Dora Montefiore

From a Victorian to a Modern


Suffrage Propaganda on the Continent

In the late summer of 1906, the International Suffrage Alliance, whose president was Mrs. Catt of America, had arranged for a Congress at Copenhagen, and the Women’s Social and Political Union requested me to attend the Conference as their delegate. My credentials were as follows:

VOTES FOR WOMEN.
WOMEN’S SOCIAL AND POLITICAL UNION.
LONDON CENTRAL COMMITTEE.

30th July, 1906.

This is to certify that on Thursday, July 12th, at the Central Committee of the above Union, Mrs. Dora B. Montefiore was appointed delegate to the International Women’s Conference at Copenhagen.

signed (on behalf of the Committee),
THERESA BILLINGTON,
Organising-Secretary

On 1st August I left with my son (then a lad about 18, studying at the London University) for Cologne, where we spent a few days, and then travelled on to Copenhagen via Hamburg and Kiel. On arriving there, I found there was doubt in the minds of some of my friends as to whether a militant suffragist would be allowed to speak, for if many applauded our tactics, many also disapproved, or were prejudiced. There was much intriguing to prevent my addressing the Congress, so I asked for an appointment with Mrs. Catt and laid the case of the English suffragists, who had been so betrayed by a Liberal Government, before her. She was a very fine president, who tried to do the fair thing to every section, and she explained to me that though the National Society was, in that Conference, the only one entitled to send delegates, yet, as the W.S.P.U. had rallied to its ranks so many fine workers and speakers; she considered that their representative ought to be heard at the Congress, especially as there were so many wild rumours around as to our methods and manners. So she decided that on the evening of Thursday, 9th August, I was to have time allotted to me to address the Congress. When the evening came, the hall was crowded to overflowing, and when it came to my turn to speak, I had a most wonderful ovation. After reminding our Danish hosts that we English claimed very close relationship with them, for one of our poets had written “Saxon, and Norman, and Dane are we,” I ran quickly through our reasons, which in England forced us to leave the normal lines of suffrage propaganda, which had been pursued during 40 years; and I then described our process of heckling at Liberal meetings, and my reasons for refusing to pay income tax, and allowing my furniture year after year to be sold. The Danes are extremely good linguists, and many of the delegates from other countries understood English, so all my points were taken, and when at the end of the time allotted to me the Chairman’s bell rang, another ovation awaited me before could resume my seat. After the session, my son and I were the guests of about 30 friends at the Phoenix Hotel, and during the rest of our all too short stay in .Denmark, we were most hospitably entertained by groups of students, suffrage friends from many parts of the world, and Danish families. Our last days in Denmark were spent at Marienlyst, a most delightful seaside resort not far from Copenhagen; then, on Saturday, the 18th, I saw my son off for Esbjerg and England, where his vacation was to be finished among friends, while I left on the 23rd for Gothenburg and Stockholm, where I was due to speak on the 31st in the Folkeshus on “Woman Suffrage.” To reach Stockholm I travelled for three days by steamer through the Gothenburg Canal, a leisurely and delightful way of seeing the country. The steamer was well equipped and efficiently staffed in the kitchen and steward departments by young women, who were clean, attentive and thoroughly well-trained in their work. Day and night we floated quietly along, watching the peasants at their work, glimpsing quiet villages, and at one spot passing through a marvellous succession of locks during which time we could leave the steamer for an interesting tramp among hills and waterfalls, interspersed with chats with peasants, some of whom we found had been in America, where they had made their pile, and then returned to the Homeland to buy a little farm, which gave them plenty of hard work—and bare living.

