Julia Solly nee Muspratt (1862 - 1953) was a feminist and temperance worker. Born in England, she was educated at Cheltenham Ladies College and Liverpool University College. After her marriage she moved to South Africa, where she lived for a time in Kimberley where her husband worked as a railway engineer, and she was very much involved in the Women’s Temperance Union. According to Langham-Carter (1981: 589), “She and Olive Schreiner were firm friends from 1892 onwards and they often worked together in women’s causes”. However, in fact it is not at all apparent that Schreiner and Julia Solly were ‘firm friends’, nor when they first met, but the focus of their connection was certainly the mutual involvement from 1907 onwards in the Cape Women’s Enfranchisement League. Solly had six children and is said to have had an “earnest and rather autocratic disposition” (Langham-Carter 1981: 589). In 1913 she became a member of the National Council of Women and later one of its vice-presidents. She was also active in pacifist circles.
Schreiner’s letters to Julia Solly provide fascinating insight into the workings of the WEL and the internal as well as external politics of the organisation. Schreiner’s earliest extant letter to Solly dates from the period when Schreiner was living in Kimberley (1894 - 1898) and from its content it suggests that Julia Solly perhaps through her husband helped provide Schreiner with contacts who had information about the atrocities in Matabeleland and Mashonaland in 1896. The next extant letter dates from 1902 and in it Schreiner suggests that Solly should write a public letter about the importance of women being able to join the South African Party on the same terms as men. Indeed all of Schreiner’s subsequent letters to Solly concern matters relating to women’s politics and the women’s suffrage movement in some way, and they read very much as political business letters. At times Schreiner’s letters to Julia Solly are combative and exhortatory, for example as she tries to get her to accept that in order for the WEL to function effectively, it had to unite all South African women and not play to factions: “It seems to me that a woman’s suffrage society knowing nothing of party or religious or race differences and working solely for
we want some one organization in which all women can unite.”
Several of Schreiner’s letters to Julia Solly discuss the problematic figure of Irene Macfadyen, who was for a time in 1907 and 1908 WEL president and who Schreiner felt strongly was a divisive influence, given her parallel membership of the pro-imperialist (and anti women’s suffrage) Loyal Ladies League and her racist views. Schreiner’s letters to Solly also show her anger when the WEL made overtures towards women’s suffrage groups in the Transvaal which were pursuing women’s enfranchisement on the same (racial) terms as men, something to which Schreiner was vehemently opposed. While it is apparent from her letters to others that Schreiner found Julia Solly in many ways a ‘difficult’ woman, she nonetheless wrote flatteringly to her in 1910: “You ought to be the first woman we send to parliament and the only woman fit to go.” Schreiner’s stance in her letters to Solly is the exhortatory and persuasive approach she used to deal in epistolary terms with people she disagreed with but hoped were persuadable in a more progressive direction.
Schreiner’s letters to Julia Solly appear to cease when she left South Africa in 1913, although there are two extant letters from 1920 after her return to South Africa which suggest that they not only exchanged letters but might have met again around this time, with Schreiner suggesting that they meet for supper before a concert and commenting, “We shall have much to talk over”. Julia Solly continued her involvement in the campaign for women’s enfranchisement for some years, although her political motives differed from Schreiner’s radical and strictly egalitarian ones: “In 1926 Julia Solly argued before the parliamentary select committee that women needed the vote as a ‘home-protection weapon’” (Walter 1990: 338).
For further information see:
R.R. Langham-Carter (1981) ‘Solly, Julia Frances’ in (ed) C.J. Beyers Dictionary of South African Biography Vol IV Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council, p. 589
Ian Fletcher, Philippa Levine & Laura Mayhall (eds, 2000) Women’s Suffrage in the British Empire London: Routledge
Deborah Gaitskell (2002) “The imperial tie: Obstacle or asset for South Africa’s women suffragists before 1930?” South African Historical Journal 47: 1-23
Liz Stanley, Helen Dampier and Andrea Salter (2012, in press) “The Cultural Entrepreneur, Microhistory and the Olive Schreiner Letters” Journal of Social and Cultural History
Cheryl Walker (1979) The Women’s Suffrage Movement in South Africa Cape Town: Centre for African Studies
Cherryl Walker (1990) “The Women’s Suffrage Movement: The Politics of Gender, Race and Class” in Cherryl Walker (ed) Women and Gender in Southern Africa to 1945 Cape Town: David Philip, 313 - 345