Dora B. Montefiore, New Age February 1903
Source: New Age, p.123-4, 19 February 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
According to the Morning Leader of February 9, the National Union of Women Workers has resolved itself into a Society for the Abolition of Barmaids. It has appointed a joint committee, with a Mrs. Macdonald as its secretary, and the work that this committee has set itself to do is, according to that lady, to stamp out within the next five years the genus “barmaid.” The grounds on which this enterprising joint committee base their work of destruction is that “the trade of barmaid is an unhealthy one”; but we do not gather from the Morning Leader’s account that, though Mrs. Macdonald expressed herself “emphatically” on this subject, she condescended to give details, or furnish instances of its being a less healthy employment than most others carried on by women. There are 7,000 barmaids in London alone, and it may be that the Women Workers, and their emphatic secretary, moved by the sight of the many thousands of unemployed who daily perambulate their misery about the streets of London, have hit on the brilliant idea of providing employment for at least 7,000 of them by displacing the women who are now earning a honest if humble living by serving behind bars. Unemployed women have at least the decency not to parade their misery with banners and rattling collecting boxes! They know too well how to starve silently as seamstresses on fourpence a day; or when hunger, the strongest elemental craving of the human being, gnaws too insistently, there is for them the ever ready choice between the trade of the streets, or the swift merciful river.
But the joke in this case is too grim, and it is time that such irresponsible sham philanthropy as that of the Women Workers should be freely criticised by those who realise what the whole crusade means. It is idle to talk of the question being put on its purely industrial side in the petition presented by these organised ladies to the London licensing justices, with the object of throwing out of employment 7,000 of their humbler sisters. Temperance societies may not, as the secretary made a point of remarking, have been invited to join the joint committee, but the Women Workers know very well they could not hope for success in their pseudo philanthropic schemes without the added pressure of temperance and purity societies, with whom the epithet “barmaid” stands for immorality and intemperance. Barmaids as a class are as respectable and as temperate as the A.B.C. girl or the domestic servant, and their physique compares favourably with that of shop-girls and factory workers. Mrs. Macdonald and her attendant spirits would not dare to suggest the abolition of the “Tweenie” or of the lodging-house “Slavey,” on the ground that these employments are unhealthy for growing girls; yet these young women, who really need the protection of the law, are allowed to grow anaemic running up and down the stairs of stuffy lodging-houses, or washing plates and dishes in ill-ventilated, underground sculleries. But the temperance and the purity ladies themselves need the “Tweenies” and the “Generals,” so there would be no pressure brought to bear from their societies for the abolition or protection of domestic slaves; but the barmaid (of whose real life and conditions very little is known by Society ladies) – they are quite another question! The City Fathers, like those of Glasgow, who may wish to earn a cheap reputation for virtue, can be counted on to aid in the extirpation of the barmaid; and everyone concerned will feel they have not lived in vain, since they have helped to clean the outside of the cup and of the platter.... But of the inside what shall we say? Does it never occur to any of these fussy ladies, so anxious to make other people good, and themselves happy, that reform should begin first in the manners of the men customers, and secondly in the conduct of the licensed houses themselves? This tampering with the honest work of women because of the fads of another set of women is a most dangerous precedent; for if the principle be once admitted the administrative bodies can be approached and influenced by irresponsible, self-constituted reformers, no woman’s employment will be safe, and the few, already overcrowded, means of livelihood now open to women will be still more overcrowded than they are at present. Many earnest women who feel keenly this side of the question are preparing to visit the licensed houses, and collect well attested statistics and facts about the employment of barmaids, with a view of forming a league to fight the unwarrantable interference of the committee of ladies who are working to throw so many women out of employment.
I was not aware that anything I wrote in one of my articles about the people’s food left out of reckoning the cheaper, and in many instances the more valuable vegetable food-stuffs of which C.A. Eccles, in the issue of February 12, gives a list. I was writing of the demand which exists, not of the ideal demand which many of us would wish to see existing. The English working class woman is unfortunately not only the worst cook yet discovered, but she has unfortunately less knowledge of food values, and less practical wisdom in choosing food than her working-class sisters in any other country. I am not blaming her, for it is very difficult to account entirely for the fact of her having lost apparently all traditional knowledge of practical housewifery. The remedy for the future seems to me to lie in the collective science and knowledge of the community, as expressed through its local administration. In other words we must begin, through municipal kitchens, bakeries, and cookshops, first to improve the taste and demands of the people, and then to show them how to satisfy those demands. I shall hope to give some practical hints in some future articles on the choice and preparation of foods.
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.