Dora B. Montefiore, New Age July 1905
Source: New Age, p. 457-458, 20 July 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
I have been much struck by the general excellence of the speeches made by the Guildswomen at the recent Co-operative Congress. There is a quality of “grit” about them which goes to prove that contact with practical business interests helps to develop the widening and steadying forces which so many women need. An overdose of home and its narrowing details may be just as prejudicial to character as an overdose of outside life, leaving no time for leisure and rest. The working women, and women of the lower middle class, who have been fortunate enough to become absorbed in the great co-operative guild movement, are on a far higher level of intelligence than are the other women around them. More than that, they have a larger amount of idealism than have the men co-operators, and constantly stir up discussions and start schemes in which the question of dividends are of quite secondary importance. There is at all times among them a feeling that the movement does not touch, as they would wish it to do, the poorest and most helpless among the industrial classes; and some years ago the Women’s Guild propounded a most carefully-prepared scheme of a proposed co-operative Mont de Piété, or pawnbroking establishment. The pawnbroker should be the poor man’s banker instead of his usurer, as he is at present; and, just as the well-to-do man or woman can get an advance on security from a banker, so the poor man or woman should be able to get an advance on security from the pawnbroker, without being charged an exorbitant rate of interest, and without the taint of discredit which at present seems to be attached to the action of pawning property. Many excellent workmen, who in times of unemployment have to borrow money on their tools, begin the downward path from not being able to recover those tools when better times come round. A humane system of co-operative pawnbroking would help such a man, instead of destroying him. The Mont de Piété abroad is a municipal affair; whilst awaiting the time when our municipalities see fit to trade under the sign of the “Three Golden Balls,” a co-operative pawnbroker might often help a poor man or woman over an extra rough
Guild, and showed what an excellent advertisement it had been for co-operation. The chairman, she said, had remarked that women would attain the places marked out for them: “Women, however, were not content to have places marked out for them, but would mark out their own. In the rooms of the Women’s Guild they learned the first principles of co-operation. They learned every portion of it; how factories were conducted, as well as the financial side. The more men took women into their confidence as regarded finance, the better purchasers they would become.” Mrs. Buchan, of the Scottish Women’s Guild, said that “what co-operators really received as dividend was the legitimate profit, after proper conditions of labour had been used, and fair wages had been paid to the employees.” It is to be hoped that that principle will always be kept to the front, both in the wholesale and retail co-operative trading establishments, as that alone will help to raise the standard of manufacturing and trading morality. I cannot refrain from quoting one remark made by the chairman, Mr. Baggaley. “England,” he said, “would be the better for all the brains it could get, whether they were under a hat or a bonnet.” In affairs of State the brains under hats seem lately to have been somewhat muddled, and the lapses of memory in that category of brains when undergoing examination by General Butler’s Committee, have been painfully marked. Might not some brains under bonnets....? But the point is too obvious.
Some weeks ago the writers of the Life and Labour column in the Daily News pointed out admirably to men readers, through the medium of an object-lesson in the shape of a 13s. 6d. suit, the commercial immorality woven into its every thread and sewn into its every stitch. The material was shoddy, which a cotton woof hardly succeeded in holding together; the luckless men and women who cut out and sewed together this miserable web of fraud were sweated and destroyed body and soul. Life and labour were both wasted over the production of an object not meant for wear, but for sale. The lesson was sharp, practical, and necessary. Women need a similar exposé of the manner in which much of their finery is produced. But do we find the writers of Women’s Columns attempting to tell women similar truths? A few days later I read in the same daily paper, but in the Woman’s Column, presided over by “Alicia” (who touches lightly in her “pars” on most of the forward movements of the day, in the hopes, no doubt, of inducing women to think and reason on them): “However, it is time to turn to the practical – just now exemplified in tea-gowns, of which Messrs... are showing in their summer sale some remarkably cheap models in accordion-pleated nun’s veiling, most daintily trimmed with Valenciennes lace and insertion. Here is a golden opportunity for combining economy with picturesqueness that a good many of us will seize.” Quite close to this column I observe the advertisement of this same firm, and of their special offer of “accordion-pleated tea-gowns at 16s”; headed: “Ladies intent on bargain-hunting.” This puffing by “Alicia” of what are evidently sweated goods reminds me of Flaubert’s remark about the conventional moral training of women. From their first lady’s maid to their last lover everyone lies to them; everyone does their best to make them ‘canaille,’ and then complains of them.” Why should not “Alicia” have taken the 16s. tea-gowns as the text of her message to women, as the man writer did with the 13s. 6d. suits, when writing to men? What about the material used, and the linings? What about the many yards of Valenciennes lace and insertion? What about the women’s fingers that tended the machines – which pressed its “accordion-pleats,” stitched its seams, and sewed on its trimmings? How many lives have been made hideous and barren in order that the readers of “Alicia’s” column may go “bargain-hunting” and may wear 16s. tea-gowns that should, under fair conditions of labour, and under a decent system of wages, have cost 30s. or more?
I rejoice to see that another Crêche or Public Nursery, for the children of working mothers, has been opened at Hoxton; with a promise from the Countess of Kinnoull that “as soon as they can get the funds, one will be started in every poor district.” It is just a year since I visited a very perfectly-arranged one in Berlin, which had been built in the same grounds as the domestic training school for middle and upper class girls. In this way the girl students obtained practical knowledge of the care and management of infants and children, whilst the nurselings came in touch with a refining influence, which many children of the wealthy, confided to a common class of nurse, cannot obtain. In the room devoted to infants in arms, every cradle was hung on perambulator wheels, so that whenever the weather was fine enough, the infants were taken out into the garden to have their sleep. Every detail of the arrangements was equally well thought out, and the way the young girl students managed and amused the tiny tots of three and four was most interesting to watch. Our ideal over here, of course, should be municipal crêches, and I recommend the idea to the first Progressive municipality that establishes a crêche, that they should start alongside of it a school of domestic training. This, if well-managed, and of practical value, should make the crêche self-supporting, and save the pocket of the rate-payer in more ways than one. At present many of our English girls go to Berlin in order to get a year or more training in practical domestic work; and I know of no training school in England of the sort so admirably planned and carried out.
I gather from a paragraph in a daily paper that the athletic officials at Yale University, U.S.A., have decided that students of both sexes may bathe together in the gymnasium swimming tanks. If proper dresses are worn, there is no more reason why boys and girls, or young men and women, should not bathe together, as well as play tennis or hockey, or ride together. Swimming is one of the most healthy of exercises, and, judging by the records of the young girls who have swum lately from Kingston, one of whom (Miss Littlewood) remained in the water over five hours, and swam nine and a half miles, it is an exercise specially fitted for developing the physical stamina of growing girls. Readers of George Meredith will remember his exhilarating account of the “marine duet” between a hero and heroine in one of his novels, and should sympathise with the healthful hint from America, which opens out another legitimate avenue of enjoyment to the young.
DORA B. MONTERIORE.