Dora B. Montefiore, New Age September 1905

Women’s Interests

How Women can Help in Political Work.

Source: New Age, p. 586-7, 14 September 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The book by Constance Williams under this title comes at a very opportune moment on the eve of a General Election; for it gives excellent practical hints to any woman of any shade of political opinion who may wish to contribute really useful work in local organisation before election time, or in actual canvassing and electioneering. The publishers are Hayman, Christy, and Lilly, Farringdon Road, and the price is one shilling. The qualities, according to Mrs. Williams, most needed in political work are “common-sense, tact, some knowledge of men, women, and politics and endless patience and perseverance. Much physical endurance is also necessary when it comes to electioneering, and the worker should be able to do a good deal of walking and standing about in the day.” Here is a useful suggestion for those who prefer to work steadily at educational organisation which will prepare the ground for future electioneering work. “I know of an Association in a Lancashire town which had a useful library of simple political books. They are kept at the house of one of the members, who is ‘At Home’ once a week to all members, to change the books and have a chat. She always has the day’s papers on the table, and animated discussions often take place on the news. Many men also use the books, and they often accompany their wives when they come to change the books.” There are chapters on canvassing, on work in the Committee-room, and on polling-day— all of which contain some suggestions that may be of use to the woman political worker; while the concluding reflection may bring consolation to the enthusiastic worker on a losing side. “Good work well done often bears fruit long after, and what you have done, even though it has not sufficed to win the election, may help to win the next.”

Three nights in women’s lodging houses.

I had recently in Denmark the privilege of meeting and learning personally from Mrs Mary Higgs something of her work among women tramps and outcasts. My readers will remember how some months ago she published a pamphlet, giving her experiences in a workhouse casual ward; she has since been continuing the same most necessary work of social investigation, and has published two more pamphlets – one describing a night in a Salvation Army shelter, and the other one telling the tale “Three Nights passed in Women’s Lodging-Houses.” Mrs. Higgs not only investigates and studies social problems, but has conceived a way of helping the most helpless, the most cruelly crushed, of her fellow women. She has started in an empty stable that has been lent her, a paper-sorting industry, where women who need a night’s lodging can earn the few pence necessary to pay for it; and can in that way be protected from the economic necessity of selling their bodies in order to obtain a shelter. When telling me about her work she spoke of a visit once made to York Minster, when, standing in the ancient crypt, she noted the remains of the first rough stones and masonry which were all that was now left of the original consecrated building. Above those early rough remains could be traced the second Norman structure; while resting on these same early and strong foundations rose the grand mediaeval pile, which still to-day is a marvel of strength and beauty. This gave her, she said, the thought of how the new social fabric must be constructed; and she resolved to try and weld together in aspiration and endeavour a few of the roughest stones of our present social life. She had to dig down to reach those stones, and she is still digging and still welding together whatever comes to her hand.

Mrs. Higgs’s appeal to her fellow-women.

“The tramp ward,” writes Mrs. Higgs, “is a mockery, a robbery and insult to womanhood. The common lodging-house is a snare and a trap. Surely it belongs to womanhood to befriend womanhood. It is little use to multiply Rescue Homes while we leave untouched the causes that are stranding more and more of our sisters. What is needed in every town is an industry for destitute women; in every town a shelter to pick up strays, and guide them to self-support; in every town Women’s Hostels, under kind, wise, but not restrictive supervision; in every town provision for glad, free, girl life, and joined to this distinct, clear, national purity teaching. What is needed is a pure, free, enlightened womanhood, ready to stand side by side with man to mother the world.”

East and West

I was asked last week to go East and address a meeting of unemployed women in one of those Cities of Poverty which have been so successfully ring-fenced round and made rateably self-supporting by the recent London Borough Council Act. The journey from Fenchurch Street to Tidal Basin on the Woolwich line is of itself sufficiently depressing, with its mile after mile of grey, squalid, treeless, hopeless waste of miserable bricks and mortar. What can be the life, what can be the outlook, of these labouring millions? What can be the moral anaesthetic which keeps them quiet and orderly, and prevents them from rising in organised revolt, and claiming their rightful share, as human beings, of food and shelter, and sunshine and joy and beauty? When I looked into the faces of the women I had come to address, and noted their worn, apathetic expression, their toil-hardened hands, their poor, scanty garments, these questions pressed ever more incessantly on my mind, and I felt constrained, on behalf of the dignity of motherhood and of womanhood to preach revolt. What I felt deep down in my heart was that women as the mothers of the race should refuse to bring another child into the world until everyone of the children who are here already are clothed and fed, and given their due share of sunshine and of gladness. A woman Guardian of the poor with whom I went afterwards to the Public Hall to see the lists of the unemployed who had already registered, told me that though she herself was a woman of the people and had lived in the district for years, she did not know how the wornen and children at the present time managed to exist. On Monday mornings, she said, the women stood from 7 o'clock waiting their turn at the pawnshop, where they pawned what was often their last remnant of furniture or some articles of clothing which, as colder weather came, they would really need – and with the money so obtained paid the rent, when the rent-collector with his fateful knock came rapping at the door, These meetings of the women take place every week, and the Unemployed Committee are glad for women speakers to come and stir up the women to united organised action. It is here that the West can meet the East; it is here that well-to-do women can learn to understand the real conditions under which thousands of their poorer sisters live. I shall be glad to have the names of any women speakers who will come East with me during the next month or two, and help to show their fellow women how they may help themselves.