Dora B. Montefiore, New Age September 1905

Women’s Interests

The attitude of the State towards motherhood.

Source: New Age, p. 618-9, 28 September 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Walt Whitman wrote: “Whoever degrades another, degrades me; and whatever is done or said returns at last to me”; and this exactly describes what is going on now in the physical deterioration of the race, as the result of the prolonged and ever increasing degradation of motherhood. “The Government,” said Sir John Gorst the other day at a meeting of trade unionists in Hanley, “does not need an inquiry into the causes of physical deterioration; the causes are well known.” And he then went on to enumerate them; the first cause being the degradation of motherhood in an industrial State which fails to recognise the fact that the child-bearing woman is fulfilling a State-function, and is therefore entitled to State aid during the time that she is incapacitated from doing other work. The degradation, overwork, and drudgery heaped on motherhood in the existing anarchic state of society is “returning at last” to that society, which is beginning now to realise faintly that “Whoever degrades another degrades me.” Of what use are the discoveries in science and the advances in knowledge of recent years, if that science and knowledge are not placed at the disposal of the people at large, are not used for purifying the vital springs of life? “If free medical aid,” said Sir John Gorst, “could be called in by any parent for an ailing child, a great deal of infant mortality would be put an end to ... The school children furnished us with a wonderful opportunity for improving the physique of the country – an opportunity which we have almost totally neglected.” He then contrasted the present state of things in this country with the elaborate system of examination of school children in Germany, where every child entering a school was as carefully examined as if it were going into the army, and was periodically examined until it left school. In these various ways foreign Governments are proving their solidarity with motherhood, and, in proportion as they do so, the physique of the children – and, later on, of the citizens and soldiers – is improved, and the State, in the end benefits.

The need for national nurseries.

This is the title of an article in a recent number of the Nineteenth Century, written by Miss K. Bathurst, late Inspector under the Board of Education, in which she makes a convincing and practical appeal to the nation to take under its protection infant life from the age of three to the age of seven. Most of the evils she so graphically describes are produced by the absence of the quality known as “motherliness”; and her aim is to prove first to mothers, and in the second place to education authorities, that for the 2,044,902 infants between three and five years of age who at present attend our elementary schools the discipline and surroundings are totally unfitted. “Let us follow,” she says, “the baby of three years through part of one day of school life.” Then she describes the hard, wooden seat, without support for his back, the desk in front of him, under which hang his short legs, which do not reach the floor. He is told to fold his arms and sit quiet. “His arms are too short in proportion to his body to be placed anywhere but in a tight cross-bar over his chest. The difficulty of breathing in this constrained position is considerable, but he hunches his shoulders bravely to make his arms longer, and his back assumes the pleasing shape of a curved bow.... A blackboard is produced, and at a signal every child in the class begins calling out mysterious sounds: “Letter A, Letter A,” in a singsong voice.” Miss Bathurst avers she has heard a “baby class repeat one sound a hundred and twenty times continuously,” and, judging by the lack of intelligence and by the paucity of knowledge of baby’ needs displayed in the whole system, it is not difficult to believe. Miss Bathurst rightly indicts the whole monstrous outrage on infant life and development as “useless, nay, worse, harmful”; and adds “What possible good is there in forcing a little child to master the names of letters and numbers at this age? The strain on the teachers is terrific .... Baby after baby, overcome by sleep in the heated atmosphere, falls forward off its seat, banging its forehead against the desk in front, and awakes in tears to find such misfortunes are too common an occurrence for much comfort to be his portion.” In a log book in Manchester she tells us, the following entry was recently made by a man inspector: “The babies should learn to sit still and attend.” The men inspectors also attach great importance to the threading of needles by baby girls of four; and to the regularity and neatness of the stitches made by infants of the same age, “and these mites of children are forced to sit in a cramped position, using their undeveloped nerves and muscles in producing the required strip of hemming, which custom has made obligatory.” It is evident that the children of the nation will not get help in their bondage from men; but the mother heart of the nation is pondering on these problems, and is pleading for national nurseries, where women, who, as Miss Bathurst writes, “are pointed out by nature and nurture alike as more fitted than men to deal with the details of a little child’s life,” shall feed the minds and bodies of the infants; shall amuse and interest them when awake, and put them tenderly to sleep when they are tired, shall, in a word, be a mother to them, instead of a step-mother.

Conscription! Will you submit to it?

I have had sent me by a correspondent an appeal, published by the International. Arbitration League, 11, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and signed by the Council of the League and the Labour M.P.s, calling on the citizens to resist the “stealthy preparations” that are being made by the military party to introduce conscription into England. I willingly call attention to the appeal; but, in my humble opinion, it would have been of much greater value if it had also been signed by women, who have shown themselves intelligently opposed to the spirit of militarism and imperialism. After all, it is mothers who will have the earliest and most subtle influence in directing the thoughts of youth in the paths of citizenship rather than in the paths of militarism. The gift of a toy, the telling to childish ears of a story from history, the suggestion through fable and song of universal brotherhood all these lessons can be taught lovingly by the mother, whilst the child’s mind is still exquisitely receptive and plastic; and the number of conscious and evolved women, capable of giving these lessons, must be increased if conscription is to be scientifically and effectively fought. Having listened in Parliament to the peculiarly insulting comments on womanhood of Mr. Randall Cremer, M.P., it is not difficult to understand that, as Secretary of the International Arbitration League, he discounts the value in this connection of the influence of beings so inferior as women; but I can assure him and his committee that their influence will have to be reckoned with if the threatened “peril to liberty” is to be averted.

Woman Suffrage.

The Autumn Committee of Inquiry on Redistribution, of which I wrote last week, has given a fresh impulse to Woman Suffrage activities, and meetings are projected throughout every branch of the Woman’s Co-operative Guild, at which memorials to all Parliamentary candidates will be issued. Outdoor meetings throughout Lancashire and Cheshire, at which resolutions in favour of the Women’s Emancipation Bill have been enthusiastically passed, have been frequent all through the summer; and men’s Trades Councils have been frequently interested in the same subject. Amongst some of the most earnest and devoted of the workers are Mrs. Pankhurst, of Manchester, and her daughters, the eldest of whom, Miss Christabel Pankhurst (who is studying for the Bar), has addressed over forty gatherings during the last few months. Her younger sister, Miss Sylvia Pankhurst (the winner of more than one Art Scholarship), was one of those who helped this summer in the outdoor meetings for Woman Suffrage in Ravenscourt Park, London. By the bye, no account is given of those meetings in the current number of the Woman Suffrage Record, though they were held under the auspices of the Hammersmith Branch of the Central Society. Can it be that outdoor meetings, which tax the strength and energies of speakers far more than does platform speaking, are not considered sufficiently distinguished to be recorded in the pages of a publication which gives such thrilling and full details of “drawing-room meetings"?