Dora B. Montefiore, New Age September 1903

Women’s Interests

German Homes.

Source: New Age, p. 603, 17 September 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I have always maintained that the simplification of life, and especially of home life, should be the great aim of all women, who seek for emancipation from the thraldom of the past. Let it be clearly understood that by this, I do not in the least mean neglect of home life and duties, but simply the putting of them in their proper subordinate and necessary place. We should have the furniture and utensils that surround us, and the meals which we place on the table, so simple that we are never the slaves to our surroundings that our grandmothers were. In these matters we have something to learn from German women, and they have other things they might learn from us. To take first that ever-recurring, and at times most troublesome, subjects of meals, there is one great line of cleavage between English and German habits, which tends is emancipate perhaps more than she realises the German Hausfrau; I mean the habit of dining and lunching out at cafes and restaurants. No one knows better than does the head of a household what a relief it is occasionally to be saved the thinking out of the details of a meal, and to be able to take, as does the man, “his ease at his inn.” This relief, the German woman constantly does enjoy, for the restaurants (in many cases open-air ones) are clean, cheap, and good; whilst the proprietors seem prepared to cater for any requirements – even quite humble ones. Among our richer classes in England, life is revolutionising itself on the lines of restaurant dining, but there is a tendency at present in those sort of meals to “smartness” in cooking, as well as “smartness” in prices, and in society. Now “smart” cooking is a thing to be abhorred, for its object is to make every dish appear what it is not, and to hide the unnutritious and tasteless fraud under an ill-spelt French name. What we need in England are good wholesome bourgeois restaurants, such as they have here, where honest roast beef and roast veal figure under their own names, and where the portion served is of such dimensions that when two sit down to dine one portion is ordered, and plates for two are supplied, whilst no extra charge is made for a vegetable and bread.

Lack of beauty and daintiness in the home.

On the other hand, just as everything in German life seems to tend naturally towards collectivism, towards the socialisation, and beautifying of the life of the community, so everything in the home seems to be hopelessly ugly and unattractive. The furniture and the wallpapers make one shudder. The cast metal chandeliers and store-fittings, not to mention the antediluvian crimson velvet and rep-covered furniture, give one positive pain, whilst the modern ornaments (?) turned out by the million from German factories, show the lowest depths to which a once artistic nation can fall, when handicrafts and the artist are neglected, and machinery is allowed to become the master, instead of being the slave. German women seem to have lost sight of the elementary idea that windows are meant to let in light and air. They smother them with layer over layer of curtains and blinds and fixed gilt cornices, till only the smallest modicum of light flickers through; and the whole business of window “draping” becomes a dust-trap and a snare. One feels inclined to pull down with sacriligious hand the layers of fringed curtains, and machine-made lace ones, and let in the light of modernity on these un-hygiene feather-bed quilts, under which one has to lie, even on a hot summer night; and on these crochet antimacassars, and drab green walls. One certainly finds still in England the “trail of the antimacassar” in the sea-side apartment house, in the farm-house lodging; but here in Germany its reign is still supreme, and one finds a strip of crochet horror down the middle of one’s writing-table, hideous, cumbersome, and if it have any meaning, that (one would hope) of a past enslavement.

The position of the German women.

In my last week’s article I touched the position of the German peasant woman, and spoke of them first, for the manual workers and more especially the tillers of the soil, are to my thinking, of first importance, being as they are the creators of food, raiment, and shelter: the primal necessaries of life. In the past it was the history only of kings and queens that was considered important, for history, having to be condensed into symbol, chose that symbol which by its forcefulness appealed most to the popular imaginations. The symbol, now of democracy as represented by the modern artist with true inwardness of vision, is that of the sower of the fields, or the forger of molten metal. On the beams of an old inn in the Hartz mountains, where we stopped last week to dine, we deciphered a motto which, under slightly different forms, appears to have inspired in the past, and still inspires to a great extent the conduct of the German young man towards the German young woman, and as a consequence the relations of the German young woman with the German young man. The motto expressed in brief the belief that a nice girl and a good glass of beer cured every ill in life; for he who neither kissed nor drank, might as well be dead. The German young woman seems perfectly willing to continue to share with the glass of beer, the honour of curing the woes of the German young man. It is not an exalted position, especially when the young man becomes middle-aged, gets rolls of fat on the back of his neck, and a protuberance where his waist once was; and one is sometimes tempted to wish, as one watches these animated casks – whose philosophy of life is summed up in drinking and kissing – being ministered to by wives and daughters, that German women would think things out for themselves, and ask themselves if they really only exist for curing the ills of the male portion of the race, or if they have not a role, and a development of their own, which they have hitherto neglected. There are signs that the German woman is awaking to self-realisation, and to an independent expression of her desires and aspirations: Next year at the Berlin Women’s Congress we shall be able to judge what progress has been made among the mass of German women as regards an independent and self-respecting outlook on life.

Dora B. Montefiore.