Dora B. Montefiore, New Age March 1903

Women’s Interests

Looking Backwards.

Source: New Age, p.202-3, 26 March 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

It is sometimes useful to look back over old newspaper files, and take stock of how our cause stood in the past; who were its friends, and who tried to put spokes in its wheels; what points it has gained, and what is still left to be won; who are those we should honour to-day as long-tried, steady, and earnest workers in the cause of women, which is the cause of the race and of progress. A paragraph or two from Justice for January 10, 1884, strike keynotes of women’s work in the past, the full-rounded chords of which help to make some harmonies for us to-day. But what shall we say of those Progressives who believe so little in full-rounded harmonies that they have done all in their power to strike false notes, and crashing discords? Under the heading of “Notes” in this by-gone number of Justice, republished in commemoration of the thousandth number of that paper, we read: “Some day perhaps, when the Contagious Diseases Act no longer absorbs all their energies, some of our vigorous agitators for the rights of women, will set to work to cut at the roots of the competitive system, which drives thousands of their sisters out on the London streets every year. If only the so-called virtuous, religious, sympathetic, and so forth, would take the trouble to understand that most of the social evils from which people suffer arise from economic causes, there would be is useless prayer and charity, and more effort to control the machinery which yearly crushes so many.” This is no doubt true to a very large extent, but it is not the whole truth about conditions which can immediately be altered by Act of Parliament. Those misjudged, but devoted workers in the cause of humanity, who in this paragraph were being flouted and discouraged, realised only too well that a country with hidebound traditions and institutions like England, the competitive system, with its million ramifications, could not be done away with from one day to another by Act of Parliament but that that was no reason why by sharp stern fight thousands of women should not be released from conditions of sex degradation which every man who believed in the progress and the elevation of the race should have done his best to fight against.

Workers for and Against Adult Suffrage.

Another paragraph in the same issue gives an account of an address delivered by Miss Helen Taylor at Nottingham on Democracy and Socialism. “Democracy in her opinion (she said) did not necessarily mean good government in itself, that depended on the people. It did, however, mean a better government than could be obtained by any other form of government.... For competition she would substitute unselfishness; the strong using their strength to secure the happiness of those weaker than themselves as well as their own. This she believed would come about by people getting the voting power, and not through force, which always produced a reaction, as it did in France. And nothing, she believed, would be effected for good until women had a voice in affairs as well as men.” We are still saying the same thing, all of us who believe that no true Democracy and no true Socialism will be possible until women take their place by the side of men in the councils of the land. But what of those who, while professing Socialist principles, which should embrace every forward aspiration and effort, still persistently block the way, or ignore women’s claims; and who, nowadays, in order to shirk the question of putting adult suffrage on their programme point as warning to the fate of the Newcastle Liberal Programme? That programme failed through the cowardice of its framers, who believed in words more than in deeds; and the Labour Parliamentary Representation Committee, with Keir Hardie as their spokesman, went one step further in cowardice, as they dared not even frame a Programme for fear of being logically and morally compelled to place Adult Suffrage at the head of that programme. The Socialists at the Antipodes are already profiting by their policy of justice in giving women the vote, for the Labour vote is thereby doubled; but here the Labour party are too half-hearted to dare to place such a measure on their programme for fear of risking for themselves the Parliamentary seats they covet. Let them take heed lest the Conservatives, seeing that the times are ripe for justice to be done to women, do not, as they have so often done before, grant some restricted measure which, instead of increasing the democratic vote, will tend to increase the power of the privileged, and gain them the gratitude of all women for an act which will in England break down one of the strong barriers of sex prejudice.

A Powerful Stage Teaching.

Anyone who is not yet convinced of the wrong done to women by trying them in courts of law composed entirely of men, and by juries of one sex only, should go and see the really cleverly represented Trial Scene in Tolstoy’s Resurrection at His Majesty’s. Every passion, every prejudice, every futility, every stupidity of the average man is there ruthlessly portrayed, whilst the fate of the unhappy girl is bandied back wards and forwards across the green cloth table and is finally settled because one man, more worn out than the rest by the intellectual effort of following the points in the evidence, wants to get home to his dinner. There does not appear to be one really sympathetic attempt to understand the workings of the outcast girl’s mind or heart; not one deep probing question as to what past wrong may have led up to the crime of which she was accused. The earnest work a great writers can, if interpreted in this spirit bring home without preaching many a stern and necessary lesson that the democracy will be the better for learning.