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Ruth Alexander (nee Schechter)

Ruth Alexander nee Schechter (1888 - 1942) was the daughter of a well-known Hebrew scholar, Solomon Schechter. She was educated at schools in Cambridge and New York, and while she did not attend university, one biographer suggests that she “acquired a more intensive and deeply rooted education from her mother, who had been a teacher of young ladies in Germany and was an accomplished linguist” (Hirson 1992: 49). Ruth Schechter first met Morris Alexander in Cambridge where he was a student, when she was twelve and he was twenty-three. They corresponded after his return to South Africa, and eventually in June 1907 they married in New York, where the Schechter family were then living. The couple settled in Cape Town and subsequently had a son and two daughters.

The Alexanders moved in liberal Cape Town circles and their home was a particular meeting place for visiting Indian leaders and dignitaries, including Mohandas Gandhi. Schreiner came to know Ruth Alexander in the context of the their mutual involvement in the Cape Women’s Enfranchisement League, with Alexander giving speeches at various WEL meetings at which Schreiner was present, and with Schreiner a major background presence in the WEL. Ruth Alexander was deeply influenced by Olive Schreiner’s writing, and also her personality too. It seems they first met around 1907, although Schreiner wrote in a December 1909 letter, “I enjoyed my evening with you so much. I wish I had known you before”, implying that their friendship was only really established around that point. Schreiner commented in a number of letters, including to Mimmie Murray, Julia Solly, Lucy Molteno and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, on the power and eloquence of “Mrs Alexander’s” speeches. In a 1910 letter to Jessie Rose-Innes, she wrote that Alexander was “one of the most remarkable young women in South Africa” and a “wonderful public speaker” with a “passionate intensity of feeling.”

Schreiner’s earliest extant letter to Alexander dates from December 1909, and they remained correspondents after Schreiner’s departure for Britain in 1913, with Alexander visiting Schreiner in London in 1920. There is a strong sense in these letters of Alexander as an admired younger friend of Schreiner’s, in whom she invested considerable hope for the future of South Africa. The letters themselves are warm and affectionate in tone, although at points during the First World War Schreiner became increasingly concerned about not receiving replies to her letters to Alexander, and eventually commented rather insistently, “How does it come I never never hear from you.” There is surprisingly little discussion in the letters of women’s suffrage matters, given that this was the initial link between Schreiner and Alexander, and the content of the letters are mainly focused on ‘keeping in touch’, making arrangements to meet, Alexander’s children, and general chatter about mutual friends. A striking exception to this is Schreiner’s powerful 1917 letter in which she denounces the “league of curs” that was the “wicked” wartime alliance between Britain and Russia, although it seems almost accidental that Alexander is the addressee of this ‘set-piece’ letter. Schreiner continued to see and write to Ruth Alexander after her return to South Africa in 1920, and Schreiner’s last letter to her was a postcard sent on 6 December 1920, just a few days before her death.

Ruth Alexander’s political involvements continued and developed after Schreiner’s death. Hirson suggests that it was she who encouraged her husband to stand as an independent candidate in the elections of 1921 (rather than for the South African Party), because she had become disillusioned with the Smuts government, in particular because of its increasingly retrograde and racist ‘native’ policies (Hirson 1992: 51). She also lectured and wrote extensively on Olive Schreiner and her writings, and hosted a literary and artist salon at her home. From the 1920s on, Ruth Alexander began writing book reviews and review essays for local Cape Town newspapers and also the New York Nation and the South African Nation. On several occasions she publically criticised Cronwright-Schreiner’s posthumous publications of his wife’s writings, as well as the publication of her Life and Letters. Alexander herself planned and wrote much of a book on Schreiner, but its completion was ultimately prevented by Cronwright-Schreiner refusing permission for publication, an authority he assumed rather than actually possessed. In 1930, when white women in South Africa were granted the vote, Ruth Alexander was instrumental in organising opposition to this on the grounds that it was calculated merely to ‘dilute’ the black vote in the Cape. Other key figures from the WEL too, many of them Schreiner’s friends and family (including Caroline Murray, Anna Purcell, Fan Schreiner and Lyndall Gregg), registered their opposition to the granting of the franchise to white women only. Ruth Alexander eventually left South Africa in 1933, and she divorced in 1935, subsequently marrying Ben Farrington, a Latin scholar she had met at the University of Cape Town. She went on to become a prominent member of the Communist Party in Britain.

For further information see:
Enid Alexander (1953) Morris Alexander: A Biography Cape Town: Juta
Baruch Hirson (2001) The Cape Town Intellectuals: Ruth Schechter and her Circle, 1907 - 1934 Johannesburg: University of Witwatersrand Press
Baruch Hirson (1992) “Ruth Schechter: Friend to Olive Schreiner” Searchlight South Africa 3, 1, pp.47 - 71
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