Dora Montefiore

From a Victorian to a Modern

Votes Gained for Some English Women

Early in 1917 the question of the enfranchisement of women became practical politics, though the important question remained to be settled on what basis was this enfranchisement to be granted? Manhood Suffrage was promised to men, and as the Labour Party had always acknowledged that the words Adult Suffrage on their programme meant suffrage for men and women they had only now to stand firm to the position they had taken up, and Adult Suffrage would have won the day. But wire pulling began, a Parliamentary Electoral Commission of all parties was formed, and the Labour Leaders, who thought themselves politicians, were talked over and cajoled by those who were past masters at the game. The idea among the other two parties was, of course, to find out how little the Labour Party could be persuaded to take in the way of an instalment of women suffrage, with the result that at the Labour Party Electoral Conference at the Central Hall, Westminster, on 20th March, Mr. Clynes appeared as the authorised messenger between the Parliamentary Commission and we Labour Delegates, and informed us it had been decided that no women under 30 should have the vote, though all men at 21 were to have it. That was the offer to be taken or left, and delegates were now to vote. I spoke for Adult Suffrage, reminding the delegates that the vote for all women over 21 was much more important to the working woman than it was to the middle-class woman, and urging the Labour delegates not to take less than Adult Suffrage for all men and women. Smillie assured me that the Miners’ vote would be solid for Adult Suffrage, and that we should get it carried; but in the long run there seemed to be some muddle over card voting, and we were told from the Chair that Adult Suffrage was lost. Once more the Labour Leaders, with Mr. Clynes as their spokesman, had led backwards. But their treachery was only on a par with that of the Suffrage Societies, which had collected several thousands of pounds on the pledge of “obtaining the vote for women on the same terms as it is or may be granted to men.” Immediately the men obtained Manhood Suffrage the Women Suffrage Societies backed down, betrayed their subscribers, and agreed to take a limited measure.

On 26th March I seconded the resolution of greeting to the political Russian revolution at a great demonstration organised by the British Socialist Party at the Memorial Hall. The meeting was crowded and enthusiastic. On 2nd June another great demonstration had been arranged at Leeds by all sections of the Labour Party to congratulate Russia on the success of her recent political revolution. I went as one of the delegates from the B.S.P., and the seconding of the resolution of greeting (to be proposed by Mr. J.R. MacDonald) was entrusted to me. His speech was mainly a rhetorical indictment of Czarist Imperialism, and I was able to point out, when seconding, that there were other Imperialisms as dangerous to the interests of the Proletarians of other countries as was that of Czardom. In fact, most of Mr. MacDonald’s indictment might have been applied to British Imperialism. This Leeds demonstration was so boycotted by the possessing class that we delegates on arrival at Leeds station found that all hotels had refused to receive us. In consequence our Leeds comrades had rapidly organised a reception committee who were on the platform of the station, and directed us to the houses of the various comrades who were offering hospitality. This appeared to me to be an example of rapid and efficient organised Labour, the possibilities of which might, in the future, have far-reaching results.

