Dora B. Montefiore, New Age June 1903

Women’s Interests

Preferential duties.

Source: New Age, p.395, 18 June 1903;

Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

As questions of the Zollverein and of preferential duties are the order of the day, it is but natural that women should be looking for light and leading on issues which in their ultimate conclusion must be of more vital importance to the masses, living as they do so near the dark gulf of bare subsistence, than to the classes, whose superfluities would save them from feeling the alleged increase in the cost of living caused by a Protectionist regime. Such light and leading can certainly not be obtained from the utterances of the Prime Minister, who has announced in Parliament that he cannot profess settled convictions on the subject of Free Trade and Protection, because, as far as he is concerned, “no settled convictions exist.” Neither will they obtain it from the generality of newspapers, which go in too much for special pleading, and appeals to patriotic interest or personal advantage, forgetting too often the larger and humanitarian lines on which such questions should be discussed. Ruskin in Unto this Last strikes a note which may be a useful guide to us in thinking out this question of the day; and in the passage I am about to quote he seems to me to stand for the right sort of open mind on debateable questions of political economy: the open mind with a strong ethical sense in the background. “No man,” he says, “ever knew, or can know, what will be the ultimate result to himself, or to others, of any given line of conduct. But every man may know, and most of us do know, what is a just and unjust act. And all of us may know also, that the consequences of justice will be always the best possible, both to others and ourselves, though we can neither say what is best, nor how it is likely to come to pass.” What, judged by this standard, seems to me the special point to be watched amidst the tossing waves of conflicting opinions raised by Mr. Chamberlain’s Protectionist blast, is the sodden materialism in which the whole question as now presented is steeped. There is to be bribery first and last, and all men’s lower instincts are to be appealed to. The colonists are to be bribed by the promise of material gains to be loyal to the ideal of the Empire; and British working-men and women are to be bribed by the suggestion (not the promise) of old age pensions to be loyal to that same ideal of Empire as expounded by the gentleman from Birmingham. If they accept this bribe our working classes must give up their new found hope in International Brotherhood, and community of interests among workers of all countries. “Divide, divide!” has ever been the policy of those who wished to continue to govern, and there seems to be an almost malignant perversity in the present attempt to divide International workers and set them at each others’ throats on the vital question of food and the necessaries of life.

Why tax food?

The ordinary person is inclined to ask why, if the question of Fair Trade is to be revived, it should revolve solely, or at all, round food supply? Are there not thousands of unnecessary luxuries which might very well be made the subject of Protective duties, without touching the primal needs of those whose scanty wage allows them to supply themselves with little beyond those primal needs? Are not our West End shops the dumping ground for every sort of cheap but attractively made rubbish, exported by foreign manufacturing capitalists for sale, but not for wear? Is not the spectacle that Karl Pearson calls attention to, of thousands of women crowding the pavements in front of these shops, and struggling inside for bargains made by the toil of their sweated sisters, a pitiful and revolting one? Why should not protective duties be placed on all this useless, swamping, deteriorating rubbish; and every sweated article be compelled by law to be sold with a red-ticket attached, as a sign of its not only being bought with money, but with human blood? Why should the interests of the British and Colonial working-man and woman be pitted against those of the workers in other countries, when, by the very fact of the various countries copying each others’ factory laws, the implication is, that as toiling members of the human family, their interests are identical? In a series of four letters, published by Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy in 1888, and entitled “Foreign Investments and British Industry,” she writes: “That which is morally wrong can never be economically right, and though the short space of a single human life may not suffice to exhibit this clearly and fully, though individuals may seem to prosper by evil doing, yet the longer life of a nation profoundly vindicates the moral law as the law of social well-being.”

Half truths.

Further, as mere women, making use only of our mother wit, and striving to keep broad principles rather than petty and divided interests before our eyes, we cannot fail to note how very much half truths serve to bolster up one side or the other of the arguments for or against Free Trade or Protection. As an instance, Mr. Arnold White, in the Sunday Sun, mentions the ever-increasing lowness of physical efficiency among the wage-earning classes, and asks, to support his arguments in favour of so-called Free Trade: “What effect will taxed food have on the physical efficiency of the labouring classes?” As a mother having studied the question practically and scientifically, I do not hesitate to say that most of the physical deterioration of the labouring classes comes from the fact that under present social and economic conditions it is not possible to obtain, either in town or country, pure milk, which nature points out as being the essential food for children under two years of age. Just think for a moment of the irony of the whole thing! It is principally through the mechanical action of Free Trade that England has become a pastoral country; for corn-growing no longer pays the farmer; and, yet, with thousands of acres of rich lush pasturage and milk being brought up from country creameries at twopence halfpenny a gallon, millions of children, both in town and country, droop, starve, grow ricketty, or die for want of the one essential food during the early years of life: a food which is home grown, untaxed, and which should, if the Government were wise, be delivered at every door with the same regularity as are the daily letters. Who, can doubt that if women, if mothers had a fair and trusted share in administration, the milk supply of our towns would be a very different footing, both in quality and in quantity? If one borough or municipality would start the experiment of municipalising its milk supply, and at the end of ten years would publish the results, during that time, on the health of the infants in that municipality, we should then have some facts to go on, which I feel sure would startle the public, that the distribution of milk would be looked upon by the community as a trust to be administered by them, with the greatest amount of efficiency possible.

Dora Montefiore