Dora B. Montefiore, New Age May 1904

Women’s Interests

The Falling Birth-Rate in the Australian Colonies

Source: New Age, p. 315, 19 May 1904;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

It seems to me that this question of the falling birth rate in the Australian Colonies should be studied as a question apart from the fall of the birth rate in older and more settled countries. Different economic and social conditions prevail; the climate, as in America, produces a certain definite effect on the race as a whole; and, lastly, the question is of much more vital importance, as in a new, sparsely settled country there is room on the land, and there should be ample food and clothing to support a happy and increasing population. We must, therefore, search for special causes which tend to make the race in Australia less prolific than is compatible with national prosperity. In order to discover such causes, we must take into consideration the conditions of the ordinary childbearing women in Australia in the towns and in the Bush. A glance at the map will show us that all the principal towns are coast towns, where the climate is enervating and relaxing to a degree; especially, I may add, to women, who suffer in consequence from many complaints peculiar to their sex. During nine months out of the twelve, warm, moist, enervating sea breezes make these coast towns veritable lands of the lotus-eater; and, though the well-to-do inhabitants escape during three or four of the worst of these months to the mountains, yet the mass of the people there, as here, have to work and endure whatever the extremes of climate may be.

A woman’s life in the Bush.

We now come to the life of the child-bearing woman in the Bush. Here it is not only the woman of the people, but often those among the well-to-do, on whom “the burden of motherhood,” as the Daily News expresses it, falls with special severity. The climate here is hot, but hot with the fierce scorching burning of the plains and of the table-lands. Women, except in the small townships, lead isolated, lonely lives, and often find themselves face to face (in a way we dwellers in civilisation can scarcely dream of) with the elemental forces of Nature. Many of them, at the moment of child-birth, are either alone, or attended only by some ignorant Bush midwife, or sometimes by a half-grown daughter acting under the directions of the suffering mother herself. If both mother and child are strong, and the birth a natural one, all may go well, and the mother may be baking damper or standing at the wash-tub in three or four days. If anything goes wrong at the time, either mother or child (sometimes both) are sacrificed; and it is invariably the case that after four or five confinements under Bush conditions the mother is a worn and dragged-out drudge, quite incapable of bearing healthy, normal children.

The remedy in the past.

If we study social history we shall see that in the past, wherever a superior and dominant race needed help and support in order to assure its existence, it called to its aid some form of slavery. This was no doubt in order to decrease in some measure “the burden of motherhood,” which in a very hot climate, and face to face with elemental conditions, becomes for the civilised woman, when added to domestic and agricultural work, well-nigh insupportable. We can see the same thing going on now among the Boers, whose women are admittedly prolific, but who leave all manual work to their Kaffir servants. In India, where the British are the dominant race, a multitude of native servants, scarcely above the slave caste, minister to every material want of the “Mem Sahib;” and even a European nurse or lady’s maid will have one or more native servants to carry out her special behests. The meaning of all this is that, if motherhood is the “sacred,” the “elevated,” the “consecrated” duty which women owe to the State, the State must arrange to treat it as such, and not mix it up with the drudgery of scrubbing, washing, and the general struggle for existence involved in the life of the “secluded domesticated” woman. As long as there is a superfluity of population in an old, carefully safe-guarded, capitalistically governed country, here infant mortality and charwoman motherhood can flourish gaily without one whit disturbing the equanimity of a sporting, gambling Court and of Smart Society, all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But in a new, small, and Democratic Society, where there is no vestige of a slave race to fill up the awkward spaces, and to make rotten institutions and conditions look sound, the old social order is unworkable; and the race is, through the degradation of motherhood, threatened with extinction.

The remedy in the Future.

There is no other remedy and no other chance for Australian or other motherhood in the future, now that the slave and class theory has worked itself out, than Collectivism. As I wrote last week, if the woman has a childbearing obligation towards the State the State has also an obligation towards the woman, and should guarantee that neither , she nor the children she bears shall suffer want or preventible injury. During the childbearing, period, and in each successive period of the life of the child, Collective Society should be prepared to aid and support materially both mother and child. Motherhood is in truth “sacred,” and in order to carry out its duties the mother needs much leisure and specially favourable conditions. These, under the existing order, can only be obtained by the privileged few. Federated Australia, has at this moment a magnificent chance of obtaining them for the many. With a Labour Ministry in power, one of the first cares of the Collective State should be to socialise the means of production and of distribution in order that all in the Commonwealth may have equality of opportunity, and an equal chance of happiness. The drudgery of unorganised, mediŠvally arranged domestic work must be removed from the Home, and must be, carried out by organised workers, working regulated hours and in shifts. Science, or ordered knowledge, must be brought to bear on that jumble of inconsistencies, the Unitary Home; and the Collective Home, in which all the children are equally cared for by Society, must take its place. In the scattered Bush districts Collectivism will be more difficult to apply, but trained midwives and mothers’ helps must be supplied free of all charge by the State; for life, healthy and normal, is the wealth of the State, and motherhood, who is being called on to supply that life and that wealth, must be tended and cared for. We shall then be able in a few years to judge whether, under the influence of new ideals and new conditions, the normal standard of reproduction is not regained, and the Australian Colonies are not able once more to point out to older civilisations the way to progress and prosperity.