Dora B. Montefiore, New Age June 1903

Women’s Interests

Republics v. Women.

Source: New Age, p.379, 11 June 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I promised last week to give a notice of Mrs. Trimble Wolsey’s book, Republics versus Women, as it is causing a good deal of discussion in circles where the enfranchisement of women is looked upon as one of the most important steps towards the enfranchisement of humanity. Mrs. Wolsey sets out to prove that the position of women is worse under Republics than it is under Monarchies; in face she goes a step further, and wishes to prove that a democratic and republican government is inherently opposed to the political and social enfranchisement of our sex. In a notice of the book I have written elsewhere I refused to consider it as a serious contribution to the matter in hand, for, as it stands at present, it is but a rechauffé of a speech said to be delivered some years ago (no date or place given) to an audience of “socialist and anarchist women,” among whom “were several aristocrats” (a strangely composed audience it must be acknowledged); and this speech is now given “in extenso,” punctuated with the applause, hissies, and “moans” of this heterogeneous audience. No foot notes or authorities are given in support of the vague and contradictory statements the book contains; and Mrs. Wolsey would appear to have “disremembered” the excellent dictum that speaking may make the ready man or woman, but writing should make the exact one. From one point of view, however, the book may be of real value, and that is in arousing all English-speaking women to think out the position of their cause as it presents itself at the present day. The more one studies past history, as a means of throwing light on present conditions, the more one feels that women in the past have let golden opportunities pass them by, and have over and over again caught at the shadow, instead of grasping at the substance. I am not saying this to blame them, any more than I would blame the working-man for his tardy and still partial awakening from the slumber of ignorance and inaction. The dead band of tradition and of conservatism holds each one of us in its paralysing grip much more firmly than we perhaps ourselves realise; and we are all of us too often what environment forces us to be, rather than what our higher and better selves would wish to be.

Some chances we have let slide in the past.

There can be no doubt that it is at times of crises, of social and intellectual upheavals, that the great forward steps for classes or sections of the people are made; and one of the principal of these intellectual upheavals was the Renascence of learning in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. That Renascence was a revolt against ever-growing superstition, imposed by a powerful dominant ecclesiasticism; and inasmuch as the revolters recognised “ignorance as indeed the only sin” their concern was to found centres of sectarian learning, by means of which such ignorance might be dispelled. Like all reformers inspired with the religion of humanity, they were prepared to make no differences between the sexes in this offer of the privileges of learning; and many brilliant individual women of that period proved up to the hilt their appreciation of such privileges, and held their own with men in scholarship and culture. But the masses of women were still priest-ridden, and with their consciences given over to the keeping of men it was in vain for them that this feast of learning was spread, and in a very few years the endowments, which should have been the much-prized birthright of sixteenth century women, lapsed through disuse, and were soon absorbed by the more mentally enfranchised and more conscious men. It was so easy to make the woman believe that the fruit from the tree of knowledge was a dangerous one to eat, and at the bidding of authority she once more bowed her neck to the yoke of ignorance, and returned to the “safe seclusion” of home, and the “sacred duties” of unconscious maternity. Once more, many years later in America, when the constitution of the first great democratic Republic was in the melting-pot, as also in England when the bloodless revolution of what is known as the Great Reform Bill was being accomplished, we then were still unawakened, still unable to read the handwriting on the wall, which spoke of the old order changing, and of the coming equality of opportunity, in which women and the workers when they were prepared for it should also share. A few awakened women in America protested, and “personally implored the men who organised the Republic to grant women recognition and equality with men,” but again there was no pressure from the masses of women, who were therefore thrust on one side by the more insistent and peremptory interests of men, flushed with military success, and basing their masculine supremacy on world-old military tradition. As regards our own Reform Bill, the passing of that measure was the first positive disqualification of English women as voters, for no other previous electoral measure had definitely declared this disqualification of women as Parliamentary voters. There is little doubt that if women had risen against such disqualification, as men rose to gain their liberties, they might have won the day; for it is a matter of history that the measure was rejected again and again by the Lords, until ricks and houses burned, and the public peace was imperilled, when heigh presto! the day was won for reform and progress, and a few rapidly created Peers swelled a majority which bowed gracefully to the sovereign will of the people.

What are women’s chances now

Once more in England we are waiting for a new political impulse, a seventh wave that swelling upwards and forwards will carry us a step onwards in its forceful swirl. Men are seeking for an inspiration, a watchword, and many think to have found it in manhood suffrage. It is for the awakening women in our nation to see to it that the franchise be first granted to women on the same conditions as it is or may be granted to men. The enlightened, educated woman claims it; the working woman, knowing full well how necessary the political vote is to her in her daily economic fight, claims it; only the still stagnant bourgeoise, with every material want satisfied through her sex enslavement, is only half aroused. Can she be awakened? Can she be made to see that the future of her sons and of her daughters is involved in the attitude she takes up now on the question of the hour, and the help she gives or withholds now to men in their own struggle? Promises and professions of men politicians will not avail, if not backed up by active work, and the spoken and written word in our behalf. Women have the power if they will cultivate solidarity, to dictate their terms, and the question before us now is, shall we once more at a time of crisis be flung on one side after being made every use of for electioneering purposes, or shall we so impose our will, through the inner strength of our womanhood and motherhood, that we shall gain our shares in those political privileges which our sisters in Federated Australia already enjoy? A perusal of Mrs. Wolsey’s pages, wherein she sets down the results in the American Republic of basing political, power on sex privilege, and sex privilege alone, may help to awaken some women to the danger of the hour.

Dora Montefiore