Dora B. Montefiore, New Age July 1903

Women’s Interests

Women in public administration.

Source: New Age, p. 459, 16 July 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

A meeting of protest against the present position of women on the new educational councils throughout the country was held last Wednesday evening at Essex Hall, Strand. If the amount of interest on the subject amongst women is to be gauged by the numbers who attended the meeting, the forces of reaction arrayed against the continuance of women’s administrative work will have little to fear. Mrs. Humphry Ward was down as the first speaker, and read a somewhat lengthy and colourless paper dealing with the past work of women on the School Boards, especially with the training and development of defective and cripple children. She, however, gave the whole case for women away by dragging in illogically and unnecessarily her own private opinion as regards women and the franchise. Needless to say, she shares with Mrs. Sydney Webb the quaint distinction of opposing the granting of the Parliamentary franchise to her own sex. Mrs. Homan, L.S.B., struck the true note when, in a practical and eloquent speech, she asked her audience: “Would this succession of insults, in the withdrawal of women first from London municipal work, and now from educational work (with a threatened withdrawal of their work as Guardians of the poor), have been put upon women if they had had the Parliamentary vote?” And the reply came back from the audience in the form of a very convinced “No.”

Democratic vigilance necessary.

One point made by Mrs. Homan should be of extreme interest to all Democrats who are interested in having a real and efficient system of popular education. As is well known, the new Councils have taken over many secondary schools; and these, in any satisfactory educational scheme, should serve as the link by which the children of the working classes may pass from the Board School, through secondary, and up to university education. Mrs. Homan instanced the tendency of the Education Councils to co-opt women already engaged in engrossing educational work (such, for instance, as the Head Mistress of a High School), or some woman who was an absolute nonentity; simply because she was the wife of a man of position, and would merely endorse the opinions of those who had co-opted her. As an example of the danger in this to Democratic education, Mrs. Homan instanced the case of a co-opted High School Mistress who announced her intention of discouraging the passing of any Board School girl into her school; for, as Mrs. Homan truly remarked, there is an intensely strong class prejudice against the receiving of gifted working-class children into secondary schools, which have been up till now the close preserves of the bourgeoisie. In view of this well-known feeling, it is all the more astonishing that the majority of Labour and Socialist newspapers and organisations have made no stand for the Democratic, direct-mandate-position of women on the new educational authorities. In vain I have looked for any lead in the matter from those whose direct interest it is that their children should have every available opportunity of physical and intellectual development. Those opportunities have been carefully watched and cherished by the women already sent to the School Board to represent the interests of the working dames. No charge that I know of has ever been brought against these women of standing for the bourgeoisie interest as against that of the proletariat; yet, when their work and position is attacked by a Government which has shown itself over and over again contemptuous of the wishes and aspirations of the organised workers, these workers and Socialists treat the whole issue with a sort of conspiracy of silence, and appear to look upon the loss of democratically elected women in the cause of the education of the people as if it were no affair of theirs.

The price will have to be paid.

As is the case with any other folly or ignorance we may commit, the price will have to be paid, and it is likely to be a heavy one for Democratic aspirations in this country. It was only lately I pointed out in this column that one of the principal causes of physical degeneration and inefficiency in our working classes was the bad and improper feeding of our working-class children; more especially the want of pure milk during the first few months of their lives. My contention is now amply supported by the speech of Sir William Anson, who has startled the public by asserting that in London 60,000 children are underfed, ill-clothed, and physically inferior – in fact, are unfit for the strain of education. This, as the Morning Leader remarks, “does not surprise educationalists as much as it does the public.” As a late Manager in London Board Schools, I feel convinced that the statement is well within the truth. The Board Schools in which I was interested were situated in the West End, where the majority of the children came from fairly decent homes; but I have visited many schools in different parts of London where the difficulties of the teachers were immense, owing to the impossibility of getting work out of children constantly one the verge of starvation. I remember talking to a carpentry instructor – a new arrival in our district – who was presiding over a class of from twenty to thirty delighted boys; he told me how much easier and more interesting his work was with us than it had been in his former place in the East End, where the poverty and misery amongst the children had been so great that he could obtain no satisfactory results from them. Just imagine, if the learning to use simple tools was too great an effort for the poor anaemic brains, what torture must have been inflicted in the attempt to teach the abstract lessons. Our working classes have been so shut away in slums and ghettoes of their own that they have lost touch with ordinary civilisation in all that appertains to the art of living; and in no way is this shown more than in the difference there is between the English and the Continental working-class woman in her knowledge of the simple domestic arts. Our woman of the proletariat knows neither how to select, to buy, or to prepare, to the best advantage, suitable and nourishing food as a result, the wages of the working-man, though often higher than those of his Continental comrade, are wasted and misapplied. We need in this country, more perhaps than in any other, the scientifically trained mother-spirit to supplement in public administration what is lacking in private knowledge and skill. Only thus can the lost art of living among our working classes be restored. For a good many hundred years now men have been muddling along by themselves in public life and administration, with the result that our children are starved by hundreds of thousands; an expensive education at the public cost is forced on these wretched beings, totally unable to receive or benefit by it; and when the time comes for us to require the use of adult muscle and brain in return for our educational outlay, we are confronted with an army corps of unfit, shuffling, defective, and unemployable beings, only fit for the rubbish heap of humanity! Is it not time we applied nature’s plan of motherhood side by side with fatherhood, in the State as well as in the family?

Dora B. Montefiore.