Dora B. Montefiore, New Age May 1905
Source: New Age, p. 314, 18 May 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Those who are officially connected with, those who support, and those who are forced to pay for our present Parliamentary system, must be indeed proud of the work accomplished by “the Mother of Parliaments” during its legislative debates of May 12th, 1905. During the Parliamentary Session, which lasts from the time when pheasants and partridges are nesting till the moment when the young coveys are strong enough on the wing to make shooting an interesting pastime for legislators, a certain number of Fridays are set aside for Private Members’ Bills – the other days of the week being devoted to Government measures. Friday also happens to be a sort of half-holiday in the House, since it rises at 5.30, instead of at midnight (to ensure the possibility of members being able to get out of town for the week-end holiday), so that in this way also the debates on Private Members’ Bills, are shortened and restricted. Further, as the Fridays during the Session whereon Private Members’ Bills can be discussed are so few, and the number of Private Bills that are awaiting consideration at the hands of our over-worked legislators are so many, they have hit upon the brilliant idea of gambling for (or, in Parliamentary phrase, balloting for) the order of place in which the various measures down for a certain day shall be discussed. Less lofty imaginations might have suggested the classification of these measures, and the taking of them in order of importance, or of merit, as having been for some time before the country, or as having obtained majorities in the division lists of former Parliaments; but such business-like methods as these do not commend themselves to the Assembly of brewers, lawyers, and place-seekers, who condescend to make the laws of a great nation under the rules of a game of chance – rules which they themselves would be the first to scout if it were suggested to apply them to their own private businesses.
The result of this childishly-conceived system of “balloting” for place for measures, was that on May 12th the “Orders of the Day” included twenty-one Bills; while it was perfectly certain that between the hours of noon and 5.30 p. m. only one or two could be debated. Amongst the various Bills awaiting second reading were two Church Discipline Bills, a Voters Registration Bill, an Education Acts Amendment Bill, two Bills relating to the sale of intoxicants, a Bill relating to Coal Mine Employment; and one relating to Milk Depots, besides several others of more or less importance. But the measure which gained first place in the Ballot was the Vehicles’ Lights Bill – a measure surely which might have been left to the consideration of the various County Councils, instead of claiming a leading place on one of the rare Fridays set aside for Private Bills. If, also, the Bill which secured second place (the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill) had been any other than what it was, the member who had charge of the Vehicles’ Lights Bill might have been induced to withdraw it till next Session; but the chance of being able once more to keep women out of their right to political equality with men was too tempting to be resisted; and the determined adversaries of justice to women laid their plans to defeat indirectly (through a protracted and absurd debate) the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill that had won second place.
From noon till 2 o'clock, when the House adjourned for half an hour for luncheon, dull speaker after dull speaker rose, and talked elaborate nonsense about summer nights being darker than winter nights, about old women taking home washing, about dead horses lying by the side of the road, and the question where the light should be put on these dead beasts in order to avoid collisions, etc., etc. At three o'clock Mr. Labouchere continued the drivel of dreary futilities, and when he sat down several rose in their places, ready to go on with what they considered an excellent comedy. It was, therefore, four o'clock before Mr. Bamford Slack, who had charge of our measure, rose in his place and, in a brief, manly speech, laid his case before the House – a case which, as he reminded the members present, had been historically stated by the late John Stuart Mill in a speech whose arguments had never yet received a satisfactory reply. Sir Albert Rollit seconded the measure, pointing out the disadvantages under which working women suffered because of their disability, through lack of the franchise, to influence industrial legislation. Then Mr. Labouchere, who poses as the spiritual descendant of John Knox, and of St. Paul, began the second part of his self-imposed task, the “talking out” of the measure till 5.30, so as to prevent a division being taken on the question. In this task he was ably seconded by Mr. Herbert Robertson, member for Hackney, and Mr. Bryce. Mr. Robertson made the astonishing statement that our Australian Colonies, far from being satisfied with the result of the enfranchisement of women, were contemplating withdrawing the franchise from that half of the community. Mrs. Malet, an enfranchised woman from New South Wales, who was present in the Ladies’ Gallery, was forced to listen in silence to this calumny, but she refuted it later on to an assembly of women who met to draw up a petition for Mr. Keir Hardie to present to the House, and move “That it be read by the Clerk at the Table.”
Immediately after the rising of the House the three or four hundred weary women who had been awaiting since noon the result of the debate which affected so closely their conditions of life, poured out of the Lobby into the open space in front of the Houses of Parliament, and, led by the one enfranchised woman, in the crowd, and two or three of the older workers in the cause, they proceeded to the mounted statue of King Alfred, and from its base Mrs. Malet began to read to the assembled crowd a resolution. Before the resolution could be properly put the police forced us to “move on,” but permitted us to put the resolution from a stand near the entrance to the close, on the other side of the Abbey. From this position Mrs. Malet once more read the following resolution to the crowd of women present; and it was carried unanimously: “That this meeting of the supporters of the Women’s Enfranchisement Bill request Mr. Keir Hardie to lay on the Table of the House the following Petition:- ‘That your Petitioners view with indignation and alarm the existing procedure of the House of Commons, which reduces legislation to a mere game of chance and permits the repeated and insulting postponement of the consideration and satisfaction of the just claims of women to citizenship. Your Petitioners therefore humbly pray that your Honourable House will so reform your procedure as to secure in the future fair consideration of public questions with some regard to their relative importance’.” Miss Isabella Ford then advised the women to go home and work for the carrying out of their resolution.
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.