Soon after the passing by both Houses of Parliament of the Limited Franchise Bill, granting political enfranchisement with an age, and not a property qualification, it was suggested in the Lyceum Club, of which 1 was an original member, that we should have early in 1918 a dinner to celebrate the event, and I was asked to preside on the occasion. As the basis of the restricted suffrage was merely a petty and grudging one, and not absolutely undemocratic, I consented, and a committee was called together which arranged a dinner for Monday, 28th January, which was very representative of suffrage friends and supporters. I had Canon Donaldson on my right hand, and Mr. Holford Knight on my left. Olive Schreiner, Miss Evelyn Sharpe, Dr. Clarke and Mr. Nevinson were among the guests. I had arranged to have Punch’s cartoon for that week as the menu card, whereon Bernard Partridge had depicted, quite sympathetically, a sort of triumphant Joan of Arc figure, standing on a mountain peak, and holding in her right hand a banner blazoned with the words, “WOMAN’S FRANCHISE.” Under the drawing were the words, “AT LAST.” This was a memorable dinner in many respects, for we had hardly sat down when the Club housekeeper came and whispered to me that a notice from the authorities of an expected raid had been received at the Club. I told her to say nothing, but to allow the dinner to go on as usual; though the Club being in Piccadilly, we always had the full benefit of the anti-aircraft guns in St. James’ Park, and of those at Hyde Park Corner. Canon Donaldson approved my silence on the subject of the expected raid, and the dinner progressed without any incident; but just as the speeches were beginning, the deafening noise of anti-aircraft guns commenced, and some of the guests sprang to their feet. I then rose and told the guests that we had known of the approaching raid since the beginning of dinner, but we did not mean to allow it to interfere with the speeches, though if any guests wished at this moment to withdraw, they could do so. Only one lady left the table, and the speeches continued, though at times it was difficult to hear the speakers because of the incessant noise of gunfire. Towards the end of what was really an ordeal for all of us, the toast of the International Suffrage Movement was proposed by Miss Sheepshanks, the editor of the International Suffrage News, and at the end of her speech she read a message from Frau Marie Stritt, a well-known Dresden suffragist, with whom I had worked for years, congratulating the English suffragists on their victory, and criticising the German Government for not having done as much for the German women. This message was received with applause by those present at the dinner; while those around me during the evening only mentioned the message with sympathy. What was my surprise therefore, when a few days later I had a letter from the Committee of the Lyceum Club, asking me if I had known that Miss Sheepshanks was going to read out a message from German women in the Lyceum Club? And, if I did not know she was going to do so, why did I not stop her when I realised what she was doing? I replied that I did not know it was Miss Sheepshank’s intention to read the message, neither did I know beforehand that the message had been received; but, that when I heard it, I felt so rejoiced to think that this peaceful message from a fellow worker for suffrage had come across the camps and battlefields of warring Europe, and had been passed by our censor, that it never entered my head to stop the message being given to those for whom it was intended. The reply to this from the Club Committee was that Miss Sheepshanks had committed a breach of hospitality by reading a message in the Club by an enemy woman, and that she would be from that time forth excluded as a guest from the Club premises, and that notices to that effect had been sent to the Press. This appeared to myself and to several other Club members so outrageous a proceeding, that, after a meeting of protest on Saturday, 2nd March, a group of us resigned our Club membership, as a gesture of solidarity with Miss Sheepshanks and her international suffrage position. It was with feelings of real regret and pain that I resigned my membership of the Lyceum Club, where I had always stayed when in town, and where I had formed old and valued friendships; but I was to find as the years rolled on, and especially after the bereavements and losses of the war, that it was only part, and that a small one, of the landslide of life, in which “Tout passe, tout casse, tout lasse.”

One great personal pleasure to me that evening of the suffrage dinner was that my son, who was home on leave from the Australian contingent, was among the guests, and before he left the Club, told me with real emotion in his voice, that he had for the first time realised, when he heard me propose the first toast: “Those men and women who had worked and suffered for the Cause,” why I had sacrificed so much during many years for the cause of the political enfranchisement of women. He and I had more than once almost painful discussions on the subject, as he disliked the necessary publicity of my actions, and I knew, suffered both at the engineering works where he was studying, and at the London University, because of the notoriety of my imprisonment and of my repeated refusal to pay income tax: I used to tell him that the opinion of those who laughed and scoffed was not worth troubling about; and I confessed to him how often my own heart failed at the length of the road, and the cruel misrepresentations of the enemies of woman suffrage. But, that I always had him and his sister in my mind when my scourgings and troubles were at the worst, and that I felt I was working, not for the present, but for the future, when he and she, and those of their generation would be the inheritors of a better world. Now I told him, as he stood smiling and happy, looking so handsome in his Australian khaki, that I should remember nothing of the difficulties of the past, since he now knew and understood; and that I could have no better reward than the assurance of the loving understanding of my children. He just missed being killed that same night by a German bomb within half an hour of his leaving me. He was knocked down by the concussion of a falling bomb close to Covent Garden Tube Station, and as he picked himself up, he saw people running towards the offices of John Bull. Following them, he discovered that another bomb had crashed through the machinery room where the paper was printed, bringing down the floor and the heavy printing machinery on to the heads of hundreds of poor people who were using the basement as an air raid refuge. He described to me the next day when he came to tell me about it, how he spent till four in the morning helping with others (all knee-deep in the water, which had been turned on into the basement to put out the fire) to rescue the dead and the living from their horrible position. He could hardly speak of it, especially of the fate of many of the little children.

