Dora B. Montefiore, New Age October 1905

Women’s Interests

Mr A. G. Hales on Woman’s Work.

Source: New Age, p. 650-1, 12 October 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In London Opinion of October 7th, Mr. A.G. Hales, writing of the work of the late Dr. Barnardo, remarks: “The nation has buried a hero; can it not give birth to a heroine? We want a great woman, and we want her at once.” He then goes on to state what he, as a man, requires this great woman to do. “It is to help the female children of the poor that we want a wonderful woman in Britain to-day.” The way she is to help them, according to Mr. Hales, is: She must ask boldly and bravely for a farm from some of the other women who have many farms, and when she has one let her ask for another, and keep on asking until she has enough for present needs.... When the woman comes upon the scene and starts her crusade, when she has got her farms and has cut them up into helpful holdings, when the girl children are growing up ruddy-cheeked, sturdy-limbed, and healthy, then they should be taught all the old useful things which women used to know.... Teach them to scrub and sew, and bake and brew, to cook a working-man’s dinner as it should be cooked. Teach them to cut down a pair of man’s trousers so that a boy may have a pair of knickerbockers; teach them to know how to put a decent patch on a pair of pants; teach them to darn socks so that the man that wears them won’t wish he had been born a horse to be shod by a smith; teach them the mysteries of the churn, the wash-tub – never mind the mandoline and harmonium ... teach them to milk a cow and to feed a pig; show them how potatoes, carrots, and cabbages are grown, and let them grow them.... There is romance as well as business in the schemes that I have outlined; the romance consists in saving many lives, the business lies in the conduct of the farms.”

The weak points in Mr. Hales’s scheme.

Much as I sympathise with all Mr. Hales writes about the little girl waifs needing help, and needing it on business lines, I feel bound to criticise his scheme from three points of view; first from the point of view of rescuing these millions of potential mothers and workers in order to send them out to Australia or Canada, when we need them here in the heart of the Empire. Second, from the point of view of rescuing the girls only, because if the girls need mothering and training, so also do the boys; and the big mother heart to which Mr. Hales appeals could never feel truly happy, or rest satisfied, unless it enjoyed the sight of the boys and girls working and playing together, as Nature meant they should work and play. And thirdly, I criticise, and would oppose to the utmost, any scheme for the training of girl children which should inculcate the backward and false teaching that a woman’s work should be limited to work for the individual man, as opposed to work for herself and for the community. And, further, I would criticise any training that tended to keep “home industries,” such as brewing, washing, and baking, in an individualistic instead of a socialised state. We have nowadays machinery, electricity, hydraulics to take the place of the sinews and muscles of the people, and there must be no going back to that order of things when, as Mrs. Stetson puts it in her Women and Economics, “all that was basest and foulest woman had, in the last instance, to handle and remove. Grease, ashes, dust, foul linen, and sooty ironware – among these her days must pass.”

No false values.

Let me enlarge a little on my third criticism of Mr. Hales’s scheme. Whether in the “Intellectual” who is obliging enough to plan out women’s lives as planets circling round the central sun of the individual man for whom the woman is to cook and darn; or whether it is the working man enslaving his mate in unorganised and never-ending domestic duties, leaving her no time or energy for self-development – the lack of imagination and the want of solidarity: between human beings who should have the same interests is naïvely visible. Men will not see that women crowd into the factory partly because there they have fixed hours, relatively better pay, and infinitely more liberty than they can obtain in domestic work; so the last desperate attempt of the man to preserve his unpaid, too often overworked, domestic slave, is to catch her young in the slums, put her on a farm, and teach her there to cook a working-man’s dinner, darn his socks and put patches on his trousers. Life is a comedy to those who think; and there is a very comic side to this despairing appeal to the Great Woman to fall in with the aspirations of the Little Man (who needs dinners and patches and darns), and to start a country industry on a large scale for the manufacture of those delectable beings “who know all the old useful things which women used to know.” The despairing, appealing man forgets that we are all creatures of our period and of our environment; and that modern science would fain have women forget most of the old and no longer useful things which they used to know; and would have them think and reason and work on new and broader and better-informed lines. By all I means let us have our farms on which to bring up our girls and boys, but don’t teach our girls to churn, because all the churning of the future should be done by machinery in co-operative dairies. By all means let us have our “helpful holdings,” but there, again, let us learn through organisation and co-operation that it is bad economics to set growing girls to run an unmixed régime of pig-feeding, darning, washing, and patching of pants. Womanhood has been degraded long enough by having to perform only the most menial and the worst-paid tasks; and motherhood has been degraded because the girl-children, who are to be the mothers of the future, are too often made drudges and slaves during the years they should be doing light and suitable work, and preparing, by a scientific training, for undertaking the supreme function of motherhood. What we should teach our girl children when we get them on to our farm colonies is, that because they are a sex specialised to reproduction, they can best serve that specialisation by learning first how to be honestly economically independent; secondly, how to choose suitable work, and thirdly, how, through organisation, co-operation, and the utilisation of modern scientific improvements, that work can be made not only as light and as pleasant as possible, but a means also of self-development and self-expression. If we want to get out of women their best and noblest work, drudgery must cease, and work with an ideal must take its place.

The specialisation of work.

And now I am going to make a statement which I fear will bring upon me angry reproach and expostulation from men, who, like Mr. A.G. Hales, have not yet succeeded in emancipating themselves from certain prejudices and formulas of thought. I can see no more reason why every girl – yes, even every slum-born girl – should be taught to scrub and darn, than that every boy should be taught to be a cobbler or a carpenter and plumber. Shoes wear out just as much as do socks, but we don’t expect the men of the house to do the cobbling and complain because it is done in an amateurish way. Why should we not have small organised industries of “dameries” and “patcheries,” where specialists, who have learnt the trade (just as cobblers learn their trade), could work at fixed hours, and at fixed prices? It is because factory work is done in the company of others, in well-lighted workshops, and for a fixed number of hours, that it is so much more attractive to the working woman than the long, cold, lonely vigil, after a hard day’s work, when the darning, patching and general tidying up has to be done. Do not let us forget that just as in the upper and middle classes greater freedom of expression, and increased facilities for development and for recreation fall to the lot of women; so the same conditions and forces must be at work among those who in the past have found no place, either in social or in intellectual life. It is to me a strange thing that among modern writers none understand better than do the Russian novelists how to voice the half-articulate stirrings and aspirations which, consciously or unconsciously, lie at the root of the modern woman movement. As long ago as 1863 Chernitshevsky, the brilliant genius and large-hearted, reformer, the story of whose imprisonment and torture is one of the blackest pages in modern Russian history, put into the mouth of the heroine in his novel, A Vital Question, these words: “I only know that I do not want to be anybody’s slave! I want to be free! I do not want to be under obligations to anyone, so that anyone should dare to say to me, ‘You must do something for me.’ I want to do only what I have it in my heart to do, and let others do the same; I do not want to ask anything of anybody; I do not want to curtail anybody’s freedom; I want to be free myself!” And again, later on, when a radiant vision appears to the same girl, now grown to womanhood; the vision, which is “Equal Rights” personified, exclaims: “And woman! how pitiful woman was before I appeared! She was then an abject, servile person. ... Without me, enjoyment of the body, delight in beauty, are tedious, gloomy, wretched; without me there is no purity of heart; there is fallacious purity of body.” When the great woman comes, who is to lead the slum children forth into the inheritance of the land which should be their own, she must have seen and communed with the radiant vision of “Equal Rights” – otherwise her work, like that of many others who have gone before, will be in vain.