By Sarah Duff
In January 1914, Betty Molteno – feminist, teacher, pacifist, and activist – addressed the following to a meeting of Indians in Durban:
After the Boer War I saw that Boer and Briton would have to unite, but would they try to do it at the cost of their dark brothers? Broken-hearted I went to England. For eight long years I remained away from South Africa – in body – never in soul and spirit. And England and Europe have sent me back with this message to white South Africa: ‘Open your hearts – your souls – to your brethren of colour’. We are in the 20th century. Rise to the heights of this glorious century.
Even given Betty’s old-fashioned language and purple turn of phrase, this remains a stirring piece of rhetoric – and one whose sentiments remained pertinent throughout what turned out to be the not-so-glorious twentieth century. But I imagine that you’ve never even heard of Betty Molteno – and you’re certainly not alone. Betty may have been one of the most influential women in South Africa during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but she’s been almost entirely forgotten.
Betty was born on a farm near Beaufort West in 1852. The eldest of ten children, she grew up in privileged surroundings in Claremont. Her mother was the daughter of a prominent Cape Town businessman, and her father went on to become the Cape’s first Prime Minister in 1872. In fact – and unsurprisingly – it’s really easy to research Sir John Molteno, as well as three of Betty’s brothers who also went into politics. But the biographies, memoirs, and edited collections of letters of these four men include little or no reference to their female relatives. Betty’s two sisters, Caroline and Maria, went on to lead lives typical of upper middle-class white women in the Cape: they married, produced small armies of children, and were fanatically involved in philanthropic and charitable work.
Betty, though, refused to have anything to do with this kind of life. As the daughter of a wealthy politician, it was easier for her than for other women to be unconventional. She had her own private income and the freedom from male control which this granted her. Like her sisters, she attended a girls’ high school, but remained there after they had matriculated. She trained to be a teacher, refused to marry, and when she turned thirty, decided to study further at the all-female Newnham College at Cambridge. Her family were vehemently opposed to this, but she went, and when she returned to South Africa she worked at a number of girls’ schools, eventually becoming headmistress of Collegiate Girls’ School in Port Elizabeth. Betty felt so strongly about girls’ education that she refused to draw a salary while she worked there.
It was when she was at Collegiate that Betty was drawn increasingly into the politics of industrialising South Africa. A close friend of Olive Schreiner, she vocally opposed the South African War (1899-1902), speaking at a range of rallies to support the Boer cause. Her talent for public speaking meant that she was greatly in demand for meetings on subjects varying from women’s suffrage to non-racialism. Her closeness with Mahatma Ghandi and enthusiastic reading of WEB du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk meant that she was an early opponent of segregation – and at a time when very few educated white South Africans were willing publicly to argue for complete racial equality.
But beyond her political views and public achievements, Betty managed to live entirely on her own terms. She rejected the Christianity of her parents and joined the philosophical and spiritualist Theosophical Society. She dressed eccentrically, favouring sandals over tight boots, and when travelling would wear two dresses at once to save the bother of having to take a suitcase. She refused to marry, forming instead a lifelong partnership with Alice Greene – cousin of the author Graham Greene – whom she met while teaching in Port Elizabeth. The pair were inseparable, and are buried side-by-side in Cornwall beneath a tombstone which reads ‘They loved and served South Africa.’
What Betty managed to achieve politically and socially was remarkable in itself, but her insistence upon living, thinking, and loving in ways which she thought best for herself – regardless of the disapproval of her family and society more generally – made her, in my view, truly revolutionary.