On Sunday, 3rd February, I was due to speak at Sheffield in the Engineers’ Institute, and was to stay during my Sheffield visit with my friends the Chandlers. As from there I was booked to go on to Liverpool and Glasgow for more meetings, I was busy on 2nd February with preparations for my absence, when my son came in with an Australian friend, to say they were both under orders to leave for France that day, so I had to keep a stiff lip and bid him farewell without letting him see too much what I was suffering. I knew myself now once more among the great company of mothers in every land whose aching hearts and torn souls were on the rack for the twenty-four hours of the day and night, because Imperialisms, in their competitive struggles had declared that the flower of the youth of the second decade of the twentieth century should perish. At Liverpool I went the day after my meeting to visit in Walton Gaol a conscientious objector, Bernard Wright, the son of old friends of mine who lived in Glasgow, and who were longing for news of their only son. I had no order or permit, but sent in my card to the Governor, and told the assistant governor my errand. I gratefully record the courtesy with which they allowed me to have half-an-hour’s interview with the prisoner in the board-room, a warder, who sat near us, being present all the time. We talked of family affairs, both of his own and of mine, and I carefully eschewed any political or military subject for fear that such discussion might lead to the interview being shortened. It was the day that Morel was sentenced to a term of imprisonment, but I did not even mention that fact. I recorded in my diary the impression of this young friend’s quiet, unflinching determination to make without complaint or shrinking his conscientious protest against war and all its works; and though the lad looked in fairly good health after his two years’ military imprisonment, I could not help thinking his frame had shrunk, but this may have been due to the disfiguring prison clothes.

I was feeling ill before I left Liverpool, and on reaching Glasgow, where I was to take a meeting in the evening (14th February), I collapsed with bronchitis, and was nursed for a fortnight in the Wright’s home, with the greatest devotion and kindness by Mrs. Wright and her daughter. By 3rd March I was home again in Crowborough. On 30th March I attended as a delegate the annual conference of the British Socialist Party, and it was there I saw a good deal of John Maclean, and found him at this time a clear thinker and reasoner, a wholly different personality from the psychic and mental wreck to which two periods of British prison system subsequently reduced him. When I stayed in his home after his second term of imprisonment, and witnessed the agony of his wife and the sorrow of his relatives, I realised more than ever I had done before the refined and machine-made cruelty of a prison system which takes the souls of men and of women (as the Inquisition used to take their bodies) and leaves them wrung-out rags of humanity.

On Sunday, 14th April, I had a wonderfully enthusiastic meeting at Abertillery, under the auspices of the New Era Union. I stayed on this occasion in the home of a miner who worked on the surface, and I heard much about mining conditions in that and other Welsh valleys. Among my other activities this month I note in my diary on 25th April: “To Harecombe Hospital (Crowborough) to darn soldiers’ socks.”

On 26th June of this year the annual Labour Party Conference was held at the Central Hall, Westminster, and I attended it as a delegate from the B.S.P. The special feature of this conference was the introduction by the chairman, Mr. Henderson, of Kerensky, who came to tell his story of the recent Russian revolution, which he had not had the courage or the genius to guide into a Social Revolution. He was a white-faced, scared-looking object, who was met, when the chairman announced he was to speak in the afternoon, with a storm of protest that lasted for some time. The chairman resented this demonstration, and asked us delegates if we did not believe in Free Speech. When the storm was dying down, I rose and said we did believe in free speech, and that if Kerensky was to be heard, we demanded that Litvinoff, who was in the gallery, should also be heard in reply. This the Chair would not agree to—showing how he and those who supported him failed in the application of principle of free speech, so I and others obstructed for at least ten minutes with reiterated demands to hear Litvinoff in reply; and if we had had more support we should have been able to force the Chairman to change his ruling. The forcing of Kerensky on the delegates to the conference was a treacherous stab in the back to the Russian November Revolution. The rank and file of delegates realised that, but, as usual, the Labour leaders led backwards, and Kerensky on that occasion had the last word—and a very poor and scared word it was. In September I was again in Sheffield speaking for the B.S.P., and in October I attended as a delegate from our party the Labour Woman’s Conference in London.

