Dora B. Montefiore, New Age October 1903
Source: New Age, p. 667, 15 October 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Fraulein Dr. Anita Augspurg, who was the first woman to take the degree of doctor of law in Germany, brought forward for discussion at the recent Women’s Conference a suggestion that the State should pay to every mother of the working class a certain sum weekly for six months before and twelve months after her confinement, so that the child about to be born, and whose life in the future should be of value to the State, might enjoy suitable pre-natal conditions, and be assured full maternal care during the first year of its life. This State aid, she urged, would greatly reduce infant mortality, and benefit the community at large in many ways. I would add also that it is but the logical outcome of the State interfering in the conditions of women’s labour, through legal restrictions, especially where those restrictions are placed on the labour of married women. The correspondent of the Morning Leader describes Dr. Augspurg’s suggestion as “a proposed innovation of a somewhat startling character.” I can assure the correspondent that amongst those who are working for the enfranchisement and elevation of women it is so little startling that resolutions to that effect have been carried over arid over again on women’s platforms; and no less a person than Mr. John Burns, M.P., has been directly approached by one of the leading women working in our cause with a request that he would bring a Bill into Parliament granting State aid to women, whom the law forbade to work during certain periods of their life, but neglected to provide for in any other way. This, Mr. Burns, though a Labour member, and though he must have known only to well the conditions under which millions of children among the working classes are born and die, refused to do. It seems doubtful to us women, if among the mass of Labour candidates who hope to represent Trade Union and Labour interests in the next Parliament, we shall find one with thought and courage sufficient to realise that the children and their mothers are the State, just as much as adult men are the State; and as a consequence need definite protection from the state. Dr. Anita Augspurg argued that the State neglects an important duty in not bestowing more attention on the newly born child. I would go further when speaking of conditions in England, and add the State is criminal when it allows insurance companies to issue premiums on infant lives, thereby putting a horrible temptation in the way of those whose lives are already so dark that we dare not judge them, we can only sorrow. A maternal pension from the State for twelve months after the child’s birth, would, instead of inciting cupidity for the possession of the few pounds with which the insurance companies bait their hook, encourage the mothers to do everything to their power to keep their infants alive during the most dangerous period in child life, and a period which often determines for good or evil the future physical health of the whole being. Little Denmark has led the way in this matter, and is granting a pension to working mothers and their infants. It would seem that our own great Empire, which can throw away £400,000,000 in order to annex a small republic on the other side of the world, can be as deaf to the death-wail of its millions of slum infants as it was to that of the thousands who perished in barbed wire enclosures on the veld. Empires that play the modern Herod should remember the special fate that awaited that historic personage.
This first step of granting pensions by the community to mothers, who are serving the country by rearing healthy children as future citizens, would help to awake the public conscience, and evolve a public ethic on the subject that the health and well-being of the children who are being educated by the community: in other words, of Board school children. Under the statue in Paris of one of the great leaders of the French Revolution may be read a quotation from one of his speeches: “The first thing the States owes to its children is bread; and the second instruction.” Latterly, we have recognised as a community the second of these duties, but have neglected the first, with the result that much of the second is at present wasted. Might it be possible to suggest that if an ounce of “Mother” had entered into the composition of the Councils that drafted the Education Act, instruction would not have been put before feeding, and unfortunate children with anaemic constitutions and ill-nourished brains would not have been set to struggle with abstract knowledge which it is quite beyond their power, under present conditions, to assimilate? If doubt remains in the minds of any as to the uselessness in a large majority of cases of elementary education as now applied, let them remember the outspoken comments of Sir John Gorst, the late Minister for Education, and consequently as fitted as any man in England to know the facts on which he based his opinion. Writing to the Morning Post after he had resigned office, and therefore at liberty to speak out, he said: “There are two great obstacles to the improvement of elementary schools which must never be lost sight of. The first is the condition in which many children are sent to school. They are not only ragged, filthy, and verminous, but their physical condition is such as to render learning impossible. Some are starving, some are exhausted with labour out of school hours. To attempt to make such children learn is heaping additional cruelty on them. Until measures are taken to secure that children will come fresh and sufficiently fed, and that their education will not be postponed to their utility as wage earners, there will be a class in many schools, unable itself to profit by the instruction provided, and a hindrance to the teachers and the rest of the school.” After pensioning the mothers during the first year of the infant’s life, the community will have to fulfil the further collective duty of feeding the children whom it insists shall receive instruction. When these two duties are directed by mixed councils of men and women, we may expect to see an appreciable decrease in infant and child mortality, and a marked improvement in the physique of the adult citizen.
The morning session of this Convention will open at 10 a.m. on Friday, 16th inst., at the Holborn Town Hall, Gray’s Inn Road, London, and will continue till 1 o'clock. Mrs. Eva McLaren will preside. The afternoon Session will commence at 2.30 p.m., and continue till 5.30, under the presidency of the Rev. S.A. Steinthal. Both these meetings will be open to the public. It was at first contemplated holding a public meeting the same evening; but as London and the suburbs are more or less overrun at the present moment by public meetings on the fiscal question, it was finally decided that a better way of bringing workers and sympathisers together was to hold a reception, at which some speeches would be made, and the delegates from the various organisations could be met and interviewed. It is hoped that Mrs. Sheppard, the eminent woman worker from New Zealand, who did so much to gain out there the suffrage for women, will be present at the Convention and Reception. The National Convention is intended to be the beginning of a campaign which will extend throughout the United Kingdom in defence of the Civic Rights of women and before long it is hoped that meetings will be held in all the principal Northern and Midland towns, so that women workers those parts, who are prevented by material difficulties from attending the Convention in London, may have an opportunity of publicly expressing their indignation against a Government and policy which has ruthlessly done its best to destroy in public administration the good and useful work to which women had set their hand.
Dora B. Montefiore.