Dora B. Montefiore, New Age December 1905
Source: New Age, p. 778-9, 7 December 1905;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
This cause of International Peace has been much to the front during the past week, first by reason of the exertions of the Anglo-German Conciliation Committee, which convened an opening meeting on Friday at Exeter Hall; and secondly by reason of the very remarkable gathering of Germans and of English at a dinner at the Lyceum Club on Saturday, December 3rd. This dinner was held to celebrate the opening of the German Branch of the women’s Lyceum Club, of which Frau Hedwig Heyl is the President; and, as the underlying principle which attracted so many of us at the outset to the Lyceum Club is internationalism, it was but fitting that the first assured and organised step in that direction on the Continent should be celebrated by the women of the two countries in a gathering which emphasised the special mission and purpose of womanhood – the conserving of life, not its wilful destruction. The Countess of Aberdeen, who has often before shown special interest in Peace meetings, presided, and the speech that was naturally listened to with the most profound and concentrated attention was that of his Excellency Count Metternich, the German Ambassador. He spoke in admirable English, and every word was evidently carefully prepared and weighed. Whilst acknowledging the unhappy state of tension that had lately prevailed between the country he represented and ours, he confessed that he had till now kept silence on the subject of the German nation’s peaceable and conciliatory desires; for it seemed useless to speak in the – till now – strained state of public opinion; but that night, and henceforth, he should continue to repeat that Germans were ready to welcome and reciprocate expressions of goodwill and of friendship, and that the German nation desired no quarrel with the English nation. It was worthy of remark that his Excellency studiously left out of his more than friendly generalities any allusion to his Royal master; and that when Frau Heyl, in the course, of her speech, which she read in English, alluded to the influence which her acquaintance with the late Empress Frederick – a woman of such broad and far-reaching sympathies – had had on her own, work, the countenance of the German Ambassador was a study in perplexed and almost agonised anxiety. The Bishop of Southwark struck a true note when, in alluding to the irresponsibles of the Press and of society who in times of popular excitement shouted for war, he spoke of the “unemployed”; – not those unhappy ones, he went on to say, for whom no work, and consequently no wages, could be found, but the “unemployed” through idleness and through pleasure-seeking at the other end of society; and he congratulated the Lyceum Club on being a club of workers.
My remarks in last week’s issue anent their inaccuracy of describing the working women of Great Britain as “the latest recruits” to the Women Suffrage cause, have called forth from correspondents many expressions of sympathy and of agreement. One friend; who attended Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s meeting at Stirling, and questioned him as to what the Liberal leaders meant to do for Women Suffrage, eliciting the reply that “he had had no communication about Woman Suffrage from the party,” writes: “The women at the meeting, quite a number of well-dressed middle-class women, showed a levity and disgraceful indifference to the fact that they were there only by contemptuous sufferance. .... They tittered, and sniggled and giggled right out all around me, till I felt almost ready to cry out on them for a parcel of dolls and nursery children. I feel sure that it will be from our working women that we shall get these reforms ... The masses must first be educated, and then they will be ready to educate the classes .... It is the women who feel the pinch who will respond to our message.”
