Dora B. Montefiore, New Age June 1905

Women’s Interests

Mr. Belfort Bax to the Rescue.

Source: New Age, pp. 378-379, 15 June 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

There are a few moments in my life when I feel really proud, and among them are those unique occasions when I realise that my humble little column in which I deal with women’s interests has been read by a really great man. Such a moment came into my life last week, when I found the distinguished writer who added lustre to the legal profession by his joint authorship of the Subjection of Man, deigning to read and criticise my suggestions for the maintenance of children whose fathers desired to escape the financial obligations which parentage involves. I had often heard from those lady writers who attend to women’s interests on the health-and-toilet, chiffon-and-corset sides, that some of their most assiduous readers were to be found amongst the male sex; but I little thought that to me, a writer on such unconsidered trifles as the economic, domestic, and political sides of women’s activities – the sides more especially where woman is to be regarded as a human being, and not only as a creature of sex – was to be awarded the high honour of being read and discussed by a gentleman of legal mind, joined to that legal sense of humour and delicacy of wit for which our Bench and Bar have always been famous. Did not a learned judge at some convivial gathering following the arduous labours of Assizes, once propose the health of women and wine (how flattering is the association) by naming two distinguished members then practising at the Bar – “Lush and Shee” – and was not the toast, under that guise, greeted with uproarious applause? Why, then, should we women expect that in the interval of a few years any subversive change should have taken place in the feelings towards us of a profession which held us in like esteem with the bottle, and denied us any separate individuality the moment we put our heads into the legally devised noose of matrimony?

“The other side.”

Mr. Belfort Bax heads his criticism “The Other Side,” but up to the present moment I have failed to discover which is the other side he bids us mark. He appears to believe that I should consider it “too shocking for words for married women to keep themselves and share in the maintenance of their children.” I believe I have always preached in this column the advantage to married women of economic independence; but I have also preached equal pay for equal work, and that women cannot get at present, whether married or single. A married women with two or three children, one of whom is often an infant in arms, cannot possibly go out to work, and it is for a woman in that position that I claim the 75 per cent. of the husband’s wages. Mr. Belfort Bax thinks “it is indeed an enviable thing to be a woman nowadays – to combine the material advantages of a privileged status with the moral leverage of being able effectively to posture as the poor oppressed victim.” Mr. Bax seems here to be confusing the issue by taking what I, an economically independent middle-class woman, write, as the utterances of “the poor oppressed victim.” It is because she, the wife of the working man, is so often a victim is as yet so inarticulate, so shut out, from the knowledge and understanding of the great outside movement of women towards freedom and independence, that her more fortunately placed sisters must at present write and speak for her. She does not “posture,” poor thing, she only suffers; whilst on one side she is told that her unorganised attempts to snatch at any work, for any wage, when her children cry for food, tend to keep down wages; and on the other hand she is warned by a legal gentleman and his followers not to consider she has “a natural right to exploit the labour of mere man.”

Women’s activities.

I am glad to be able to record that the Woman Suffrage question is more than ever to the front. In Lancashire open-air meetings under the auspices of the Lancashire and Cheshire Women Textile and other Workers’ Representation Committee are being held at various centres; and a motor-car campaign in support of Women’s Enfranchisement is being carried on. Miss Billington, a member of the I.L.P., a good speaker and an ardent suffragist, is organising in the Potteries; and in London open-air suffrage meetings are being held in Ravenscourt Park, in a spot hallowed by the memory and work of William Morris. Under the shade of tall spreading trees, with the vivid green of summer’s grass beneath their feet, and amidst the beautiful surroundings of an old English garden and park, a small band of enthusiastic suffragists addressed on the last Sunday in May an audience composed of those who in no other part could have been got together, and who never attend indoor meetings. Amongst those who spoke was Mrs. Martel, an enfranchised woman of New South Wales, who in a few simple but dignified words explained to her audience how she exercised her three franchises, the municipal, the Parliamentary, and the Commonwealth franchise in the happy land of Australia; not because she belonged to a class, not because she possessed property, but because she was an adult human being. Mrs. Martel has also run as a candidate for the Commonwealth Senate, or Upper House, and though she was not successful, she polled nearly 20,000 votes, and means when she returns to Australia to offer herself for election again. I am glad to record the fact that there are now two working women students at Ruskin Hall, Oxford. If some modest scholarships could be founded for working-women, we should doubtless have more of them taking advantage of Ruskin Hall; but the financial difficulty, though great with working men, is greater still with working women. All honour then to the pioneers who, through many difficulties, are pointing out the way to their sisters!

The word of warning in my last week’s article.

I have received some helpful correspondence in connection with my last week’s reminder to men in authority that women will permit no tampering with army regulations for rendering vice more easy and less dangerous to the young soldier. One correspondent reminded me of a leaflet which was sent me a few months ago from France, signed by Lydia Martial, on behalf of the “Humanisme Rationnel” of that country. The leaflet is a copy of the Report addressed to the “Ministers of War, of Public Instruction, and of Commerce, to the Head of the Military Health Department, and to all politicians, sociologists, pedagogues, and hygienists, who are interested in these questions;” which Report is the outcome of the thought and study of the women met in council on March 2nd, 1905, who now formulate their opinions on “The Duties of man towards himself; the duties of man towards the woman; the duties of man towards the child; and special moral observations in connection with military service.” The entire leaflet is most interesting as indicating the newly-awakened moral consciousness of women towards the terrible question of militarism as a whole, with its years of unnatural and anti-social barrack existence, and its Nietzschian teaching that “man was made for war, and woman for the relaxation of the warrior.” That is the teaching, whether avowed or dissimulated, that cuts at the root of the social fabric from the woman’s and the mother’s point of view; and women in France are attempting scientifically to point out through the inculcation of moral and physical hygiene, combined with self-reverence arid self-restraint, a more excellent way.