Dora B. Montefiore, New Age May 1905

Women’s Interests

The Childless Wife article.


Source: New Age, p. 329-330, 25 May 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


Several of my correspondents write reminding me that I have not yet fulfilled my promise, given a few weeks back, of writing briefly my own thoughts on “The Childless Wife” article. But before doing so I must explain to other correspondents, whose letters (as contributions towards the discussion) have been dropping in during the last fortnight, that the reason I did not give extracts from their letters is that they arrived too late for publication in the article devoted to the criticisms of correspondents. Many of these letters were most interesting, and proved more conclusively than ever what a strong undercurrent of thought on the subject of race culture, or stirpiculture, is going on in the mind of the public – only waiting for practical and scientific guidance at the hands of sociologists, who will be prepared to brush aside arbitrary and dogmatic sanctions for human conduct; and who, placing the religion of Humanism above that of Revelation, will teach that those actions only are immoral which are anti-social, and opposed to the best interests of race-progress and race-permanence.

“After five years of married life.”

This rushing into print to record a very small amount of experience seems to me the weak point of the whole article; and discounts very largely all that the writer has to say about “the risks to health” in child-bearing, and also the possible destruction of her own social work, which the coming of a baby might cause. She lacks, perhaps, the philosophy of Rabbi Ben Ezra, who reminds us of “The last of life, for which the first was made”; and who proposes for all discouraged men and women this supreme test: “Thy body at its best, how far can that project thy soul on its lone way?” Let it be clearly understood that in this brief criticism I in no wise attack the “Childless Wife’s” attitude or frame of mind; for I hold that every woman has the right to decide whether or not she bears a child, or children; all I want to point out is that the ground the “Childless Wife” gives for her decision to remain childless are not, in my opinion, in some respects sufficient. As regards the question of “risks to health,” child-bearing being a normal function of healthy womanhood (and the writer sets out by saying she and her husband are both healthy), the complete suppression of that function should be looked upon a greater risk to health than would be its satisfaction. This is especially the case when viewing life as a whole; for the normal woman who has accepted motherhood in moderation is usually healthier and better able to work with brain and body when age is “summoned to grant youth’s heritage,” than is she, who, on purpose, or because of the miserable perversion of present-day social conditions, has never rounded and completed her life in motherhood The same applies to the possibilities of social work, on which the writer sets great store; if she could find it possible to add motherhood to her existing scheme of activities, she might find her social work, and her knowledge of life in its most exquisitely intimate sanctuaries broadened and deepened in a way that would prove more than a compensation for interrupted social and literary activities.

Be our joys three-parts pain!
Strive, and hold cheap the strain;
Learn, nor account the pang, dare, never grudge the throe!

The economic side of the question.

On this side of the question I offer no criticism, but join issue whole-heartedly with the writer who, realising that fulfilling the functions of motherhood would make her economically dependent on her husband, remarks: “Our marriage is now the union of two equals. We believe that makes its happiness. How can it remain the same in spirit if the relation between us change, and I become not his equal but his dependent? If a woman’s living depends upon pleasing a man, how is she going to deny the indulgence of his strongest appetite? Or if a man provides for a woman, and knows that she can get nothing except from him, how can he help realising that he owns her?” This, put in a few frank words, is the question that is coming more and more to the front in the judgment (whether silent or outspoken) of existing marriage conditions – this question of the economic dependence of the wife and mother in the middle classes, and of the economic serfdom of the wife and mother in the lower classes of society. It is at the root of the problem that is troubling President Roosevelt and other conventional writers and speakers, who fail to realise that motherhood is at last becoming conscious – not only of its duties towards society, but also of society’s duties towards motherhood. When a woman accepts motherhood, she, as we know, is fulfilling one of the highest and noblest duties, towards the State in providing it with a future citizen. It is the duty of the State (which should be only another word for the community) to see to it that the mother who accepts and fulfils her State duties, does not by that action accept economic dependence or serfdom. In other words, the State should provide a pension for every mother during the first year of a child’s life, and should grant citizenship to every woman in the land, so that they may have equality of opportunity in the labour market, and equal possibilities with men of influencing legislation which affects their industrial or professional conditions.

An English woman’s position in marriage.

I cannot speak in detail of the American woman’s position in marriage, but as regards that of the English woman, under the law as it now stands I can only stigmatise it as unjust, degrading, and as eminently likely, when women become fully conscious of the position, to encourage childless marriages. In law a child has only one parent, and that is the father; but there is no law to compel the father to support his wife and children unless she applies for Parish relief. This, then, is where the acceptance of “sacred motherhood” leads tens of thousands of the poorer class of English women who are not fortunate in securing a model workman as the legitimate father of their children. The Police Station at Hammersmith displayed last week a large printed notice that appeared to me an eloquent commentary on the much advertised. English “home life,” and the masculine cant phrase of “sacred motherhood.” The notice ran thus: “320 Reward. Wanted Husbands and Fathers!” Then followed in smaller print the names of 45 men who were wanted by the Guardians for having deserted their wives and children; and a further notice to the effect that any information as to the whereabouts of the men would be treated in the strictest confidence! We don’t hear so much from the women about “sacred fatherhood”; perhaps it is hardly worth mentioning when obligations sit so lightly – far it must not be forgotten that these 45 men who are being hunted down by means of private information are only a small percentage of the delinquents; as many wives bear the brunt of poverty in its extremest forms and work for the barest pittance, rather than acknowledge they are deserted, and apply for Parish relief. If the State wishes to encourage women to become mothers it should see to it that the law is either so altered that a man is compelled to give at least 75 per cent. of his wages towards the support of his wife and children, or that the mother shall receive a State pension to which no sting of pauperism is attached, Until then the men who make the laws, and make them so unfairly and unwisely, have no right to dictate to women in the matter of their private choice of bearing or not bearing children. “I hope and work,” writes the “Childless Wife,” “for a social readjustment which will give to the woman of the future all that I have and motherhood as well.” That is the right and true note; but that readjustment will only come about when women and men work together, and as equals before the law, in the solving of all the intricate and various social problems of the day.

DORA B. MONTEFIORE.