Dora B. Montefiore, New Age April 1905

Women’s Interests

Another view of the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill.

Source: New Age, p. 250-251, 20 April 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

An extract has been sent to me of a speech made by the Countess of Warwick at Eccles, on the subject of the feeding of children, in our Board Schools, in, which she is reported by the Manchester Guardian as having said: “She could not help feeling that it was a much more important matter to give food to starving children than to give votes to rich women.” She added the remark that if the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill became law she would be given 15 votes. It would be interesting to have competent opinion on this latter point, as Peers, being so fully represented in the House of Lords, do not possess the vote for electing representative members of the Lower House. It would, therefore, seem to be logical that peeresses, with their ample and unscreened gallery in the Upper House, from which they are allowed to dominate, dazzle, and distract the debaters in that august assembly in a way that is absolutely impossible to their sister “commoners,” from behind the stuffy barred bars of the “Ladies’ Gallery” in the House of Commons – it would, I say, seem logical that peeresses, like their lords, should be debarred from the extra privilege of voting for the return of members to the Lower House. This, however, is a point to be settled by such high and luminous authorities as those who have already discovered that women are not “persons,” and who, in the future, may be able to prove to their own, if to no one else’s satisfaction, that peeresses are not women. We women commoners, who are fighting such an uphill battle for the right of political expression, can afford to let the question stand over for the present, whilst other and more urgent claims are being made on our time and energies.

Why Put Two Useful Measures in Opposition?

What I do wish to criticise in the speech of the Countess, who has lately joined the political organisation to which I belong, and whom I would fain to see taking a different view on this important question, is – why put the feeding of starving children and the emancipation of women, be they rich or poor, into opposition? Is not such an appeal, as the Countess of Warwick is reported to have made an appeal to passions and prejudices and not an appeal to wisdom and to justice? Such an utterance tempts one almost to think that the speaker is on a different plane of thought from that of the devoted women and men who have for years been giving up time, money, intellect, and often health and life itself, to the cause of the political emancipation of women – not with the object of giving women the power to dominate, but the power to serve. How is it that this growing consciousness of the necessity of women’s direct and unalienable power to serve the State has been so rapidly evolved of late years? It is because women of leisure have been doing more and more in public work and in administration, and both they and the best of the men who have worked with them have seen more and more how the finest of administrative work is wasted when the legislative conditions which control that work are incapable of modification or change through the direct influence of womanhood and motherhood. That is why the better educated and evolved women, whether of the people, such as Sarah Reddish, a woman weaver and ex-member of a School Board, or Mrs. McIlquam, a middle-class woman, who for years has unostentatiously but devotedly served her country asa Poor Law Guardian at Tewkesbury, are united in demanding that Parliament shall pass the Women’s Emancipation Bill, which is down for its second reading on May 12. If one of these women I have named comes under the category of “rich women,” whom Lady Warwick (if she is correctly reported) seems to put in opposition to the poor starving children of the working classes, let me remind her ladyship that this middle-class woman, and thousands like her, are richer in their power of service to the community than in the property qualification, which, under the present state of the law in England, is the only recognised qualification for a voter. It requires more than a spasm of altruism to sit for years on a Board of Guardians and do one’s best, year in and year out, for the submerged, the unfit, the failures in an order of society which one has no power to alter or modify. Nothing but the noblest and the sincerest altruism of a lifetime can forge the soul which can support such a deadening strain, and yet remain serene and hopeful. But the inner inspiration that supports such women, is the thought that if liberty is not to come in their day it will dawn for their daughters and their sons; and that when motherhood is represented the children will be fed without the necessity for a peeress appealing to men to do as a grudging favour what it is the instinct and the joy of women to do as a loving duty. The Countess of Warwick is a comparatively new corner to the field of social work, but if she will study these two questions more deeply, she will perhaps come to the conclusion, as have most wide-minded and far seeing of the social workers, that if women had been emancipated a generation (which is 30 years) ago we should not now have, the shame, as a wealthy nation, of running round to hunt up a few thousand pounds a year to feed the starving children, who either ought never to have been born or, being born, have the right, as future citizens, to be fed.

A Practical Business for Women.

Let me recommend to practical women, who are seeking an outlet for time and energy – too often the woman’s only form of capital – an article in the April number of the Partner on a suggested new business for women. “Why should not,” says the writer, “spring cleaning be organised on the same principles that have made the window cleaning companies a success .... Let a woman of experience open an office in each residential suburb, engage a staff.. (small at first) of efficient women, and send round to all the houses in the neighbourhood a circular stating that she is prepared to take over the entire work of house cleaning for a fixed sum .... Contracts could be taken to keep the same private houses in order throughout the year, visiting them, say, once a week, scrubbing the passages and certain rooms, and doing the multifarious jobs that a housewife finds so burdensome. Where two servants are now kept one would be found ample. Where, one is kept a daily maid could do all that is required.” The idea, I feel sure, is a sound practical one, but it requires a woman of business aptitude and of organising, power to carry it out. Once successfully established, I feel convinced such a system of cooperative house cleaning would find many imitators. Let women who are inclined rather to look down on business capability in other women remember that successful government and successful administration are nothing but glorified business aptitude.