Dora B. Montefiore, New Age December 1903

Women’s Interests

A letter from an American girl.

Source: New Age, p. 795, 10 December 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I received a week or two ago a most interesting letter signed “An American Girl.” The writer lives at Butte, Montana (one of the more Western States of America). She tells me that Butte is “the greatest and the best paid mining camp on earth;” and that a copy of THE NEW AGE is sent her there every week by a Scotchman, who receives it from England. Before writing more on the subject of the letter, much of the contents of which, I feel sure, would interest my English readers, I want to send a word of fraternal greeting to my young American sister, in whom I recognise a woman of thought, of intelligence, and, what is of greater value, of wisdom – the wisdom of life, the wisdom which in this world of delusions is salvation. Across the seas, and across that New World, which in its youth and strength is leaping forward to take a leading place and a powerful command among civilised nations, we two women of the twentieth century, still with every economic and political disability of tradition and of the ages heavy upon us, have been exchanging vibrating thought, and stretching out hands of fellowship, striving to find a formula for helping our fellow women. She tells me in her letter of the feeling of “refreshment and encouragement that comes over her, week by week, when she reads my articles;” and I respond now by telling her that there is no greater encouragement to a worker like myself, ploughing often a lone furrow, than to read a letter such as hers – critically in disagreement in details, but seeing eye to eye in essentials; and above all desiring for women, and therefore for men also, a better knowledge of “the science of life.”

Economic conditions in a mining camp.

My American girl friend, living as she does in one of those mushroom growths, a Western mining camp, fully realises that when I attack economic conditions in England as being inimical to the development of an evolved form of motherhood, and to the rearing of physically and morally healthy children, the material and economic question does not cover the whole ground. I am the first to agree with her on this point; but if she could see and know the conditions under which such enormous masses of our people in England live, she, with her warm heart and clear head, would agree I feel sure with us who are struggling first for better economic and material conditions for the worker, though never losing sight of the ideal she advocates, a better education in the science of life. Let me quote for her and for others who may be thinking like her a few lines from H.G. Wells’ Mankind in the Making. “They will say that such work as this is a scheme of grim materialism ... that it is not birth-rates that want raising, but ideals... I wish I could get together all these people, who are so scornful of materialistic things, out of the excessively comfortable houses they inhabit, and I wish I could concentrate them in a good typical East End slum – five or six together in each room, one lodging with another, and I wish I could leave them there to demonstrate the superiority of high ideals to purely material considerations for the rest of their earthly career.” This is the cry of one who is daily tortured by the sight of the horrible conditions forced on the workers in the heart of the Empire that is ever boasting of its greatness, its wealth, and its strength. The American girl’s cry is of the failure of Ideal, more especially in the ideal of motherhood, where the economic conditions are good, and where there is no material want.

What may be the remedy.

The wages in this mining town of Butte are for labourers three dollars, or 12.s. a day, whilst skilled mechanics earn from four to four and a half to five dollars, about 20s., a day – as much, my American girl learns from her Scotch friend, “as your men have in one week.” This is not quite accurate as regards skilled mechanics; but the difference in wages is large enough, added to the fact mentioned in the letter that “the whole wearing apparel and food is almost as cheap here as in England for the family who goes in for home cooking,” to make one ask the same question as Wilshire asks in the November number of his magazine in a delightfully fresh article on Munich and its surroundings as they appeared to him on a recent visit. “How does the European labourer,” he writes, “getting such low wages, and at the same time paying such high prices for food, still keep himself and his family in as good, if not better, physical condition than the American, and quite as well dressed, who with twice or three times the wages has practically no margin for saving?” My American girl practically asks the same question, and adds the information that though women in Butte have no occasion to work for their living, they do not make better mothers than do the toiling factory and home workers in our country. She writes of “pregnant women spending most of their time in reading highly exciting novels and always in a flutter of excitement; of others whom she has seen drunk from beer drinking, though about to give birth to a child.” All this, it seems to me, corroborates what I have more than once written, and what I know from experience, that moderate employment, and, above all, a sense of responsibility in that employment, is in no way incompatible with good motherhood, both before and after the birth of the infant. In fact, that a woman with definite work and responsibility in or outside the home makes a better mother than she who, depending entirely economically on the man, becomes merely an irresponsible parasite creature of sex. If the women in a comparatively new community like a mining town were given, or took on themselves, a large and responsible share of the local government (which, after all, is nothing more than extended housekeeping), if they attended collectively to the sanitation and hygiene of their surroundings, saw to the purity of the water supply, organised labour for the making and mending of the roads of the township, and, most important of all, superintended the primary and secondary education of all the children in the community; if they made these simple matters a scientific study, they would be studying the best and truest science of life, and would be improving conditions all round for the children they were bringing into the world. Men have too long treated women as irresponsible beings to be secluded in the home in order the better to administer to the comfort and entertainment of the one man on whom they are economically dependent. Let the idea of work for the collectivity gradually supersede the idea of work solely for the individual or the family. And, above all, let women study the work of the women in the State of Wyoming, who as enfranchised citizens work side by side with the men for the weal of the community which has removed the disabilities of the women half of its inhabitants.

Dora B. Montefiore.