Dora B Montefiore Justice 1907

Unemployment Among Women
The Guildhall Conference

Source: p.5, October 26, 1907;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

It is difficult to understand exactly what the Women’s Industrial Council hoped to accomplish by calling on October 15, at the Guildhall, a meeting, under the auspices of the Lord Mayor, to discuss the question of unemployment among women. According to the agenda, the general question was to be discussed in the morning, and the suggested remedies in the afternoon; but as Miss Clementina Black, who was the first speaker, wisely began by deprecating the suggestion on the part of any of the delegates of domestic service or of emigration as remedies for unemployment among women, this question of the remedy got itself mixed up, more or less, with the general statement of the case about unemployment; so that when the very limited time for general discussion came, the speakers, some of whom would have liked to criticise the presentment of the whole question, found it impossible to do so in the five minutes allotted to them.

It might have been more profitable if the morning had been strictly devoted to examining the causes of unemployment among women, as only when the cause or causes are found for an evil, can the right remedy, be applied. Interesting details of the boot and shoe trade were given by Mrs. Wilson, of Leicester, showing how the employers in that trade resort to the same contemptible trick as do the large dressmaking firms in London – advertise for workers when they have no need of them, so as to scare their “hands” into accepting almost any wages by the sight of the hundreds ready and eager to take their places. But these and other facts disclosed were only details, only symptoms of the disease of chronic unemployment from which the body politic is suffering; and as none of the invited speakers seemed able or willing to diagnose that disease, it was perhaps not to be wondered at that the ladies feared to sum up the result of their deliberations in a resolution which might suggest the only sovereign remedy (the virtues of which are just now very much under discussion in the daily press), Socialism. Miss Margaretta Hicks pointed out one of the worst symptoms of the disease when she demonstrated that though plenty of excellent clothes had been made in the three workshops opened by the Central Distress Committee for giving work to unemployed women, yet, when the clothes were made, neither the makers of the clothes, nor their neighbours and friends, had the money to buy them. Mr. Ramsay MacDonald seemed to suggest that some of the rich ladies present should see to it that the piles of unsold clothes cumbering the Distress Committee’s workrooms should be given to clothe the naked children of the slums. Did Mr. MacDonald, when he was saying this, seriously believe, I wonder, that if those clothes reached the backs of the naked children they would remain there. Has he never realised that in the fearful struggle for existence that goes on among the workers during the winter months, the claims of the stomach come before the claims of the back; and that those clothes must, under present economic conditions, be turned, through the pawn-shop or the dealer, into food?

It certainly was a strange sight to observe invited speakers, who, a few weeks before, had been attending an International Socialist Congress, the object of whose deliberations was the overthrow of capitalism, not even uttering a word in the capitalistic shrine of the Guildhall, as to the real cause of unemployment being the competitive and capitalistic system itself; not even stating the fact that what the poor are suffering from is poverty; not even suggesting the only remedy which will go to the root of the disease – the founding of a Co-operative Commonwealth, in which things shall be produced for use and not for profit...,

My personal feeling all the time that I served on a Distress Committee, and on the sub-committee whose business it was to select a few dozen men (out of the hundreds who applied) for Hollesley Bay, was that the Unemployed Workmen Act was drawn up in such a way that the workers, instead of being helped, were being mocked; and when one lady at the Guildhall meeting suggested it was a pity women did not take more advantage of the Act and register under it, I gave my experience, which was, that I could not recommend women to waste their time in registering; for on the Distress Committee on which I sat no attempt was made to find employment for them, and all my protests were met with the reply that there were no funds granted from the Central for anything but the administration the Act. Sister Kerrison, in her speech corroborated all I said, adding that when she and some of the other women of the West Ham Distress Committee drew up, the suggestion of their Committee, a scheme for giving immediate employment to women in their neighbourhood, the President of the Local Government Board refused to sanction the scheme, which would only have involved the outlay of 1,000. Some weeks later, Mr. John Burns returned to the Exchequer what he called a “surplus” of several thousand pounds voted by the Government for the use of the unemployed!

Though we Socialists know there is no other remedy but the one we advocate, we nevertheless desire to mitigate as much as we can the sufferings of those who fall by the way in the industrial struggle, and it appeared to us Social-Democrats who were present at the meeting a further mockery of the workers to call together such an assembly of delegates without allowing them to express through a resolution some form of demand for the immediate relief of unemployed women under the present Act. We feel strongly that the President of the Local Government Board should be called upon to organise this winter, in every borough in London, workshops where industries suitable to women workers may be carried on; and that, since we import annually 48 millions worth of dairy produce, municipal dairy farms should be started, where those women who wish to work on the land could be employed in dairying, poultry and beekeeping, etc.; in the same way as the men at Hollesley Bay are profitably employed in fruit and vegetable growing.