Dora B. Montefiore, New Age August 1905
Source: New Age, p. 522-3, 17 August 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
More than once, when there has been a great outcry against women being employed in factories because of the strain on their health and of the effect of that strain on the unborn child, I have pointed out, in these columns, how the work of the woman in agricultural districts was far harder, the pay far less, and the food very much less, both in quantity and quality, than that of the factory woman worker; yet none of the self appointed champions of working women ever agitated and wrote harrowing accounts of the lives of the women in agricultural districts. In the “Life and Labour” column of the Daily News there is published to-day (August 11) an account of “cottage life” in districts where the labourer earns, as in most parts of Sussex and Hampshire, about 16s. a week. The writer takes as a typical family a father, mother, and five children, and shows by a detailed weekly budget, which does not include rent or clothes, how near to the door the wolf must constantly be. “It is in the matter of clothes,” says the writer, “that the woman’s skill comes into requisition, for she has to mend and patch up the old garments to make them last as long as they possibly can. Often, late at night, she will sit until the last coal in the grate has turned black, and her fingers are too cold to hold her needle, mending and turning little old garments that to the eyes of those that are better off look fit for nothing but the rag-bag; often perhaps with her foot on the rocker of a cradle wherein lies a fitful child. ... The mother and children do not eat meat except on Sundays. With regard to the meat it is generally a cheap part of bacon or flank of beef ... In the summer, in some parts of Sussex and Hampshire, the farmers employ their farm-workers’ wives at weeding and other work outdoors. Then in the summer there is a little haymaking they can do at 1s. 6d. per day; but for weeding and other odd work they are never paid more than a shilling a day – that is, six shillings a week, if they work each working day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., leaving out, of course, an hour for dinner.”
A woman such as this is the typical “woman secluded in the home,” which we are told by many is the ideal for women. The reality is that on her fall the heaviest burdens, the most embittering privations, the cruellest disabilities that poverty and helplessness can bestow. Sixty-four hours back-breaking work in the fields for six shillings a week! A diet composed principally of tea, bread and dripping, and then several hours more work at cooking, cleaning, mending; all this, with child-bearing and child-suckling thrown in, in order that the rulers of the nation may be able to reckon their fighting men by their thousands, and their tens of thousands, and President Roosevelt may look on and applaud. The correspondent of the Daily News might have told how the women employed in the early spring in the hop gardens of Kent and Sussex have their fingers cut and cracked to the bone with tending the young, rough-stalked plants on frosty and rainy days. But women “secluded” the agricultural home are not pushful, and have never heard of labour organisations; therefore they do not compete with men in the better paid branches of work. It is therefore neither picturesque nor paying to write about them; and only women in the usual way know what their fellow women suffer.
I have had several letters from women asking for further details about my suggestion of women taking up fruit farming on co-operative lines. As I am just leaving for Denmark, where I hope to have the opportunity of studying some of the successful Danish co-operative farms, I shall leave the subject over till September, when I hope to write more fully on it. I also possess a fund of information on the subject of small holdings from among the papers of my late father, Mr. Francis Fuller, who was a specialist in the matter and an untiring advocate of the question of the vast possibilities of the development of the soil in England, the utilisation of peat lands, etc. Year after year he read papers at the various Social Science Congresses on the subject of “Idle Hands to Idle Lands,” and “Reduction of Rates through Allowing the People to have access to the Soil,” etc.; but at that time his was a voice crying in the wilderness, and it is only thirty or forty years later that these questions have become so urgent that they must either be settled or they will settle us as a nation. We depend now, almost entirely, on other countries for food, while tens of thousands of acres lie untilled, and thousands of unemployed walk the streets or starve in silence. Our towns are whited sepulchres showing clean and fair dwellings in the wide thoroughfares, which are however backed by the foulest slums, considered good enough quarters for the workers. Though the present Unemployed Bill, in the form it has passed the Commons, is only a feeble and halting step in the direction of organised and decent work for all who are ready to work, still, it is a step in the right direction, and one which Labour members in future Parliaments may make use of to press forward the collective rights of the people, not only to work and to land, but to the means of production, exchange, and distribution.
Lady Selborne, a daughter of the late Lord Salisbury, has a striking article in one of last month’s reviews on Woman Suffrage, which she affirms is now, since the recent debates in the House, a question of practical politics. “Political ability,” she writes, “a capacity for the science of government, call it what you will, seems to be almost more common among women than among men.” That opinion is no doubt backed up by her own personal observations in the House of Cecil.
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.