Dora B. Montefiore, New Age May 1903

Women’s Interests

Upon Projects.

Source: New Age, p.298-9, 7 May 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

There is nothing more restful in Twentieth Century life than to step aside for a moment, out of the sound of the whirring wheels of Progress, into the deep, pool quiet of one’s library, and to take down from some dusty top shelf a half forgotten volume of an author friend of one’s youth. With the Author of that volume one may perchance no longer be able to spend long lazing days in the hush of a spring wood, or amidst scented hay in a mid-summer gloaming; but one has to be content in later years with shutting out for a few hours, with lock and key, the madding crowd, in order to snatch some short restful intercourse and communion with an old comrade, who has stood so many long years in his dingy unadorned cover so patiently awaiting our renewed greeting. Among these old comrades comes to-day Daniel Defoe, to chat with me “Upon Projects..”... Not to argue feverishly, or to plan and propagand pugnaciously, or to scheme and organise scientifically, but just to chat in a “wambly way,” as Hardy’s Wessex peasants would put it of golden day-dreams that may some day be realised. It was the result of a ramble round Brook Green, a little old world oasis just off the busy Hammersmith highway, that made me wish to renew my acquaintance with one of Defoe’s “wambly” projects. In 1692 he had the dreamy audacity to give a place in his Essay on Projects to a section headed Academy for Women; and there in Brook Green in 1903 I had just seen growing towards completion the brick and mortar reality of Defoe’s projected day-dream. The Girls’ side of St. Paul’s School, that Foundation dreamt of, planned and bequeathed by Dean Colet nearly two hundred years before Defoe’s time for the training and education of the sons and daughters of poor gentlefolk, is only now approaching the completion of its work as a rounded whole, by supplying what my old author calls an “Academy for Women.”

Defoe’s projected Academy for Women.

One cannot help speculating whether Defoe had ever heard of Dean Colet’s generous intention towards women. It would seem from the half deprecating, half apologetic way with which he introduces and lays bare his secret musings on so venturesome a subject, that the women of the sixteenth century had once more allowed their birthright to pass away from them without so much even as a protest. Dean Colet in his wisdom had wished to extend, by means of his noble donation, the benefits of revived learning to both sexes; his executors and descendants allowed the Foundation money to be used exclusively for the education of boys; and the facts connected with the original trust soon became lost in oblivion. It was not till a few years ago, when the Charity Commissioners overhauled the now enormously increased funds of the various sixteenth century and later foundations, that it was discovered that Pauline funds amongst others had been misappropriated to the use of one sex only. A tardy reparation had to be made; and the fine modern structure now being completed at Brook Green is the result. Says Defoe, as with glowing ease he allows his daring project to take visible shape before his eyes “The building should be of three plain fronts, without any lettings or bearing work, that the eye might at a glance see from one coin to another; the gardens walled in the same triangular figure, with a large moat, and but one entrance.” How far have we not travelled on bicycle, motor, and on the wings of social custom since old Daniel planned thus quaintly to “render intriguing dangerous"! “In my opinion,” he says later on, “there needs no other care to prevent intriguing than to keep the men effectually away.” Nowadays we have another, and let us hope, a more effectual way, through co-education, through a more natural social intercourse between the sexes, and through new economic conditions arising from a collectivist condition of society. Will it take is as long to realise our project as it has done to realise Defoe’s? “The girl students,” says our author, “should be brought to read books, especially history, and so to read as to make them understand the world, and be able to know and judge of things when they hear of them.” A most excellent doctrine friend Daniel; and one that I would fain see inscribed on the walls of the new “Academy for women”; for the way history is even now taught in our schools is discouraging and deplorable. It is made either chronicle of wanton wars, or of the dubious domestic doings of kings and queens. The teaching of it is made an excuse for special cramming in Jingoism, Chauvinism, or some equally pernicious “ism,” instead of being taken advantage of to give the students an evolutionary glimpse of the struggle upwards of the race, and “to help them so to read as to make them understand the world.” “But to come closer to the business,” says once more friend Defoe: “The great distinguishing difference which is seen in the world between men and women is in their education; and this is manifested by comparing it with the difference between one man or woman and another. And herein it is that I take upon me to make such a bold assertion, that all the world are mistaken in their practise about women; for I cannot think that God Almighty ever made them so delicate, so glorious creatures, and furnished them with such charms, so agreeable and delightful to mankind, with souls capable of the same accomplishments with men, and all to be only stewards of our houses, cooks and slaves.”

The tardy reparation.

The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding fine, and sooner or later all has to be paid for, whether committed in ignorance or perversity. Inasmuch as Englishmen have for 300 years continued to give their womenkind in the mass a training that made them capable only of being cooks and slaves, so when the moment comes, when Thought might free itself from superstition and Labour might shake off its rusting chains, and a new pure and upspringing Democracy such as the world has never seen before might raise out of a dead past new spiritual and economic conditions: behold the men are lacking, though the hour has come; for the men are the offspring of ignorant and enslaved mothers, and cannot therefore know what true liberty, true freedom, true equality of opportunity mean”

“While the slow finger of heredity

Writes on the forehead of each living man

Strive as he may. ‘His mother was a cook!'”

Dora Montefiore