Dora B. Montefiore, New Age October 1903

Women’s Interests

An answer to a woman’s letter.

Source: New Age, p. 651, 8 October 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I have had sent me by a correspondent a Woman’s Letter by Julia Dawson, in the Clarion of September 25th. After reading it I am not surprised that thinking and reasoning members of the community are sometimes tempted to despair of women. Here is one of my sex, who for a good many years has done excellent progressive work for humanity, and more especially for the working woman, whom she has tried to pull up to the industrial and economic level of the working man, and who possesses in the Clarion paper an excellent platform, and among its readers a sympathetic audience. The responsibility for good or evil resting on the shoulders of such a woman is difficult to estimate. Yet, in a moment of emotional reaction (it would seem) she allows herself to tear down with her own hands the woman’s red flag of economic independence, which she has for years been carrying over rocks, stones, and pitfalls, in order to place it on a summit where it could freely wave and carry its message far and wide. Julia Dawson says she has “been led into the long, but she hopes not wearisome, train of thoughts,” to which she treats her women readers, “through reading some very dry statistics of the Medical Officer of Stockport which go to show that one-sixth of the babies there die before they are a year old.” The report of this special Medical Officer surely tell us nothing new. I have, unfortunately, pigeon-holes full of similar reports, all of which have been published in daily and weekly newspapers, and have been commented on by every writer who has intelligence and heart; and yet nothing is done by those who are in power to decrease that infant mortality or scientifically combat the conditions which are its cause. Julia Dawson turns hysterical, and tells women, with underlined emphasis, that they are responsible. I beg to differ from Julia Dawson, and to suggest that the mothers of the working classes and their children are to the great ponderous, revolving, crushing conditions of capitalistically organised society nothing more than infinitesimal flies on the wheel. They really do not count at all. There is an unlimited supply of them, and they are to be had so dirt cheap! There are plenty of suitable slum warrens where they can be bred; gutters galore where they can be reared; intelligent child-insurance agents at every corner watching like spiders for their prey; cheap funerals and plenty of beer to follow every time a little life flickers out; and a variety of work waiting for the stalwart survivors who have sufficient strength of mind during their infant days to withstand the temptations of Saturday night suffocation from a home-reeling parent, the insurance agent’s price of blood, the gin flavoured and sour feeding bottle, and the reek and miasma of slum dwellings. We in England have, for so many generations, shut away the poor from us in their slum ghettoes, and have subjected them to such callously inhuman conditions, that we know as little really of them and of their ways of living as we know of the natives of Tierra del Fuego. The women “secluded” in their slum homes, and made to feel they are of another clay from the shrinking bourgeoise or dimly visioned aristocrat, have lost touch, ever more and more, with womanly and motherly tradition, till the poor slum-slattern of to-day has been evolved; breeding heedlessly and unconsciously a slum spawn, only fitted for the scrap heap of humanity. These are the mothers and these the conditions that are responsible for the statistics which make Julia Dawson and other conscious mothers shudder; but women, by themselves, are no more responsible for this state of things than are the luckless for are they lucky, considering present conditions) babes who go under in the process.

Faulty logic and false deductions.

On this accusation of sole responsibility against women, Julia Dawson bases her new crusade against women working at all, or struggling even for economic independence. Socialism according to her is the only remedy but under the Socialism she advocates women are to be even more dependent on the man than they are now, for “he is to command enough pay for their hearty support.” Of that sort of Socialism most women, and I myself among the number, would make Julia Dawson a present; and would remind her that he who pays the piper calls for the tune; and that women have evolved far enough, even though the process of evolution has been and still is painful, to have some notion of the sort of tunes they prefer, her other remedy (and this is for immediate application) is “for all married women to refuse to supplement their husbands’ earnings.... even feel inclined to say all women., because the single expect to be married some day, and should also assert their ‘right’ to home life and training for the important office of motherhood.” This remedy, she remarks, “would withdraw from the labour market a great number of workers, but it would at the same time render the labour of those who remain in, i.e., the men, more valuable.” Julia Dawson must surely have added to her study of statistics a course of lectures from Trade Union officials, and they may be congratulated on their promising pupil. But does she seriously imagine that if the 500,000 women textile workers, the 400,000 non-textile workers, the 1,800,000 domestic servants, the 800,000 shop assistants, not to mention waitresses, barmaids, professional women, and millions of skilled and unskilled women workers were forthwith to leave work, in order to assert their “right” to home life and training for the important office of motherhood, infant mortality in the slums would decrease? And does she seriously believe that the men of the community would cheerfully burden themselves with the keep of those millions of women all in training for motherhood? As a matter of fact, it is not among the factory workers that the rate of infant mortality is the highest; I was talking to a woman inspector only a fortnight ago on the subject and she told me that statistics proved what I have just written. Julia Dawson treats with scorn the suggestion of the Stockport Medical Officer of Health, that more “educated ladies” should be employed to visit mothers at their homes, as merely “putting a plaster over a festering sore.” I would remind her that if scientifically trained women were employed to visit sympathetically and understandingly the working-class mother in her home it might be the beginning of the knitting up once more of the human link of motherhood, which link by our long neglect has been strained to snapping point. Motherhood in the dim ages was an initiation hedged round with mysteries in order to preserve invaluable knowledge; remnants of that initiation still remain in the vulgarest and coarsest superstitions; it is for science, working through conscious motherhood, to give the initiation and the knowledge of the future; and that knowledge can only be transmitted to the still unevolved and unconscious by the tenderest and most understanding among the community. Before, however, the rudiments of their teaching can be put into practice, the municipalities must do their duty by providing decent working-class homes, and pure milk for the children; and the State must do its duty by providing maintenance for mothers, as the German State is being urged to do by Fraulein Doctor Anita Augspurg. But of that I will write next week.

The forthcoming Woman’s Convention.

Women are coming in their numbers from Scotland, Ireland, and the North of England to the forthcoming National Convention, in defence of their civic rights, which this Government, amongst its other iniquities, have so relentlessly undermined. It is earnestly hoped that every supporter will attend this important Convention, and join in a national protest against the exclusion of women from citizenship.

Dora B. Montefiore.