Dora B. Montefiore December 1896

Why we need Woman suffrage, and why we need it NOW.

Source: Shafts, December, pp.151-152;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

As these lines are being written in the first dawning days of 1896, England’s hour of need is on her, for the old year of 1895 has closed in the gloom of “the gathering blackness of threatened strife.” Trouble in South America, trouble in the Transvaal, and Dishonour in Armenia – these are the clashing, wrangling notes that the bells of the old year rang out, and we strain our ears in vain through the murky darkness to try and catch some more cheerful peals, some New Year’s message which shall make us feel that England, our beloved England, is once more sufficiently spiritually alive to tread selfish bien-être and the degrading morality of commercialism under foot, is once more inspired by an Ideal which does not come under the head of “Money and Stock Markets.”

Yes, an Ideal; that is what England needs at this moment. Samson is inmeshed in the numbing soul destroying bonds of the Delilah of materialistic luxury, and under the influence of her enervating wiles his spiritual strength has been shorn from him, and now the Philistines are upon him. Commercial materialism won its great victory in the Political and Social reaction of Midsummer, 1895; we are now living in the heart of the movement which won that victory. What has the denouement in store for us? When individual self-interest and Commercial Imperialism won the day at the last General Election, England’s Ideal was narrowed down to the counter and the yard measure; her soul, which under a Liberal administration showed signs of a too generous and self-forgetful growth, was squeezed into a pint measure, and handed over to Mr. Chamberlain’s watchful care. How well he, and those associated with him, have fulfilled their trust, so far as our relations with perishing Armenia are concerned, future historians will have to tell. The cry of the outraged, the starved, the mutilated, the murdered, that cry has jangled our New Year’s bells, and beaten the music out of them; and England’s soul has not swelled, has not swept irresistibly forward, as it did in the old days when men, whose first care was England’s Honour, ruled her Councils; has not swamped in one swirling sea of disinterested enthusiasm the halting diplomacy of statesmen who represent markets and moneyed interests; has not flung in the face of the Turkish oppressor and of those who strengthen his blood stained hands, her gage, which binds her to do battle for the wronged whom she is pledged to protect, whether it be to her own selfish interests or not.

Yes, that is the crux of the matter, “her own selfish interests;” and when those become overpowering the Armenian men, women and children whom she promised by the Treaty of Berlin to protect, must go to the wall. And England’s sons and daughters, are they too sunk in middle class well-being; in contented bourgeois materialism, to say even at this hour, “These things shall not be?” England’s sons and daughters – but her daughters’ voices cannot yet be heard in the councils of the land! Perchance, if they had been heard at the Elections of 1895, such a scene of reactionary stampede would not have been witnessed. We cannot yet judge of the influence woman’s vote may have in practical politics; because in that respect she has not yet reached the stage of equal opportunities with man, but we can, even with her many disadvantages, weigh her idealistic and spiritual capacities against those of man, and she will not then be found wanting. There is in the best of women a power for self sacrifice, a power of perceiving with the eye of intuition and of faith , “the things which are more excellent;,” and a power for struggling for them – and in the worst of women these powers are not found altogether wanting. George Eliot thoroughly understood that hidden spiritual power in her sex when she wrote, “When a woman feels purely and nobly, that ardour of hers which breaks through formulas too rigorously urged on men by daily practical needs, makes one of her most precious influences; she is the added impulse that shatters the stiffening crust of cautious experience.”

As I write these lines a picture rises before me of what this “added impulse” might mean if women now had equal opportunities with men of influencing the soul of England for good! And even as things are, do the mothers and maidens of England feel “purely and nobly” on this Armenian question? Have they been stirred to the depths of their souls by the oft told (perhaps too oft told) story of helpless suffering in a land which many of them profess to hold in reverence as a part almost of what they call with their lips the Holy Land: or do they skim hurriedly over the daily headings in the newspapers, “More Massacres;” “Unparalleled Horrors,” and turn to read some more attractive subject, “The Winter Sales” or a review of the latest novel? If the mothers of England felt themselves one with the mothers of Armenia, should we have to record further stories of Armenian children being cut up before their Mothers’ eyes? If the maidens of England, by the sinking of their hearts and the shrinking of their flesh, felt themselves one with the maidens of Armenia, should we have to record daily tales of outrage by Turks on Armenian maidens? No! ten thousand times no! Women of England, it cannot be that you have lost your Ideal; that “the jingling of the guinea” represents to you the “be all” and “end all” of life? You may be sunk in a dream, but those jangling bells of the dying old year must and shall wake you! “The soul is dead that slumbers,” and England’s soul had never more need to be alive, never more need of inwardness, of inspiration, of life, than she has at this moment. It is the woman’s rôle in life to keep alive and nourish the Ideal; for inspiration and spiritual life come to her in occult, subtle fashion through the pulsation of the young life within her own, which first teaches her the full lesson of her womanhood. Man’s ideals become blurred and soiled by daily contact with the world; one of the moral tragedies of a woman’s life is the daily, hourly attempt to adjust her ideals with that daily contact, and with life’s disillusions; she triumphs only inasmuch as she is able to see her supreme Ideal reflected in the pure, unclouded eyes of a little child. As long as that glimpse of “things more excellent” remains to her, as long as her own motherhood makes her feel at one with motherhood all over the world, the soul of woman cannot be enslaved as her body is daily enslaved, cannot be prostituted as her body is daily prostituted. And it is that soul, that spiritual influence which is needed now to instil fresh life into the dead body of politics. The woman’s hour has come, her soul has attained consciousness, and is prepared for its work! Nothing but the dead mass of materialism of the hour which refuses to recognise anything which does not appeal to the lower senses, anything which may interfere with the enervating dream of living for the enjoyment and comfort of the moment, prevents that soul from diffusing its life-giving enthusiasm through the political body. If women in England and in America could speak now, and could claim to be politically heard, the only rivalry between those two English speaking nations would be a rivalry as to whose sons and daughters should be best equipped, best guarded, best inspired in the social and political field of battle, where the only struggle should be the struggle of each for the weal of all. “Public spirit,” wrote Mary Wolstonecraft, “must be nurtured by private virtue.” That must be the motto of the future for those nations who would keep in the van of progressive evolution; and Tolstoi strikes the same note in his new output of the “International,” wherein he summarises his convictions, that the highest evolutionary progress must spring from “the interior religious perfection of each individual.”

The future will lie largely (who can say how largely), in the hands of woman. Has her soul through suffering been sufficiently purified to fulfil its task of conscious and enlightened inspirer in a regenerated society? “That the past subjection of woman has tended largely to expand man’s selfish instincts I cannot deny but may it not be that this very subjection has in itself so chastened woman, so trained her to think rather of others than of herself, that after all it may have acted more as a blessing than as a curse to the world? May it not bring her to the problems of the future with a purer aim and a keener insight than is possible for man! She may see more clearly than he the real points at issue, and as she has learnt self-control in the past by subjecting her will to his, so they future she may she able to submit her liberty to the restraints demanded by social welfare, and to the conditions imposed by race permanence.”

This is the answer of a thoughtful man to the question. Surely it behoves those who are “on the side of the Angels” to strive that woman’s voice may be heard politically and socially England and America, even as it is already heard in some of the Colonies of England; who in the first flush of young inspired enthusiasm are leading their Motherland on the upward path.


[Why should a woman use such a symbol as evil woman triumphing over strong man. The symbology is unsuited to so noble a subject as this. – Ed.]