Dora B. Montefiore New Age January 1905
Source: New Age, p. 11, 5 January 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
As one of the many signs that the question of Woman Suffrage is, as the General Election approaches, becoming daily a more vital question in English politics, I welcome the contribution, of “Macrobius” in last week’s NEW AGE, under the title of “Liberalism and Woman Suffrage.” Discriminating readers will of course have discovered that “Macrobius” is the pseudonym for a masculine contributor, since, though the subject is “woman,” her interests are treated in large print, and in the form of a leading article. Let me add that “Macrobius” is one of the men writers whose record, where women’s interests are concerned, is one of the finest, most logical, and most consistent; and that we women owe him a special debt of gratitude because he has never flinched from pointing out (though the subject is too often an unpopular one with writers and politicians) what are women’s rights and functions in the community as human beings. “Macrobius” and I both stand and work for Adult Suffrage as being the only logical form of Democratic political expression; we only differ, I much regret to say, on the question of practical policy (given the present juncture of political affairs in Great-Britain) in obtaining eventually full Adult Suffrage. I am most entirely in accord with “Macrobius” when he writes: “The right way to handle the question is not from the standpoint of party tactics, but from those of political common-sense and political justice”; and I believe it is because Mr. Keir Hardie is actuated by the same principles and the same political common-sense that he is giving his whole-hearted support to a measure for the political emancipation of women on the same basis as men are now emancipated; which measure will, by its wording, automatically enable women to keep step with men in any future measure of political emancipation.
Let me once more emphasise with “Macrobius” the statement that this question of the political emancipation of women is not a party question. And, this being so, I am the more puzzled why he makes a direct attack on Mr. Keir Hardie, who, it appears to me, is in this connection endeavouring to place sanely and fairly large human interests above party politics. Neither is the Labour party so divided in principle on the subject as “Macrobius” seems to think. Both the I.L.P. and the S.D.F. passed resolutions at their conferences last Easter to the effect that, “Pending the granting of Adult Suffrage, support be given to any measure granting the franchise to women on the same terms as it is, or may be, granted to men.” The women textile workers of the North, the most evolved and conscious of our organised working women, give their hearty support to the measure, which would place them politically on the same footing as their men fellow-workers; and the Central Committee of the Women’s Co-operative Guild, representing a membership in England and Scotland of 27,000 working women, has issued a manifesto, stating they are prepared to support any measure which would be a step in the direction of their goal (Adult Suffrage), provided such measure “would not disfranchise married women, and would include a large proportion of working women among those enfranchised.” This brings me to my second point of disagreement with the article under consideration. “Macrobius” repeats, what I cannot help qualifying as the unproved statement, that the Woman Suffrage measure now before the country will only admit “women taxpayers of the upper classes.” We, who are resisting this prejudice, have collected facts and figures on the subject, and some of the most strenuous workers in this connection are working women (aye, and very poor working women) themselves, whose only possibility of becoming articulate on the question of their political disabilities is through the columns of a newspaper.
A working women wrote in December, 1904, in the columns of the Labour Leader: “In 1881-2 I went through the whole of Leeds for the, purpose of obtaining a women householders’ petition for the Parliamentary vote. I also repeated the process in Bolton a year or two later; and in each case I feel I am well within the mark in putting the number of actual workers at two-thirds of the whole number on the voting list. At the present time, any unbiassed canvasser would refute the assertion that women on the Voting lists of the United Kingdom were largely middle-class .... They are largely the widows of working men; the largest number of deaths are those of working men, consequently the largest number of widows are working women..... Some of these women are struggling to keep a roof over the heads of themselves and families, earning a pittance by attending to the wants of the family, workers in mill, factory, forge, or workshop. All the head and hand workers on the voting lists are living in various degrees of comfort, as well as of poverty and misery.” This assertion of “Macrobius” that working women who support the present measure are only working to enfranchise “their rich and independent sisters” is known by working women to be as inaccurate as that one made by a member of Parliament to a deputation of working women, who, early last year, came to London to ask personally that their case, as politically unrepresented organised workers, should be taken into consideration. Amongst the groups of women who they stated would be enfranchised by such a measure as that now, before the country, was ‘women lodgers’.” “Women lodgers!” interrupted the socially experienced M.P. “Why, they are mostly women leading irregular lives!” The sturdy, self-respecting, and independent Lancashire workers did not forget the insult, and when I was in Lancashire last Easter I was told of it by more than one working woman living as a lodger in one or other of the neatly-kept four-roomed houses of the Lancashire weavers. The working women who are standing for the present measure, as an evolutional and practical step towards larger measures of justice, know their own needs, and their own possibilities, and they keenly resent superficial generalisations by politicians who, having been sent to Parliament to represent men’s interests, have neither time nor inclination to study the interests of the mothers, wives, and sisters of their male constituents.
“Macrobius” being an extremely fair-minded controversial adversary, will, I feel sure, take the few questions I am about to ask into consideration, and ponder over the solutions to them which he may arrive at: First, Of what importance, in a great question such as this of the breaking down of sex barriers, are the unofficial and irresponsible utterances of one woman; and why (except that the opposition are grasping at straws) do we find a foolish remark of a nobody who happens to have a title, going the round of all the speeches and articles opposing the present measure? Second, What is the record of work for removing sex disabilities of those who pose now stridently as Adult Suffragists? Have they, ever (till now) formed an Adult Suffrage League to educate others in the principle which has suddenly grown so dear to them? Have any of them worked for getting an Adult Suffrage Bill brought into the House, or to get a resolution passed in favour of it; or have they written, Session after Session, to members, urging on them the importance of having a debate in the House on the subject? All these things and many more in the shape of honest spade-work have been done by women, who do not treat the matter as a party question, but who desire, as practical politicians, to secure for women equal political rights with men. Third, Have Trades Councils and other organisations of men, when any extension of the franchise on a purely masculine basis has been to the fore, thought it necessary to meet and pass resolutions against such extension on the ground of its not being Adult Suffrage? Fourth, Which are the associations which “stand for a limited suffrage"? If “Macrobius” means the Women Suffrage Societies, he is describing them incorrectly. They work for obtaining the franchise for women on the same terms as it is, or may be, granted to men; but it is no part of their business to work for Adult Suffrage, or their subscribers might complain that their subscriptions were being used for purposes other than those for which they were given. And fifth, Is it so probable that though, as “Macrobius” foretells, “we are within sight of a great Liberal Parliament” that an Adult Suffrage Bill, could be got through both Houses? for is not the main difference (as a witty Fabian writer has told us) between Tory and Liberal Governments the fact that one can get its measures passed through the Upper House, and the other cannot? We Democrats have taken free education, and hope to take some measure of free maintenance from a Tory Government; and some of us do not feel too superior to accept political emancipation at their hands. Lady Knightley, of Fawsley, may chatter of what she and her smart set mean to do with their vote in the reactionary line; but for every society chatterer there are fifty or more tensely inarticulate women workers straining at their political fetters, but prepared the moment they are free to help remove the disabilities of their enslaved comrades – both men and women.
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.