Dora B. Montefiore, New Age September 1904
Source: New Age, p. 570-571, 8 September 1904;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
This is at the present moment one of the most burning questions of the social problem, and one that will have to be faced and solved in the near future with tact, with understanding, and with the “ordered knowledge” that is known as science. The real trouble does not lie so much in the fact that women are enlarging the sphere of their occupations; as that they are underselling men in the labour market. In the labour world they are “blacklegs,” and as such do great harm to the labour cause. “Blacklegs,” both male and female, should be discouraged, and it is worth while, considering the importance of the question to organised labour, to weigh the merits of the various means employed to discourage them, and to try and discover if there is any way of turning the women from “blacklegs” into class conscious organised workers. The reason why women and a fair proportion of men workers undersell organised men in the labour, market is that the standard of living among women, and among unskilled labour generally, is lower than that which rules among skilled labourers. Their food is poorer, their wants are fewer, and their “divine discontent” is almost an unknown quantity. Employers take advantage of this state of things, and are day by day replacing their men-workers by women-workers, who they find do the work as well as men, and do it at a lower wage. Yesterday I read of the invasion of the cycle-making trade by women in England, to-day I am studying the statistics, sent me by an American reader from the Boston Woman’s Journal, giving the census figures in that country concerning the work of women. Among other items, I observe – Stockraisers and drovers, 1,947; civil engineers and surveyors, 84; watchmen and policemen, 879; blacksmiths, 196; masons, 167; plumbers and fitters, 126; fishermen and oyster-men, 1,805; and miners and quarrymen, 1,370. They seem also to be employed on the railways as brakesmen, conductors, etc., and on board ship as pilots and ship’s carpenters. Nothing is said about their rate of pay, but I learn in another part of the same paper that the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butchers of America are seeking to bar women from that not altogether tempting field of activity, and their action is based on a question of wages. Considering the elaborate accounts that one sees from time to time in the papers of the up-to-date machinery used in America in the large slaughter and canning yards – machinery which converts a Chicago pig into sausages “while you wait” – it might fairly be deemed by us on this side of the mill-pond that men butchers, as we know them, had on the other side been superseded not by women, but by machinery.
It would seem that women using knives and steels have always been denied membership in the Butchers’ Union of America, which appears to me a short-sighted proceeding, if the butchers do not wish to be undersold by “blackleg” labour. I could better understand their position and their plea if women were so carefully shielded from brutalising influences in “the seclusion of home,” or in the rough and tumble of domesticity in the backwoods. But it must not be forgotten, when the sentimental side of this question is forced to the front, that as long as we are a meat, poultry; and game eating race the domestic work of women involves too often the skinning, disembowelling, and cutting up of animals; and, as far as I know, hungry men have never exclaimed against the degrading brutality of the occupation for their domesticated women. There is also an industry carried on in our own country at Deptford involving the cleaning out and preparing of entrails – some not altogether fresh – which occupation is, I understand, left rather severely to women and young girls. It must certainly be as degrading as using knife and steel, but it is no doubt less well paid, and, on that score therefore, not so desired by men. It would be interesting to know who does this elevating work in America, or whether is they, as we hope, have invented machinery for doing it. Frankly, I should like to see as few as possible of both men and women employed about slaughter-yards, but as long as such work exists I cannot see why women should not a work on the packing side of the industry, and why they should not be paid equal wages for equal work. But it would seem that the butchers in. America have demanded of the packers that the women engaged in that occupation be replaced by men. These are the old and the wrong tactics, and the result will be the same in the end, as it has always been when men have used their power and their organisation unfairly. Let them admit women to the Packers’ Union, and teach them the uses and the advantages of solidarity, added to the practical benefits of a better wage and a higher standard of living. In this way, and in this way only, will the question of women’s labour in competition with men’s be solved.
That this competition under existing social conditions is inevitable and increasing even women in a half-inarticulate way, are beginning to realise. Two cases have been reported lately in our: daily papers of young girls putting on boys’ dress in order to obtain better equality of opportunity in earning a living. In one case the girl had been taunted by her parents with being out of work, so she stole her brother’s clothes, and went off to try and get employment under more favourable conditions. In another case a servant girl, dressed as a boy, was “wanted” by the police; and she pleaded before the magistrate that she had “assumed the character of a boy because it was safer, and boys had a much better chance in the world than girls.” A generation of Board School influence and teaching cannot fail to stimulate even the dormant faculties of the girl of the people; and, just as her awakened middle-class sisters have; through continued agitation, ameliorated the enactments of social legislation for all women, so the working woman, when she enters on her heritage of sex consciousness and class consciousness, will, if she be treated as a comrade, and not as a rival, help to raise the standard not only of her own wage, but of the wages of all with whom she works.
That Bumbledom in some of its worst forms is only scotched, and not yet killed, is proved by the fact that the Local Government Board have lately issued a circular letter to Boards of Guardians condemning the action of certain Boards of Guardians who, when the wives and children of prisoners had become chargeable to the Poor Rates, were in the habit of sending these unfortunate and unoffending Workhouse guests to the prison gates to meet the prisoners on their discharge. For sheer callous lack of imagination it would be difficult to beat this record on the part of “certain Poor Law Unions.” Surely an English Gorki would be needed to interpret for them the piteous realism of those impromptu meetings. The prison-seared husband and father, turned out in the grey of an autumn dawn or the rasp of a bleak northeaster, with a shilling or two in his pocket, and his soul rent between the bitterness of a desire for revenge on society and a shamefaced, inarticulate longing to do better in the future by wife and child. He is as dazed after escaping from the soul-deadening prison routine as is the bird escaping from its barred cage. He needs some hours wherein to readjust himself to his new environment; some friendly word of human sympathy and encouragement to help him once more to face the world, and take up the burden of labour. Crawling towards him through the gloom comes the figure of a woman carrying an infant, and with two older children dragging at her skirts. The taint of pauperism is on them, for during long months they have eaten Bumbledom’s grudging bread. And now even the doors of Bumbledom have closed on them, for their lawful protector and breadwinner is once more a free man – free, like them, to starve in a world which first, through its social conditions, manufactures criminals, and then closes all doors that might lead them back towards the abodes of honest men. So the little group, after dull and disheartening greetings, is once more reunited, and the sad, dragging walk, now aimless and hopeless, recommences. Yes, all doors are shut upon such a family group! All but the doors of the public house. And there alone temporary forgetfulness and some semblance of creature comfort can at last be purchased by the outcasts, of the Prison and the Workhouse!
DORA. B. MONTEFIORE.