Dora B. Montefiore, New Age August 1904
Source: New Age, p. 493, 4 August 1904;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
According to the report upon the census of England and Wales for 1901, the decrease in the birth-rate since 1881 is steady. Between 1871 and 1881 the increase per cent. by recorded births was 37.86, between 1881 and 1891 it was 34.24, and between 1891 and 1901 it was 31.57. This decrease is rather a subject for congratulation than otherwise, as it points to the commencement of an era of conscious motherhood, when waste in infant life and in maternal and infant suffering will be a thing of the past. Besides which, when we compare the acreage of England and Wales (37,129,162) with the population of the two areas (32,527,843), we realise that there is little more than an acre for each person; and this, considering the chaos that reigns in the housing question, in the bringing together of waste labour and waste lands, in the feeding by the community of compulsorily taught children, and in provision for the old age of the workers, is as much as the land under capitalism can safely stand. There is also very little doubt but that this decrease is the natural outcome of the thoughtlessly large families which were the rule during the early and middle part of the Victorian era. From eight to fourteen children was then the rule rather than the exception, both in working class and middle class families; in the working classes from three to five in each family survived; in the middle classes, where conditions were infinitely superior, the average of survivals was naturally much greater; but at the same time the younger members of these large families, the offspring of physically exhausted mothers, have proved in the long run unfit as far as reproduction is concerned. That this is the case can be proved by most people from personal observation, if they will calculate the average number of grandchildren of the cripples who, in the last generation, boasted of their large families. It will also generally be found that it is the younger members of these large families who have failed to reproduce, or who are the parents of only children.
Having been out of town lately, I was unable to see the Hon. Mrs. Alfred Lyttelton’s play, “Warp and Woof,” dealing with the conditions of dressmaking life in the West End shops of London; but I have hopes, judging from what I have read of it in the daily Press, that it will have served the useful purpose of making many think about a subject on which, apparently, they have never thought before. Those who have thought about it, and who have endeavoured to put their thoughts into action, have been striving for years to get more women inspectors appointed to keep a watchful eye on dressmaking establishments and on sweaters’ dens, have done their best to get the women workers themselves to complain (if only anonymously), and have made various attempts to organise sempstresses and dressmaking hands so as to give individuals the united strength of organised labour. An immense help and backing would be given to these efforts if the women public who employ these women workers would make a point of inquiring about the conditions and the hours of sempstresses and machinists employed to do their work, and would refuse to patronise shops where slop work made at palpably sweated prices was exposed for sale, or to employ dressmakers whose assistants were made to work over hours or under improper conditions. Every woman who gives employment to others might, if she chose, act as an assistant to the women inspectors by speaking a few brave but necessary words to her dressmaker, or to the manager of the shop where she gives her orders, showing she is conscious of the sweating evil, and anxious not to help to share in its guilt. I believe myself that the smart cheap shops are the worst offenders in this respect, and that the vigilance of inspectors is being evaded by the work being done off the premises, in houses taken in cheap residential quarters, where no name is placed on the door, and no copy of rules is hung in the workroom. The assistants thus employed are ignorant of the legal conditions under which their work should be done, and are more than ever at the mercy of sweaters and of those who insist on buying “bargains” and smart finery.
As one step in the right direction for solving this hydra-headed problem of sweating, I am glad to welcome the proposed union (under the auspices of the Manchester, Salford, and District Women’s Trades Union Council, of which Eva Gore-Booth is one of the secretaries) for sewing machinists. That the difficulties in the way are enormous is proved by the fact that a short time ago, when the women working for a big firm were induced to join a union, all officers of the union employed at the works were afterwards discharged on some pretext or another. It is easy to understand that these women, being so poorly paid, and knowing how easy it is for employers to fill their places, should be afraid to risk their employment by becoming trade unionists. Miss Pankhurst, in an admirable letter to the Manchester Guardian, put their case recently with the force that comes from knowledge and the full realisation of the mountainous difficulties to be overcome. “The battle of Labour,” she says, “must be fought in the House of Commons. Hence the trades unions are devoting large sums of money to securing Labour representation. Organisations of working women, on the other hand, are subject to the fatal weakness of being totally without political power. Women workers themselves understand this, as their petitions to Parliament demanding the franchise and the formation of the Women’s Textile and Other Workers’ Representation Committee show. Every class of the community has found political rights necessary to its advancement.” That this statement of Miss Pankhurst’s is absolutely true is proved by the fact that it is by the women trade unionists of the North that the most strenuous and logical demand for suffrage is at the present moment being made; whilst the arguments, so constantly repeated, against the impossibility of organising women industrially are once more refuted by the recent action of the organised women weavers of Salford, who have appointed one of themselves as paid secretary, thereby putting her in a position independent of any employer. The membership of this union, formed only three years ago, is already something like seven hundred.
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.