I met on board this steamer Miss Balgarnie, a fellow suffragist, who was studying the Gothenburg system for the Government control of alcohol, and on Sunday 26th August, we stood side by side on the deck of the steamer as it swept out of the Canal into the more open water, and there broke upon us the really lovely sight of Stockholm, the Venice of the North, with all its twinkling lights, its skyline of beautiful buildings, and its darkly flashing water, in which everything was reflected. We both agreed that this was the perfect way in which to approach Stockholm, and our only regret was that our little voyage, with its nocturnal conclusion of flashing lights and summer evening of deepening blues had come to an end. We stayed a the Kronprinz Hotel, and my diary records that on Friday, the 31st, “Spoke at 8 p.m. in the Folkeshus and had magnificent reception. Supper with Miss Lindhagen and others afterwards.” Miss Lindhagen the daughter of the Mayor of Stockholm, was I found, a most active worker in all social questions, and thanks to her I was able, during my few days’ stay in Stockholm, to get a fair insight into the conditions of the life of the Swedish workers, both in the country and towns besides visiting with her many interesting galleries and museums. The memory of one day stands out with particular charm, when I visited with her the recently-erected working-class buildings among the pine trees of a Stockholm suburb. These dwellings were to be a standard of what the workers should demand, and they certainly were extremely well thought out in every detail from the working woman’s point of view, not only in the way of labour-saving devices, but also (what should never be forgotten) from the aesthetic side. The old costumes, housing and domestic furnishing of the Swedish peasant were in the past very beautiful and gay in colouring; and it is the delight of the modern Swedish artist to preserve and revive this national sense of colour harmony. With this object in view an island has been set aside on the Harbour of Stockholm as a sort of ethnographical museum, where specimens of all old Swedish buildings, dresses, etc., are preserved. During the long evenings of the summer months, excursions are made down the harbour to spend the evening on this island, and watch the peasant folk dancing in their picturesque costumes. There is also preserved on this island the cottage in which Swedenborg saw his visions. I left Stockholm by steamer at 6 p.m. on 1st September, and for twenty-four hours we steamed through an extraordinarily beautiful archipelago of tiny rock islands, each with its little lighthouse and pine-clad height. The moon was up and. at its full, so that many of us passengers could scarcely bear to leave the deck and the enchantment of an all too short northern summer night. The next day at 5.30 we reached Helsingfors, and there in Finland the real object of my journey began—to find out how the Finnish Women had gained their political emancipation, for at that moment of the international suffrage movement the Finnish woman was looked up to by her unemancipated sister women throughout Europe as worthy of all respect and admiration.

To unravel the political situation which had brought about in the recent months this revolution, involved, I soon found, a long and close study of Finnish, Swedish and Russian history, especially perhaps the latter, in whose blood-stained pages I came for the first time face to face with the realities of autocracy, and learnt slowly to realise a lesson which has often, when interpreting later European events, stood me in good stead, namely, that the psychology of those nations which have had for centuries to submit to the power of an autocrat is fundamentally and necessarily different from that of nations which have developed along democratic lines. Finland, it is true, was not so very long under Russian autocratic rule, and the Grand Duchy which declared it had never been conquered by Russia, was spared many of the humiliations undergone by the inhabitants of other parts of the Empire of the Czars, but the years preceding the granting of the Finnish Constitution, which enfranchised the Finnish women, had been years of repression, of political assassinations, in the attempt to throw off the Czarist yoke; and of renewed and increased repressions; till a general strike being declared, and all work ceasing throughout the Grand Duchy, threatening the very existence of Russian rule, the Czar issued a hurried decree granting to Finland a Constitution, with full adult suffrage for all men and women. Part of this new state of things was the dissolution of the old Chamber of Nobles, and I was fortunate enough to be present at the final meeting of that Chamber when the voting papers, collected, as was the custom, in exquisite covered glass chalices, were counted for the last time, and the valedictory speeches were made, closing in one country of Europe the feudal epoch. The galleries were crowded with young men and women students, all intensely interested, but restrained, so that not a sound of hostile demonstration was made, though one felt that the grave was closing over an old order, and that a new and young order was eagerly waiting at the door. When I got to know some of the students and met Minna Sihampaa, and others of the working women leaders, I understood more fully the meaning of the scene I have just described. Finland, with its mixed population of Swedes and pure Finns, is intensely democratic, and as university education is open to all and practically free, its inhabitants are among the best educated populations in Europe. To try and fit the same yoke on them as was borne by the illiterate moujiks of Russia was an attempt to tear their psychology up by the roots, and the breaking-point had come when the general strike was declared. Finnish nationalism, like Irish nationalism, was embalmed in their art, their literature, their theatre, and the yoke of the foreigner galled them at every turn of the road, or wherever they glimpsed a grey Russian uniform. All parties were, for the time, united in the demand for a Constitution, and it was the coming in of the masses in the final demand that jolted Czardom out of its apathy and showed the autocratic occupant of the throne that Finland was not in a mood to be trifled with. Minna Sillampaa was the organiser of the Finnish domestic servants, and when at the eleventh hour she called them out to join the general strike, she at the same time gave the necessary signal for a really democratic Constitution, and the women were included in the franchise, which came not by gradual process of gradual enlargement, as in Western countries, but by a stroke of the pen of an autocrat.

