Dora Montefiore

From a Victorian to a Modern


When reading lately Mrs. Langtry’s Memoirs I noted that the late Mr. Gladstone gave her, when she was taking up the profession of an actress, the following piece of advice: “In your professional career you will receive attacks, personal and critical, just and unjust. Bear them. Never reply, and, above all, never rush into print to explain or defend yourself.” Replacing the word “professional” by “public work” I may say that that has been my rule of life since, in the early ’nineties, I was persuaded by the late Sir George Grey to start my Suffrage work in Sydney. Only once was I sorely tempted to break this resolve, when, whilst ten of us pioneer women were in prison in Holloway, the Times published a letter from a man, signed “A believer in real, not sham martyrdom,” who attempted to make the public believe that we were treated as privileged and not as ordinary prisoners. I wrote, when I came out of Holloway, an answer to this letter, but before sending it to the Times, consulted my brother about it, and he gave me practically the same advice as Mr. Gladstone had given to Mrs. Langtry. Now, however, that the fight is over and the time for going over the battlefield has come, I, having observed during a long life how facts and events can be misrepresented till they become in history embalmed distortions, desire to put down, during the evening of my life, the truth, not only about myself, but about many of my fellow-workers in the pioneer causes in which we have fought shoulder to shoulder.

Only the other day, in a recent Bill before Parliament, the object of which was to remove the responsibilities of husbands for “torts” committed by a wife (a long-delayed measure, supported, I believe, by all intelligent suffragists), a correspondent rushed in to remark that “All women suffragists should be in favour of the Bill, as their campaign was undertaken to prove that women were the equals of men.” As this was throwing a new and strange light on our suffrage movement, I thought it might be useful for future generations to possess a human document setting forth the thoughts, difficulties and aspirations of a woman in the nineteenth century, who, because she strove to do her best as sole parent to her children, found herself constantly up against wrong and unsympathetic laws, and without political power to alter or abolish such laws. When my daughter was five and my son two I was left a widow with small means, and, as I struggled through the early and bitter days of widowhood I met other young women placed as I was and suffering under the same sex disabilities. For many years we had no definite plans, we had no definite thoughts of making propaganda among others; but we discussed, and rebelled, and longed to make things better for our children.

I want to put all this down before beginning the story of my youth and early surroundings, because the Press that we suffragists suffered from was, with a few notable exceptions, so ignorant, prejudiced and malicious, that the general public thought we were a band of ill-behaved viragos with raucous voices and abominable manners. As a matter of fact, the publicity was abhorrent to many of us, but, having put our hands to the plough, we could not with honour; when so many devoted women were following us, draw back. Whether the results obtained by the passing during the War years of a Limited Woman Suffrage Bill were commensurate with the sufferings many of us underwent, it is for posterity, who will reap the reward of our work, to judge. At the present time a few women are in Parliament, a few are Local Government representatives; but our influence is still too little officially felt in the great social, economic, and spiritual problems which from every side press upon us. Questions relating to business and to property still take precedence over questions relating to life; and in the C3 products of our civilisation men are but dimly beginning to perceive that the shutting out of women from the joint control of the food, clothing and fuel supplies on which life is nurtured, and the closing to them of the higher posts of Government, the Law and the Spiritual Ministry has impoverished in the past and is still impoverishing our public life.

Still, our Woman Movement (not undertaken, let me remind my readers, to prove our equality with men, but to gain equality of opportunity with men) is an international one; and now one country and then another leads, in honour done to itself, by honouring women. The movement knocks at many doors with an urgent message that a woman is waiting outside prepared to “do her bit” in the world of work and of reward, if the men behind the door will admit her. America, Holland, Germany, and just recently, Ireland, have admitted women on equal terms with men to their Stock Exchanges. A woman who used to be an active suffragist is now Chairman of one of the great catering companies of London. A woman was lately a member of the Labour Government. Women during the war were trained in engineering shops, and as land workers, and proved as efficient as the average male worker with a similar short training. Other countries use women in Diplomacy, and honour them in the professions of Medicine, Research, Teaching and Preaching. Our movement will continue until women are eligible, as men are eligible, to the highest and most responsible posts in the Government, the Civil Service and the Bar, and until they receive the appropriate salaries attached to such posts. Our work as suffragists was to get our claims as women placed before the tribunal of public opinion, because it was impossible to obtain fair publicity in the Press. A story was told at the time, when the first batch of us was sent to prison after speaking in the Lobby of the House of Commons and refusing to be bound over not to repeat the offence, that the ex-Empress Eugenie sent for a leading member of the Committee of the non-militant suffragists, and asked her to explain what we meant by allowing ourselves to be sent to prison, and what we stood for when using methods of such notoriety. The non-militant suffragist gave a condensed drawing-room lecture on the reasons for women requiring the vote to alter laws and influence future law-making. “Yes,” replied the ex-Empress at the end of this appeal, “all that you say is just and right, but why all this disorder, this breaking of the law?” “Should you, Ma’am, ever have enquired into the subject of our just demands if these women had not given them such publicity?” was the reply. And the case of the ex-Empress was the case of the General Public.

These Memoirs are those of a suffragist who never used violence though she suffered violence, but who was forced by a sense of duty towards other women who were not so free as she was to act publicly in the cause that was dear to her, in order to help bring before the public the question of the gross disabilities under which women were suffering.

My outlook — having always been an international one (I have spoken and written for suffrage in France, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Austria, Hungary and Italy; in Australia, Cape Colony, the Transvaal, and in the United States), it is to the many dear and sure friends made during my travels and work in many lands that I dedicate these Memories.

It was while working for woman suffrage that I came gradually to realise that the obtaining of the political vote alone could not do away with the inequalities and injustices which disfigure what we are pleased to call our “civilisation,” but that a social revolution is needed to “fill the hungry with good things, and to send the rich empty away.” That really curious prophecy I saw being fulfilled when in Moscow in 1924, I watched the workers of many lands using the great gilded halls of the Kremlin for their meetings and discussions; filling every seat, and overflowing on every tier of the Grand Opera to listen eagerly and understandingly to the best that Art had to offer them; when I watched the devoted work of the women who had dedicated themselves to the teaching and training of every child in the land. Then I knew it was only a question of time before the working men and women in every land had lit their torches from the flame of that held out by the workers of Soviet Russia, and that the vision I had glimpsed all through the days of my glad work in Suffrage and Socialist propaganda was realising itself in the birth of a new dispensation, which will give a fresh meaning and inspiration to Art, Literature, Beauty and Life.

Crowborough, 1925.

Next: Chapter I. Childhood