Dora B. Montefiore Justice 1909

A Victory for French Women Workers

Source: Justice, p.7, 20 February 1909;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

An interesting, and very old established Labour Tribunal exists in France, Belgium, and one or two other Continental countries, known as the “Council of Prud'hommes” – a trades council or jury, consisting of representatives of workers and of masters of any given trade, whose functions are partly administrative and partly to arbitrate, and who, if possible, settle all disputes arising between workers and workers, and between workers and masters. These councils, which are elected by workers and employers, succeed in settling without litigation 95 per cent. of the disputes submitted to them. In the ancient histories and charters of these trade guilds or corporations we find that women were admitted as members, if they worked at the trade, and they then enjoyed the same rights and prerogatives as did the men members. The women silk-spinners were controlled and represented by “Prud'femmes”; and the men and women silk-weavers appointed between them one master and three women as a jury. The principal functions of these juries, composed of men and women, were the control and protection of apprentices, the convocation of the watchers (guet), the examination and reception of men and women candidates for the position of “maitre” or “maitresse,” the collection of fees, the administration of finance, and the general control of the production and sale of the articles manufactured. Some of these corporations had equal numbers of men and women administrators, and certain trades were managed exclusively by women. In all trades widows could carry on the work of their late husbands; and there were about 80 of these trade corporations open to both sexes. Prior to the Revolution the official records showed more than 1,500 “maitresses” in one trade alone, and 4,000 workwomen; but Turgot abolished with one stroke, all these corporations in 1791, and the confusion in trade relations that ensued later during the long turmoil of the Revolution, obliterated, for a time, their necessity. Later on the military dictator, Napoleon, when visiting Lyons in 1806, recreated special trade tribunals, from which women were excluded. It has taken just over a century to remedy this injustice, and French women workers were declared by the Senate on November 10 1908, to be once more eligible to the councils of Prud'hommes.

This re-instalment of French working-women in rights and responsibilities is a straw on the stream of evolution pointing out to us Social-Democrats the way the tide is running. The century between Turgot and Clemenceau is the century that has seen the rise, the culmination, and the beginning-of-the-end of industrial capitalism. It has also produced men like Robert Owen and Karl Marx, who have interpreted for the people what this wage-slavery of competition and of capitalism means, whither it tends, and where lies the sole hope of the worker, if he and his children wish to escape from it, and possess once more full access to the means of life. This way of escape lies through Social-Democracy, and through Social-Democracy alone and Social-Democracy will only be possible when the workers of the world unite to fight the privileged employers and masters of the world, instead of fighting each other, in the armies, navies, and police forces, which the masters organise and control, This struggle of the workers to establish the Co-operative Commonwealth will differ from all other struggles in the past, because this time the workers will be conscious of their destiny, and will know who is their common enemy, and for what the are fighting. For this reason it is necessary that working women, as well as working, men, should conquer, wherever possible, responsibility, and the power of choice. Women, who help in industry to pile up the wealth of modern nations, must learn to feel themselves an integral part of the great human mass of workers, struggling for their fair share of the wealth they help to create. The Marquis of Salisbury announced the other day that “Men are being taught by Socialist propaganda that there are ways of getting rich other than by honest work.” His lordship makes a mistake as to who are the real propagandists of this bright idea? Are they not the leading Tory and Liberal Front Benchers, aspiring young barristers, and the omnium gatherm of beerocrats, cotton lords, and steely-hearted iron masters, who know only too well how to make others do the “hardest work,” while they themselves grow rich by shirking it! What is the fact, is that men and women workers are being taught by Socialist propagandists that there is a governing class, and a governed class; and that the interests of these two classes are diametrically opposed. When, therefore, the Marquis, of Salisbury, or any other member of the governing class, makes a statement of this sort, the worker should be intelligent enough to recognise at once that the gentleman has very good reasons from his own point of view, as a very privileged member of the governing class, for making it but that from the point of view of the worker it is just governing-class “bosh.” The only way the workers can become, as a class, conscious, and intelligent, is by organising themselves, and by accepting the interpretation of Social-Democracy that the existing methods of production and exchange are responsible for the present poverty, misery, and degradation of the workers on the one hand – and for the excessive riches and privileges of the masters and employers on the other hand. We Socialist women therefore welcome the fact that French working women have won organised recognition and responsibility, side by side with their men comrades. In that position they, will be better able to receive and understand the Socialist teaching than they would have been as unorganised industrial atoms.

In John Spargo’s book on Socialism he tells how Robert Owen, in 1818, outlined to a leading diplomat of the day his schemes for social amelioration; and that the diplomat, after listening to Owen, replied: “We know very well that what you say is true, but how could we govern the masses if they were wealthy, and so, independent of us?” Lord Lauderdale also remarked: “Nothing (i.e., than Owen’s plans) could be more complete for the poor and working classes, but what will become of us?” It is close on a century since Robert Owen was asking the governing classes for “Social Amelioration.” What Social-Democrats are asking now of the governing classes all over the world is not “social amelioration,” but a social and economic revolution. It is only natural, therefore, that Lord Lauderdale and the Marquis of Salisbury should be asking in still more excited tones: “But what will become of us?” It is with the organised men and women workers of the world to answer that question.