I make no apologies to my readers for harping on this painful string, of unemployment, and consequently of acute distress, in many parts of London. The thoughtless may, perhaps, exclaim: “What about the Queen’s Fund of £100,000? May we not consider the unemployed well provided for during the rest of the winter?” But those who see further than the surface, as do, I believe, most of the readers of THE NEW AGE, know that the regulations issued by the Local Government Board in connection with the administration of the new Act, make that Act almost, useless; and fully corroborate what Keir Hardie writes in his pamphlet John Bull and his Unemployed: “There is not a touch of human feeling within the four corners of the newly-issued document.” Working as I do from week to week on a local Distress Committee, and, dropping in from time to time at the local Labour Bureau to listen to the details of case after case of genuine and harrowing unemployment, it is borne in upon me more and more every week that “the machinery created” for the relief of distress by those who are supremely out of touch with the actual conditions, is exactly the machinery most calculated to prolong and aggravate that distress, and degrade the applicant who is “honestly desirous of obtaining work, and temporarily unemployed through causes over which he has no control.” Take for instance that clause in the regulations which insists that an applicant shall put on record the amount of earnings (if any), of his wife and children; so that these facts may be taken into consideration in dealing with his case by the Committee. That clause almost suggests to the man, whose self-respect society should help him to retain, that if he can successfully shuffle and lie about the earnings of his wife and children, he has a better chance of getting work for himself. In a part of London such as the one I am writing of, where the laundry industry prevails, a working woman can earn 2s. 6d. a day in the laundries! Out of this sweated wage she must pay (if she has a young child) at least 4d. for having the child looked after; she has then to provide herself with food which will sustain her during exhausting and long hours of work; and some small sum is usually put by for the rent on Monday. Why, I ask, should this miserable 2s. 6d. earned on five days in the week by a woman be taken into account, when it is a question of the husband getting employment? The same argument applies to the earnings of children. If, by working long hours before and after school, besides all day on Saturday, a boy or girl can bring home three or four shillings, does not that child need all that money and more spent on itself for food and clothing; and why should the applicant “who is honestly desirous of obtaining work” be sent back to drag out a shameful existence on the sweated earnings of wife and children?
But if the regulations on the subject of unemployment are cruelly absurd, the regulations on the subject of the relief of destitute children are worthy of Bumbledom in one of its worst and most ignorant manifestations. I have before me the letter of a working woman friend in Canning Town, who has for some years served on the local Board of Guardians. She writes me that, having been told unofficially of an extreme case of destitution, she went to the house indicated, and found a widow of 51 with an imbecile daughter and three sons (their ages respectively 17, 14, and 10), the two elder of whom were out of work, and youngest at school. The woman said she could get no out-door relief, as she herself was able-bodied. When asked by my friend if the youngest child had been fed under “The Relief (School Children) Act, 1905,” the woman said the schoolmaster had written out an order, but the Relieving Officer had sent it back. This statement was of subsequently corroborated by the schoolmaster, to whom the Relieving Officer had pointed out that the clause in the Act stipulates that “the child must reside with his father.” Oh, wise Bumble! Oh, far-seeing Bumble! To devise such exquisite and delicate machinery for, not doing what the public conscience meant you should do! And my working woman friend pathetically adds: “So the father being dead, the poor child had to go hungry.” Think of it, you women who attend political meetings and are blandly addressed with men in the stereotyped form of “Ladies and Gentlemen.” That word “Ladies” symbolises all that is thought about you socially and politically. Once you have been allowed on sufferance at their party political meetings, and addressed as “Ladies,” you may step meekly into the background, and work to get men into power, who, when it comes to making laws, will forget your very existence as the mothers and nurturers of the race. The hungry child must reside with his father, forsooth, else he may go hungry! The law of England recognises but one parent – the father. If the father dies, if he deserts his wife and children, woe to the little victims of Bumbledom’s supreme wisdom, and of unrepresented, unprivileged motherhood! The poor working woman “Guardian” of the poor, who lives her life among the sickening realities of slow sorrowful starvings, adds: “The clause ought to be altered to ‘guardian,’ not father or mother, because the child might reside with sister, brother, or even friends”; and then, after writing me how the elder brother of the little “legally” starved schoolboy “fell down last week in a faint near the London Hospital, and they took him in and kept him all night, as the doctor said it was want of food,” she breaks out into the heart-breaking cry: “Dear sister, I can only feel for them, it does seem so hard that one is so powerless to help!” Yes, that is the crux of the matter, we women under present conditions are powerless to help; and it is a mockery to ask us to administer man-made laws which “do not possess a touch of human feeling between their four corners.”
DORA B. MONTEFIORE.