These were the facts I found I had, on my return to England, to lay before the English suffragists, and at the public meetings I was booked to address; and found unfortunately, that they were as bewildered by them as were Continental and American audiences, when I had to explain to them the differences between the suffragists who were working to get a Limited Bill passed for the enfranchisement of some women, and the adult suffragists, who were working for a bill to enfranchise all men and all women. To speak of getting the vote for women through a general strike, followed by an autocratic stroke of the pen of the Sovereign was too much like comic opera for English psychology, and when the English press announced that the first woman to be elected to the Finnish Parliament under the new Constitution was a servant (or, as the Daily Mail put it, “a cook”), the whole affair seemed to be outside the bounds of “practical politics”; just as to-day the Dictatorship of the Proletariat of Russia appears to the Conservative mind a grotesque orgy of hairy ruffians smashing and killing in a weak imitation of militarism let loose. I found it difficult also to make English audiences realise on my return the fact that Scandinavians, and especially Finns, were among the best educated peoples in Europe. University education in Finland costs about—2 a year and all young Finnish men and women who had any intellectual ability took a university degree. In Helsingfors I found some of the best bookshops I had ever come across, where books in any European language could be obtained. There was one point on which I found myself in my speeches on safe ground, and that was in describing, how women in Finland had many occupations open to them which were closed to their sisters in England. There were women in responsible positions in all the banks. Women worked exclusively as stewards and cooks on all the steamers, and even took part in the building trade. It was the recent war that let women into many similar occupations in this country, and that made it impossible for men to continue to shut them out of political representation after they had proved themselves so capable when allowed to share men’s physical and intellectual burdens. I want to record with gratitude the help I received from Baroness Gripenberg, and from Miss Furuhjelm, whilst in Helsingfors. It was through them I was able to visit the University Library, and receive help in my choice of reference books for the facts and statistics I wished to collect. They also put me in the way of visiting many schools, institutions and art collections, and at their houses I met most cultured and delightful circles of friends, all of which helped to make my visit to Finland a very happy spot in my memory. I also made a rush visit to Petersburg (as it was then called), taking the night train, spending the day with friends, and returning to Helsingfors by the 10.30 train the same evening. Martial law was in force in Petersburg on that occasion, and residence there was not altogether “healthy” for strangers, though I had my passport. The literary friends with whom I spent the day had had a police raid in their flat the previous evening, whilst they were at supper, the police arriving by the back staircase, and ordering the maid to show them at once into the dining-room, where everyone had to remain while the flat was ransacked and papers taken away but in spite of police spies and martial law, we had a very merry meal, for Russians, even with the mildest streak of Liberalism, were in those Czarist days so accustomed to live on the edge of the Siberian abyss, that they took what the gods gave from day to day, and appeared to leave the morrow to look after itself.

I returned home to England by a very comfortable Finnish steamer, reaching. Hull at 3 o’clock on Sunday, 16th September, from whence I made my way across to Manchester, where I had arranged to speak with the Pankhursts in their Lancashire campaign. These meetings included one at Bury, two at Bolton, one at Pendleton, Cringlebrook, and in Stevenson Square (most of them out of doors). Mrs. Pankhurst also had a drawing-room meeting at her house for me to give a talk on Finland and the way Finnish women had won the vote. On 24th September I left for town, as I was a member of the Hammersmith Distress Committee; besides having engagements to speak at Chelmsford (where I stayed the night at my friend’s, Mr. Aylmer Maude), and had several speaking engagements at Canning Town and other parts of the East End. I note also in my diary, “Executive Meetings of W.S.P.U. at Clement’s Inn—11 to 1; 3 to 5”; and so October wore on, till I find recorded on the 23rd the entry, “Arrested for speaking in the Lobby of the House of Commons.”


Next: Chapter VIII. Holloway Prison