Dora B. Montefiore, New Age November 1905

Women’s Interests

The memorable march.

Source: New Age, p. 730-1, 16 November 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

As a woman from the West who marched with the women of the East on that memorable Monday when we accompanied the Deputation of the Women of the Unemployed to Downing Street, I want to put on record for women some of my impressions of the day so as to bring home, if possible, to those who were not there some of the grey drab misery which was the key-note of that silent, starving, saddened army of English women and mothers. Many men newspaper correspondents have written – and written nobly and sympathetically – of the revelation of submerged suffering which the sight of those thousands of women, the victims of our present social and economic system, forced upon them; but there were details and degrees of suffering womanhood which can only be revealed in all their sickening acuteness to a sister woman, who realises that life’s pilgrimage for the human being who accepts the double obligation of giving new life, as well as conserving her own, is at times a more than ordinarily thorny and stony path, which needs to be lit with the lamp of love, and smoothed with the ministrations of helpful sympathy. As I glanced along the lines of gaunt, dumb, morally-bruised faces of the working women assembled on the Charing Cross Embankment under a daringly brilliant November sun, there flashed through my mind all that they lacked, all that our civilisation, through its very class constitution, denied them, not only of physical necessities, but also of moral and spiritual necessities. Bishops, divines, statesmen, writers in monthly reviews, prate of the sanctity, the necessity, the typical beauty of home and home life, but by every action, by every traditional impulse, they deny that home life to the larger half of the community in which, and on which, they live! What “home life” had any one of those women in her one or two-roomed sordid shelter ever known? What home life is possible when the woman home-maker never knows from one week’s end to another what is the scanty sum she will have at her command to lay out on bread, milk, and meat scraps or fried fish? What home life is possible when the thought of Monday, with the fateful rap of the man calling for the rent, shakes the nerve of the woman home-maker, and drives her forth pitilessly (it may be in merciless cold and wet) to take her place at daybreak on Monday morning in the waiting procession outside the pawnbroker’s, with some treasured bit of the home under her ragged shawl? How can the home lamp of love be kept burning under conditions such as these; how can the tender ministry of helpful sympathy, which is a mother’s due in her hours of need, be realised in the distressful, disorganised lives which society as a strong, successful, unsympathetic whole, forces on the weak and unsuccessful in the daily struggle for existence?

Mutilated motherhood.

This was the keynote of the woeful, careworn, rusty-clad procession of working women who stood patiently with ill-shod feet in the churned-up mud of the Embankment waiting for the moment when the Deputation of equally woeful and careworn working women, led by Mrs. Will Crooks, was to start on its fateful mission to Mr. Balfour. One out of every three or four women carried a more or less puny, ill-nourished infant in her arms; and now and then a child would be passed from one to another, so as to give the overstrained mother a rest. Wonderfully patient and uncomplaining were both mothers and babies: for lack of everything, even of opportunity, is a stern, relentless task-master, which brings after a time men, women, and unconscious children to heel, and eats out the heart of honest rebellion. If you would know what it has cost to get these women to muster in the street, and show forth their dire need before an unsympathetic world, you must first reckon how long they have gone short and starved in silence; how long they have put up with well-washed bits of white curtains in their windows, when the furniture and clothing had gone piece by piece to the pawn-brokers; how long they had fiercely kept up the exteriors of “respectability” as measured by working-class standards; how much it had cost them to appear before parish authorities and disclose the cruel emptiness of the squalid rooms they still called “home,” whilst they begged for a parish dole to save from starvation themselves and their children. When you have beaten down and undermined fortress after fortress of these reserves, then the woman soul – the mutilated mother-soul – will, perhaps, stand revealed for those who have eyes to see and hearts to apprehend, and you will recognise in these always gaunt, but at times starved or bloated, at times smitten, faces, the souls of heroines who have performed, and are prepared, in their inarticulate, unconscious but faithful constancy to perform again and again deeds of which neither you nor I are perhaps capable. Mutilated motherhood! That is the fate, that is the martyrdom to which England condemns masses of her womanhood. And out of that mutilation, out of that martyrdom, she seems to expect that she can breed the citizens of a great and free Empire!

Words by the way.

Amongst the sister women who, to show their solidarity and sympathy with the unprivileged unemployed, marched with them past the thronged steps of the great hotels in Northumberland Avenue and down the wide, crowded thoroughfare of Whitehall, were women Guardians from the Poplar and West Ham Workhouses, and the women speakers, who for many weeks have been helping to arouse and organise the workers in the same districts. Conspicuous among them, with, her snowy hair and black lace mantilla, walked Mrs. Despard, who, in the Settlement at Nine Elms, where she lives and works, knows intimately the daily struggle and the weekly hope deferred, that make up the life of the industrial worker under a capitalistic system. Borne aloft by the women of Poplar came the white banner inscribed “Give Women the Vote, and let them Work out their own Salvation.” This, Mr. Lansbury told me, was the work and gift of Miss Sylvia Pankhurst; and proud were the women whose task it was to bear it. When the Deputation turned off at Downing Street, the women’s procession broke up into three parts and marched off under different leaders to the various places where refreshments were provided. The goal of the detachment with which I marched was the Morning Post Shelter in Milwall Street, where the Church Army fed 350, and where, towards the end of the meal, some of us were able to address the women and remind them of the fateful interview at that moment taking place between their representatives and the leader of the House of Commons – an interview on which so much of their future depended. One of the women Guardians, herself a working woman, pointed out to me two of the “manifestants” who were each within a week of her confinement, and who, after standing and marching all the morning, were now not among the fortunate ones to find at once a seat and food at the tables. With the help of the Head of the Church Army we found them temporary seats, and provided them with a plateful of food and a cup of tea between them; and when I asked one of them how she could venture out on such a long and fatiguing day, she replied quite simply: “Well, you see, I've suffered so much that suffering a little more didn’t seem to matter.” A middle-aged woman at one of the tables asked me to look after her daughter who had three small children with her; and after some time I found them and fed the two hungry little boys, besides getting the worn-out young mother an extra cup of tea, as she had to nurse her baby. This question of the babies was, it seemed to me, one of the most heartrending of the day. More than one woman reporter commented on the weak and puny crying – so different from the cry of a healthy, well-nourished child – of the hundreds of infants accompanying that forlorn march; but there was another sound which, in the chapel where we met towards the end of the day, to hear the result of the Deputation, filled the short silences between the speeches. This was the sound of baby lips sucking at empty breasts; and to those who know and have heard the contented gurgle with which the breast-fed child discusses a satisfactory meal, this empty tugging sound, and the despairing gestures of the exhausted mothers struck another note in the woman tragedy of the day.

The fate of the Deputation.

And Mr. Balfour’s reply to those broken, patient, starving women? “You have my sympathy, but what can I do?” Well, if the man whom the people have placed at the head of the State can do nothing, the people must do it for themselves! Alfred Russel Wallace has written advocating the planting scientifically of Epping Forest with trees and shrubs from the various parts of our Empire, and making of that already beautiful spot a glory for all times. The Thames is waiting to be embanked; the soil of England is waiting, for spade husbandry and for afforestation. Some years ago, when New South Wales went through a crisis of unemployment, the Centennial Park was laid out and planted, thus giving work to many thousands, and beautifying Sydney for generations to come. The people are not asking for charity doles, even if the list is headed by Queen Alexandra with a cheque for 2,000. What they ask for is work and a fair wage. They are striving to think Imperially; and they are asking why, if the State in one of our Colonies acknowledges its obligations to the unemployed, the State at the heart of the Empire should not do the same?