On 30th October I had a letter from my son saying his part of the Australian Contingent was in Roubaix, which I knew meant that if our forces were already occupying parts of the pays envahi, the war was practically over. On 11th November the Armistice was signed.

At the Labour Party Conference in November, I made a protest on behalf of John Maclean, who was still being kept in prison, although his friends knew his health had completely broken down. On 26th November Mrs. Maclean wrote me that, as I had promised to speak for her husband’s parliamentary candidature at Gorbals, his agent had booked me for two meetings on 4th and 5th December, and she asked me to stay with them at their home in Newlands. So on Sunday, 1st December, I left for Glasgow, and was present on Monday, 2nd, at a large meeting at St. Andrew’s Hall, with Maxton in the chair. The next day a huge demonstration was arranged to meet John Maclean at Buchanan St. Station on the occasion of his return from prison. I was with my two comrades, Gallacher and his wife, and a carriage was waiting inside the station yard for Maclean and his wife, when they left the train. Our little group on the platform was invited into the carriage with the Macleans, but before we reached the station gates, the horses had been taken out, and the crowd, which had completely blocked the traffic, drew the carriage through the main streets of Glasgow, while Maclean stood on the seat waving a huge red banner. It was only later, when we had reached the Newland’s home that I and others recognised that this was quite another John Maclean from the man, the ex-school teacher, whom the authorities some months before had cast into gaol, because, as he said at his trial, “He had squared his actions with his conscience.” His thoughts were now disconnected, his speech was irresponsible, his mind, from solitary confinement, was absolutely self-centred. In a word, prison life had done its work on a delicately-balanced psychology, and our unfortunate comrade was now a mental wreck.

in February of 1919 I was invited by the Executive of the Hammersmith Labour Party to be their candidate at the forthcoming L.C.C. elections. After meeting the Executive at their Headquarters, 154, Goldhawk Road, I was formally adopted as their candidate. As my son was now back from France on leave, my mind was more at rest on his score, and I felt I could devote my time and energies to the candidature. The work was heavy and the weather very bad, but the election committee and the agent worked hard and enthusiastically, and many old Hammersmith friends, among them Mrs. Cobden Saunderson and Alexander Gossip, came and spoke. But the roots of the Conservative interests in Hammersmith go down deeply, and money with them was plentiful, while with Labour it was very tight. So when polling day came I, and Mr. Martin, the Labour candidate for North Hammersmith, were defeated, and the sitting members were returned. The B.S.P. annual conference was held at Easter, 20th April, at Sheffield, and at this Conference, Cathel O’Shannon, an Irish delegate, spoke brilliantly on the Irish situation, with special reference to “the siege of Limerick” then going on. On June 21st Sylvia Pankhurst and I, as the two leading English revolutionary women of the moment, were invited by the Sheerness Women’s Labour Party to speak at a demonstration they were organising on the “Class Struggle from the International Standpoint.” The demonstration, which was held at the Sheerness Hippodrome, was extremely well organised, and well attended by both men and women comrades. I spoke from the experience I had gained in my travels through South Africa, Australia, the United States and the Continent of Europe of the international power and character of capitalism in all that concerned the economic enslavement of labour, and urged that from the Labour side the class struggle must be fought with a wider and more international outlook; that there must be no aristocracy of Labour and no conscious or unconscious understanding between Labour and Capital to exploit backward and coloured races, as these backward races would eventually be used by Capital to bring down the wages of white workers.

