Dora B. Montefiore, New Age November 1903
Source: New Age, p. 714, 5 November 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
I am glad that Julia Dawson in her Women’s Letter in the Clarion has replied to what she terms my two columns of rebellion against a recent letter of hers, in which she urged all women to give up paid employment outside their homes in order to train (though she did not explain how the training was to be got) for “the important office of motherhood.” Julia Dawson and I are both working towards the same object, the uplifting and development of the working woman, who unfortunately, under present social conditions, is the most heavily handicapped member of society in what, equally unfortunately, is the competitive race for life. We are agreed, I believe, as to the vital necessity of helping to develop these sisters of ours; we only differ at times as to the means to be employed. Julia Dawson seems to think that women will improve matters by leaving all the paid work of the world to men, on whom they are to depend economically for every halfpenny they and their children require. I urge women not to cease working for economic independence, but to learn at the same time the lesson the working man has learnt, and to organise, organise, organise, in order to improve the conditions, the pay, and the hours of their work. Julia Dawson writes as if she believed that the child a woman bears belongs to that woman; but let me remind her that what is known as the legitimate child has only one parent in law, and that parent is the father; and, further, that this principle of male parentage being the only thing that counts before the law, runs through every institution of English life, stultifying and thwarting at every turn the maternal influence. Julia Dawson throws all the blame for the high rate of infant mortality on women; but gives her whole case away as soon as she takes up her pen to reply to my contention that the whole of the blame should be cast on society which shuts out women from their proper share in administration. “Take our schools,” she says; What do they teach boys and girls? etc., etc.” But who, I ask in return, is responsible for our schools? Is it not man, the sole legal parent? Under the late School Boards a flicker of responsibility was given to women, soon to be withdrawn in favour of sole control by masculine County and Borough Councils. In support of this assertion I quote Mrs. Pankhurst, an educational authority on the woman’s side, whom I feel sure Julia Dawson will not question. Speaking this month at the last meeting of the old School Board (Manchester), convened for the purpose of formally passing the accounts of the last three months of the Board’s existence, Mrs. Pankhurst interposed a protest on the subject of the exclusion of women from a final vote on education questions. She said that “they who felt that the passing of the Education Act inflicted an injury on women had been justified by experience. Women could carry resolutions on the Education Committee, but these resolutions could be reversed when they came before the City Council, on which no women were allowed to sit. The mothers of the children in the schools were therefore no longer fully represented on the education authority.” What applies to education, as set forth here by Mrs. Pankhurst, applies all through local government in towns; mothers are not fully represented in municipal administration.
Where Julia Dawson could do invaluable work towards the reduction of infant mortality would be in plain and practical talk to women on their duties in the small sphere of local government already accorded to them and of their further duty to enlarge that sphere by working and agitating for the passing of the Bill now before Parliament for replacing women on Borough and County Councils. Julia Dawson can still take for her text “Home and Home Life;” for good local government is the tool which legislation has placed in our hands for the improvement of our homes, and of the homes of others. Good local government can pull down and rebuild slum areas, can abolish those travesties of “home,” a single room tenement for man, wife, and children; can supply good baths and washhouses; can let in the life-giving sun god, where now creeps only the death-dealing reek of slum miasma; can supply pure water, pure milk, and pure bread; can improve sanitation generously and effectively, and can give the education and training that will be of use to our children in the future, instead of the grudging and unimaginative task-work that comes to us as an inheritance from past Jesuit and ecclesiastical influence on education. Woman can by her vote even now do something towards this ideal of good local government; when she is reinstated in her former position on the Councils she will be able to do much more. If every woman who is solicited by candidates for her vote would write to those candidates asking them to promise, if elected, to work for certain straight issues, affecting the conditions of the housing and feeding of the working classes, and then watch to see that those promises were fulfilled, we should soon notice a marked diminution in the rate of infant mortality, and an equally marked improvement in the general wellbeing of the race.
A friendly reader has sent me from Edinburgh a copy of the Scotsman for October 7th, containing a report of the meeting of the Edinburgh Town Council. One feature in the report was an account of the Greenside Improvement Scheme Committee, which was appointed to carry out municipal improvements in the slum areas of Edinburgh, and to improve the housing of the working classes. Mr. Broad, convener of the committee, after giving some account of their work and of their difficulties, proceeded to submit to the members of the Town Council certain figures which he had obtained from Sir Henry Littlejohn, the Medical Officer of Health, in reference to some of the areas dealt with, showing the rates of mortality which existed before and after the improvement scheme had been carried into effect. The figures were remarkable, as showing the all-round improvement in health coincident with the improvement in housing; but I will only quote the figures relating to the decrease in infant mortality, as supporting my contention that the municipalities must do their duty as regards the housing question before any real improvement can be expected. “In the Lawnmarket ten years ago the infantile mortality was 161 per thousand of the population, while last year it had fallen to 60; in the High School Yards it had decreased from 240 to 39; in Tron Square from 200 to 33; and in Potterow from 125 to 47 per thousand.” Mr. Broad said he believed these figures amply justified every step which the Council had taken in clearing out these slum areas, and he did not think any other city in England or Scotland could show better results in connection with any public improvement.
I may perhaps mention before closing that in the borough in which I live – that of Hammersmith (where William Morris for so many years lived and worked for the uplifting of mankind) – the rate of infant mortality at the present time is 168 in a thousand. The population is not an industrial one, and the women are not factory workers. They may be seen at any hour of the day in the unspeakable slum quarters, which pay such good dividends to slum Landlords, down at heel, greasy and slatternly, passing the time of day to each other, occasionally indulging in a personal difference, or gliding furtively in or out of a slum beer-shop. They toil not neither do they spin; and if they are employing their many leisure hours in preparing for “sacred motherhood,” it must be confessed the results of the preparation, as seen in the gutter beside them, are singularly unsuccessful. The self-respecting, organised factory woman worker, who is preparing just now to send her own paid member to Parliament to represent her own industrial requirements, can give the leisured lady of the working classes secluded in her own home points all round, even in “the sacred duties of motherhood.”
Dora B. Montefiore.