Dora B. Montefiore, New Age October 1904

Women’s Interests

The Housing Problem

Source: New Age, p. 635-636, 6 October 1904;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Amongst all the social problems there is none that touches women more keenly than that of housing; as the house or home beautiful (I use, the term beautiful in the sense of suitable, simple, and of honest, fair workmanship) helps forward the life beautiful; whilst the house or home in slum surroundings, where sight, smell, and hearing are daily and hourly outraged, and where men, women, and children are worse housed than are the horses and hounds of the wealthy, life sinks beneath the level of the beasts, whilst motherhood, which should be the supreme nourishing, cherishing, and sheltering force in society, is stultified, degraded, and destroyed. That large masses of our people live under slum conditions many of them in one or two-roomed “homes,” where motherhood in its best sense can hold no sway – is the real cause of our excessive infant mortality and physical degeneration. Wilshires American Magazine for September has an illustrated article which shows the problem to be just as acute over there, and its results to be just as destructive to health, decency, and the evolution of motherhood! To stimulate the imagination of those who will neither think nor feel with the unprivileged, the writer reproduces photographs of an “interior bedroom, totally dark, the picture taken by flashlight,” in which human beings have to herd and sleep; also of an air shaft in a roof – a bare, unprotected hole, giving the only light and ventilation to inner rooms. The article calls attention to a recently published, book, called The Tenement House Problem, by Robert W. De Forest and Lawrence Veiller, which contains striking statistics showing the connection between ill-ventilated and ill-lighted slum dwellings and tuberculosis. “The testimony taken before the Tenement House Commission, in which leading physicians and specialists upon this subject testified, shows that there are over 8,000 deaths a year in New York city, due to this disease alone; that there are at least 20,000 cases of well-developed and recognised pulmonary tuberculosis in the city, and, in addition, a large number of obscure and incipient cases. The connection between this disease and the character of the tenement houses in which the poor people live is of the very closest.” And, so the writer of the article tells us, there are 361,000 dark rooms in New York!

The woman secluded in the home.

And there are still people, calling themselves Progressives and Socialists, who write and speak of the necessity for secluding women in the home! In the “stye” or the “hutch” would surely be a better term than this parody of a “home,” where womanhood and motherhood rot, sicken, and die! Rather should the women be encouraged to go out into the highways, and cry aloud in protest against the social conditions which prevent them having a voice in municipal domestic questions – questions that should be their supreme interest. How can a women develop what is best in her of womanhood and of motherhood if she is denied a voice in that local and municipal government that controls the conditions of the house she and her family live in, the streets they walk in daily, the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the sanitation which should remove all impurities? Let us not forget that the solidarity of the human race is expressed in health or in sickness, as well as in other relations of life; that the poor stricken consumptive, coughing up the remnant of his lungs as he drags his wasted limbs through streets or park, is unconsciously taking his revenge on the execrably bad male municipal house-keeping, of which he is the victim, by spreading everywhere the insidious germs of slum-engendered tuberculosis.

The hoped-for return of women to municipal life.

It is for these reasons, and because woman’s best sphere is the care for and the conservation of health and life, that we welcome the measure now before Parliament which will tend, when passed, to replace women on County Councils (from which they were removed by the ineptitude of a Judge, who ruled “that neither by the common law nor by the constitution of England from the beginning of the common law until now can a woman hold any public office”; a ruling absolutely opposed to facts) and on the Borough Councils, which have superseded Vestries on which women sat till 1899. This Bill, which I have mentioned before as having been introduced at the end of the last Session by Mr. Crooks, is an extremely simple one, but will have when passed, an immense influence on the home and public life of all women. Its principle, in brief, is that wherever the word “person” occurs in Representation of the People’s Acts it shall include women as well as men. This would mean, as I have already explained, that women would once more have a share by direct mandate of the people in education, in municipal and local government administration, and would vote for members of Parliament on the same franchise as men do now. Moreover, as the franchise is extended to men, women will automatically share in the extension, till full adult suffrage is obtained. No one, surely, can object to this measure as being opposed to democratic interests, or pretend that it is a Woman Suffrage Bill for giving the franchise to rich women, while excluding working women, as Julia Dawson seems to imply in the Clarion of September 23, when she wrote: “If the present Women’s Suffrage Bill were passed, we could have no guarantee that the enfranchised woman would not use her influence against the unenfranchised.” The present Women’s Suffrage Bill is the one that Mr. Crooks introduced last Session, and which Keir Hardie, Shackleton, and others have backed; it is a measure of simple justice, placing women of every class on the same level as men as regards qualification for sitting on administrative bodies and as regards the Parliamentary vote. It is a measure of policy, as distinguished from idle shouting or repeating of shibboleths; and it is a measure which every woman whose sympathies, like Julia Dawson’s, “are on the side of the working woman every time” should help forward in every way, because it would remove the crushing sex disability which presses on the working woman far more heavily than it does on the middle class woman, for sex disability affects wage-earning power, and, as a consequence, the whole standard and possibilities of living.

Where women are enfranchised.

In a New Zealand paper that was sent me recently I find an article that it would be impossible, under existing conditions of sex disability in this country, to find in any ordinary English paper. It is headed “Equal Pay for Equal Work,” and the writer remarks: “The public have made vast strides in political intelligence during the past decade and it is only here and there that we find some benighted individual or association seriously opposing the main principle of economic equality; but the Legislature still refuses to recognise the equity of equal pay for equal work. It tolerates a scale of teachers’ salaries which deliberately provides that a woman shall receive less pay than a man for the same work. It admits women to the telephone service, and then debars them from the pay and the promotion that are given to the members of the opposite sex.” The same injustices, I need not remind my readers, are perpetrated in England, but where do we find a daily paper to expose the fact, and show that its sympathies are with the working woman? If this Bill now before the country can, through the strenuous work of men and women, become law; we shall at once find, as they have found in our colonies, a different tone towards women, and especially towards working women in the daily Press, and doors will be open which till then had been ever locked and barred. As this subject of the measure we must use in working for our Bill is so important, I shall hope to give, from time to time during the winter, information as to the best and most effective means of drawing the attention of members of Parliament to the matter.