Dora B. Montefiore, New Age October 1903
Source: New Age, p. 683-4, 22 October 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
The great National Convention in defence of the civic rights of women is now a thing of the past. The daily papers of Saturday, Oct. 17th, gave more or less full accounts of the speeches made and of the work done. The measure of space and the degree of prominence given by the “dailies” to the reports of the Convention are doubtless a gauge of the importance which they attach to the utterances and demands of unenfranchised citizens. In one morning paper we were granted half column by the side of the “Moor Tragedy,” and the “Great Jewel Robbery”; whilst a leading Liberal daily gave three quarters of a column of very indifferently reported matter , on the same subject, heading it “The Claims of Women”; whilst in a leaderette in the same paper on the municipal and political position of women in the Australian Colonies, no direct mention was made of the important Women’s Convention being held at that very moment in London for the purpose of claiming similar municipal and political rights. Leading women, many of whom have grown gray in the cause for which they have worked unfalteringly for many years, came from Scotland, Ireland, and the Northern and Midland Counties of England, to tell of the hindrances and difficulties which this Government especially, during its incompetent and reactionary term of office, has placed in the way of women doing the administrative work for which they are so well fitted. Mrs M'Ilquhan, the woman who has worked longer than any other woman in England as a Poor Law Guardian, told of ten distinct disabilities from which women have suffered during the last fifteen years; and Miss A.L. Browne called attention to the Bill introduced last Session into the House of Commons for the remedying of two of these disabilities. Mr. Channing is responsible for the Bill, and its object is to reinstate women in their former position on Borough Councils and on School Boards. I want to call special, attention to this Bill at the present moment, as I would remind women municipal voters that it may be used as a lever when their votes are solicited during the next fortnight by Borough Council candidates. Before promising a vote to any candidate, let the woman voter ask him: “Will you if elected, vote in favour of a motion in the Borough Council that the Council do petition Parliament to remove the disabilities imposed on women by the Local Government Act of
1899, and to restore to the electors the right taken from them by that Act of choosing as their representatives women as well as men.” A wise use of this test question will keep the subject well and fairly before the public and before Borough Council candidates, and prove that women are alive to the importance of the issue, and are prepared to use the same means as men use for the regaining of their rights: and, privileges.
Among the picturesque episodes of the Convention was a short but most incisive speech made by Mrs. Donaldson, St. Mark’s Vicarage, Leicester, who quoted from a recent speech of Lord Hugh Cecil, urging the exclusion of women from the new Church Councils, In this connection Lord Hugh Cecil made use of what can only be regarded as the unfortunate expression, “foolish women” as being unfitted to possess any legal status in the administration of the Church to which they belonged; although that status had been theirs for many centuries. Mrs. Donaldson, with well-directed irony, showed how the expression “foolish women” came almost as a natural corollary to the category to which women are by the law relegated “lunatics, idiots, women.” The word idiot comes from a Greek root, meaning a person outside the pale of citizenship, without civic rights; from that original meaning it has passed through a descending gamut, till it has come to mean a person devoid of reason, – a fool. We women, being like the idiot or foolish person deprived of civic rights, have naturally come to be classed in the thoughts of Lord Hugh and of thinkers like himself as “foolish women,” as members of the community who should be excluded, ever more and more, from any share in public administration. “Foolish women!” We thank thee, Hugh, for giving us that word.
The women Trades Unionists were ably represented by Miss Roper, of Manchester, and Miss Eva Gore Booth, their organising secretary, who both spoke of the special and distinct disadvantages under which working women suffer, from the fact of their being politically unrepresented. Now that Labour has special representation in Parliament, and will, we hope, have much more representation in the next Parliament, it is becoming more and more apparent that women are the squeezed lemon, used in every possible way to work for, and to pay the expenses of these representatives in and out of Parliament, and who yet have no hold, through the vote, on those representatives. Out of every hundred Trades Unionists who pay Mr. Shackleton’s expenses in Parliament sixty are women; but no one will surely contend that they possess the chance of getting fair value for their money. The claims of the enfranchised members of the Union must come first. The working women of the north are moving, and are in earnest; for with them the issue is a very vital one. They are going to furnish the weight and the force which will drive home to the consciousness of Parliament the necessity for giving equality to the women of Great Britain such as their sisters in Australia and New Zealand possess.
The resolution passed at the afternoon Session of Friday, and which Mr. Stead, who spoke to it, described as being as long as a leading article, was as follows: –
This Convention records its conviction that, in view of the present political and industrial situation, there is an urgent and ever-growing need for the better protection of the interests of women in national life. The question of fiscal policy, affecting though it does in a vital way the position of vast numbers of women workers, will, under present conditions, be decided upon without regard to their opinion or interests.
The recent changes in Local Government have unjustly deprived women of useful positions occupied by them with marked success, and undermined their influence in local affairs. In the industrial world their position is crippled, and their wages are depressed by the denial of those rights of citizenship which have done so much to better the condition of the men workers. This Convention, therefore, urges the Government to take these facts into consideration, and to remove these grievances by conferring on women the protection of the Parliamentary Franchise.
The average of speeches made by the women was admirable, and their efforts were ably seconded by men who have been life-long supporters of our movement, Mr. Walter McLaren, Mr. J.M. Robertson, Mr. Stead, and the Rev. S.A. Steinthal. In my next week’s article I hope to give more details of the history of the recent Convention, and of the future work, which we hope will be the immediate outcome of it. I want just to record here, before closing, the cheering fact that in New South Wales a woman candidate, Miss Selina Anderson, is standing for the Federal Senate. She stands as an Independent Labour candidate, and if elected she means to “direct her opportunities principally to having women placed on an equality with men; that is to say, that when the woman is able to do the same kind of work with the same ability, she should get the same pay.”
Dora B. Montefiore.