Make a Track to the Water’s Edge: A Reflection on Racial Inequality at the Centennial of the 19th Amendment

[Anna Spydell, one of the editors of Dreams by Olive Schreiner, reflects on the place of Dreams in the history of women’s suffrage and the complex legacy of 20th-century suffrage.]

When we set out to bring Olive Schreiner’s Dreams back into the public consciousness, we had this date, August 18, 2020, in our sights. The hundred-year anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, in an election year that we hoped would liberate us from a misogynistic administration, seemed like the most serendipitous time possible in which to publish a new edition of a text chanted in prisons by suffragettes. Those protestors from the past read Dreams aloud in an effort to fortify themselves against the suffering they would endure on their journey toward securing the right to vote.

The year turned out to be more tumultuous than even we could have guessed as a global pandemic changed life, perhaps forever, and racial issues exploded to the forefront with George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. As we write this, the administration that governs our country seeks to sink the United States Post Office in an effort to suppress voting rights. While many citizens such as ourselves—white, middle class—stand horrified (and indeed, it is horrifying), there are many others for whom this is not a new landscape, though we tend to overlook how some citizens still struggle to exercise their voting rights when constructing our narrative of the women’s suffrage movement.

“The women of the Cape Colony, all women of the Cape Colony. These are the terms on which I joined” were the words Olive Schreiner scrawled furiously across a leaflet for the Women’s Enfranchisement League when she left it in 1914 over the League’s refusal to admit Black women as members. Schreiner had heretofore been a celebrated member of the South African organization, serving as its vice-president for a time at its founding in 1907, and enjoying the support of the League as they promoted her works and asked her to speak at their meetings. Schreiner was a figure of importance transnationally in the women’s suffrage movement; her work, Dreams, was a holy text fort the movement. Standing out particularly is “Three Dreams in a Desert,” in which a figure personifying Reason leads a woman to a “dark flowing river,” which she must cross on the heels of others who have tried the same and suffered an unknown fate. Doubtful of her ability, she listens, and hears “a sound of feet, a thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands, and they beat this way!”

“They are the feet of those that shall follow you,” responds Reason. “Lead on! Make a track to the water’s edge!”

The woman responds, “Over that bridge which shall be built with our bodies, who will pass?” It is here that Reason tells her she and those who are following will build a bridge for the whole human race.

As we stand here on our bank a hundred years removed from that first day in which many women won the vote, we must wonder who has lain beneath our feet—those foremothers we have walked on, but refused to see. We must also look to those who were forcibly held back from the bridge of women’s suffrage, for the whole human race certainly has not been able to pass. If we take anything at all away from 2020 as a lesson, it is that change in the name of justice and common humanity must happen, and it must happen swiftly. The mission of women’s suffrage has been an unequal one, with heavy work still at hand, and it cannot bear another year of celebrating familiar names such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who opposed extending the vote to Black men without also extending it to women. Their names are synonymous with the American women’s suffrage movement, but Ida B. Wells founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago; Harriet Forten Purvis established the first National Women’s Rights Convention; Mary Church Terrell stood outside the White House to protest Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Yet they have been rendered all but invisible. Nor can a celebration of women’s suffrage bear another year in which we ignore the harder struggle fought by Black women for the same enfranchisement that we enjoy; that struggle for their right to vote continues to this day through systemic racism and is as imperiled now as ever.

In 1866, Black suffragette, writer, and founder of the American Woman Suffrage Association Frances Watkins Harper told the National Women’s Rights Convention, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.” Perhaps this is what Schreiner felt in her heart as she pressed her pen to the WEL leaflet in anger: All the women. All the women.

We are all bound up in one great bundle of humanity, and in the unforeseen tumult of this anniversary of a right we thought won, we have the opportunity to build a stronger bridge, and we must not miss it.

Anna Spydell

Posted on August 18, 2020