Towards the end of this month my son left England on his return journey to his wife and child in Australia, and I was never to see him again, as, although apparently in fair health after the fatigues of war, his lungs had been permanently injured with mustard gas, and in June, 1921, he passed away after haemorrhage and a week’s illness, just four days after his baby son was born. On joining up he had been passed as a first-class life, but he was one of the millions of victims of imperial rivalries, and his death turned for me the light of day into darkness.

In August, 1919, I accepted an invitation from my old friend and comrade, Professor Herron, who had married again, and was living at Geneva, to spend a few weeks with him and his family, so on 16th August I left with a friend for Switzerland. It was naturally a great joy to be once more in communication with, and to hear news of friends whom I had not seen for years; and I found the Herrons’ foyer, as usual, the hospitable centre of travellers from many lands, especially from the Balkans, of whose dissatisfactions with the results of the Versailles “peace” we heard much. Professor Herron had been in Paris all through the Peace Conference, and being an old college friend of President Wilson he had seen and heard much behind the scenes, and was himself grievously disappointed at the ultimate Versailles results. I realised more than ever, after meeting representative people from many of the Balkan countries, that wars are indeed fought by idealists for a peace that is made by realists. At the conclusion of our visit to the Herrons, we went on to Zurich, where I hoped to meet Clara Zetkin, with whom I had worked for many years for Adult Suffrage. All through the war period we had been cut off from intercourse with Continental friends and comrades, and I was naturally looking forward with great pleasure to meeting Zetkin, and to reassuring her that though kings and princes might squabble and quarrel, and have petty jealousies, which unfortunately were fatal to the happiness of their subjects, yet the workers, the pawns in the game of secret diplomacy and of militarism, had no quarrel with one another, and only longed to escape from the imperialistic yoke. To my sorrow, whilst waiting at Zurich, I had a letter from Zetkin on 8th September, saying that when crossing Lake Constance on her way from her home in Stuttgart to Zurich, she, although her papers were all in order, was arrested on the boat by Swiss police, was searched (even the hems and linings of her clothing were ripped open, and the skin of her back was examined through a magnifying glass, to see if messages were written on it) and, with every gesture of contumely from the Swiss officials she was told she would have to return to Germany on the same boat. The next day I had a letter from Professor Herron saying he had had a visit on my behalf from the police, and advising us to return to Geneva, which we did, and remained there till 29th September. What a commentary all this on “The war to end wars,” and “Making the world fit for heroes”! On our return journey to England we had to wait some days in Paris because of the railway strike in England, but we eventually crossed on 6th October, the day the strike ended.

In March, 1920, I was approached by a group of Scotch comrades asking me to stand as a Communist candidate for Parliament for North. Edinburgh, but on enquiry at B.S.P. Headquarters I found it was not considered advisable to run Communist candidates at that moment, so I declined. On 28th May I received a letter from an organiser of the Uckfield District Labour Party, which is of interest in my story, as showing how past propaganda is not wasted. “We are trying,” said the writer, “to revive the Branch of the Labour Party at Crowborough, and last night, when discussing the matter with Mr. Killick, of Butted, he informed me that you lived at Crowborough, and although you have not known me I have known you for upwards of 20 years; in fact, it was in 1900 when I first read your articles in the New Age, and afterwards in the Clarion. I have often wanted to thank you for showing me, with numbers of others, the ridiculous position we so-called democrats placed ourselves in by our attitude towards our mothers, wives and sisters. I just wondered whether, if we got up a public meeting at Crowborough you would speak.” The attitude towards women, alluded to by this writer, which I had been for years condemning, was that the average working man did not trouble to interest his wife and daughters in the interpretation of the class struggle, in which struggle they suffered as much, if not more than he did. Things are moving now, and the miners’ wives during this 1926 struggle, are to a great extent class-conscious, and standing in line with their men; but I have found when talking with tramway and railway men during the general strike that their womenfolk were too often enemies in the household; and on talking to the womenfolk I found they had no general conception of what solidarity among the workers meant. They were not co-operators, they had never been to a public meeting, and “they kept themselves to themselves.” The men I talked to quite saw that this attitude on the part of their womenfolk would have to cease, if the sacrifices the men were making were to bear fruit in the future.

Next: Chapter XVI. Final Years of Work for Labour