Dora B. Montefiore, New Age May 1903
Source: New Age, p.331, 21 May 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
A most excellent meeting was held last week at the Mansion House of Women Guardians and others interested in Poor Law administration. One of the most important papers read was that by Mrs. McDowel Cosgrave on “The Ideal Guardian,” whom she showed by her indictment of existing workhouses to be indeed a “Rara avis.” The whole duty of an ideal Guardian may be summed up, she said, “First, in learning their duties and responsibilities; secondly, in fearlessly and honestly carrying them out, with justice and mercy.” That the carrying out of the second part of this programme is often rendered very difficult through the “Bumbledom” which was scotched by Dickens, but which still exists, she proves over and over again. “When an official,” she says, “is criticised for not performing his or her duty, the ideal Guardian must not expect improvement; but must prepare for a rapid canvass of the Board, and for a large muster of the official’s relations and friends at the next meeting, and a vigorous attempt to hide the official’s delinquencies under a savage onslaught on the unfortunate ideal Guardian, who has had the hardihood to ask that an official should be actually required to do for the poor that which he is paid for doing.” Mrs. McDowel Cosgrave would have half of every Board of Guardians women, as they have no axes of their own to grind, and do not attend only when contracts have to be given away or appointments made. In other words, women throw themselves into Poor Law work, in the present, as they have done in the past into church work, and philanthropic work, because of the motherly instinct which is in them to care for and protect the young, the weak, and the afflicted. It is administrative work for which women are eminently fitted, and it is work which, in the interests of the community, women should be encouraged and helped in every way to undertake.
For women, however, who know all the difficulties of the question, who have worked long and arduously to try and get suitable women to stand for election on Urban and Rural District Councils, who have met with chairmen of Councils who have declared they would resign if a woman were elected, who know that it constantly happens that suitable women who would be able to do excellent and practical work have to refuse to stand because of material difficulties, such as not being able to meet election expenses, or the travelling and luncheon expenses, which fall on the pockets of the elected Guardian: it is to these old workers a cause of quiet amusement to observe the as in which uninstructed newspaper writers patronise the devoted women Poor Law workers, and hold them up as it were as a contrast to the woman suffragist. A writer in the Daily Express for May 13 talks about local government being “the sphere in which perhaps, more than in any other, enfranchised women can render the greatest degree of public service to the State.” Since when, I would ask him, have women been enfranchised? And does the setting right by women of men’s mistakes, and the lifting up of those who are being trodden down in a man-governed State connote “enfranchisement"? Of all the sad, dreary, discouraging work there is in the world, none is sadder, drearier, or more discouraging than is the work of the ideal Guardian, who has a heart to feel, and a brain to reason. For it is work that, would never be necessary if women were used by Society to prevent, instead of to cure, if they were allowed to legislate and administer for the sane and the normal of the race, instead of being only allowed to set right a few of the wrongs of the sick and of the abnormal.
The same uninformed but patronising leader writer of the Daily Express goes on to remark that he is quite aware “there are members of both sexes who sigh or shriek for the day when women shall sit in the Imperial Parliament, and shall help to shape the destinies of the Empire.” He evidently is not a believer in such an eventuality, but remarks airily “In the meantime the emancipated and enfranchised sex has found that the Poor Law system of these islands affords it a fertile field upon which it may expend its labours.” I wonder if it has ever struck this shaper of the destinies of the Empire that the Poor Law, an object lesson in the monumental blunders of a purely male dominance, is but a sorry field on which to expend the labours of several millions of intelligent women? The failures of life flock into the workhouse, where, according to Mrs. McDowel Cosgrave, “each pauper costs on the average £20 per annum, where the aged are uncomfortable, the infants short-lived, idleness abounds, and dirt is all-pervading.” Unenfranchised women are asked to cleanse this Augean stable. Might it not be more economical and more practical to really “emancipate and enfranchise the sex,” as the Daily Express leader writer seems to think has already been done, and let them have a turn at shaping the destinies of the Empire, which seem to be, if anything, rather misshapen under the present masculine regime? This is neither a shriek nor a sigh: it is a purely practical suggestion, and one which will have to be met and adopted in all parts of the Empire if its destinies are to be shaped in the future for progress and prosperity.