her keenly.

"It is a wise one," she said shortly. "If I marry him I shall shake him off my hand when it suits me. If I remained with him for twelve months he would never have dared to kiss my hand. As far as I wish he should come, he comes, and no further. Would you ask me what you might and might not do?"

Her companion raised the moustache with a caressing movement from his lip and smiled. It was not a question that stood in need of any answer.

"Why do you wish to enter on this semblance of marriage?"

"Because there is only one point on which I have a conscience. I have told you so."

"Then why not marry me?"

"Because if once you have me you would hold me fast. I shall never be free again." She drew a long low breath...

"If you do love me," he asked her, "why will you not marry me?"

"Because, if I had been married to you for a year, I should have come to my senses, and seen that your hands and your voice are like the hands and the voice of any other man. I cannot quite see that now. But it is all madness. You call into activity one part of my nature; there is a higher part that you know nothing of; that you never touch. If I married you, afterwards it would arise and assert itself, and I should hate you always, as I do now sometimes."

- Schreiner, O., The Story of an African Farm, Project Gutenberg E-Text Edition,

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"If a race or class is willing to demonstrate and do and die for freedom they will ultimately be free"
Olive Schreiner
Olive Schreiner
Picture: © Sunday Times


In this lesson plan, learners are asked to find out about Olive Schreiner's attitudes, ideas and relationships from studying photographs, letters and pamphlets.

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