Dora B Montefiore Biography. Sean Matgamna

Dora B Montefiore: a half-forgotten socialist feminist

The Marxist Internet Archive is grateful to Sean Matgamna and Workers Liberty for permission to use this sketch.

In its early phase, her life-story was rather like a Barbara Cartland-style romance. In the late 1870s, the conventional young Englishwoman, Dorothy Fuller, bred in a Victorian manor house in Surrey and educated there by governesses and private tutors, went out to Australia to visit relations and there met and fell in love with a fine, rich, young Australian, George Barrow Montefiore. After a short trip home, she went back to Australia to stay.

They married and lived happily, not for “ever after” – there is no such thing as ever after, no more than there are happy endings! – but for about a decade. Then the man died and she was left, in her late 30s, a widow with two children under ten. Still, she was very well provided for. She inherited everything.

Yet the formal reading of her husband’s will by her husband’s lawyer sparked the beginning of a radical change in this Victorian widow’s emotional and intellectual life.

Having told her how rich she was, the unthinkingly brutal lawyer added:

“Since your husband has not chosen to make any other provision, you will be the children’s sole guardian.”

“What?” said the startled woman, who had never given any thought to such things, stung to outrage at the idea. “You are talking about my children, the children I have borne! Make other provisions, indeed!”

The lawyer insisted on his point: “He might very well have made other provision. For example, you are of different religions, are you not? (George had been Jewish.) He might have wanted to put his children in the custody of someone of his own religion.”

The dead man, merely by willing it, could have taken her children away from her! That was his right, as ‘the man’. “As far as the law goes” – the lawyer nailed down the point – “there is only one parent.”

At that moment the widow began to turn herself into a warrior for women’s rights. She would be one of the founders of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in New South Wales.

Once she started to look around at the world she lived in, at the place of women in it, and at the way it was run in general, she quickly turned into a radical socialist too. The warrior for womens’ rights became a warrior against capitalism and all its iniquities. She would spend the rest of her long life campaigning for equality for women and for the socialist emancipation of the working class from capitalist wage slavery.

This was Dora B. Montefiore, who, at the age of 69, with three decades of militant feminist and socialist activity then behind her, was elected to the provisional executive of the Communist Party of Great Britain at its founding conference in 1920. Marxism, inspired by the Russian Revolution, was making a new start in this country.

Now almost forgotten, Montefiore, after Sylvia Pankhurst, was then the most prominent British woman Communist, and had been for a decade and a half, at least, before that. Dora Montefiore does not deserve to be forgotten.

She was active at various times in Australia – where, in 1911, for a while she edited the Sydney paper, the International Socialist Review of Australasia – South Africa, Britain and Ireland. She wrote and spoke and organised for the pre-Russian Revolution Marxist movement in Britain (the Social Democratic Federation; then the S.D. Party; and, after 1911, the British Socialist Party). She wrote an important pamphlet in 1909, “The Position of Women In the Socialist Movement,” published by the SDP press.

Active in the Womens’ Suffrage Movement for many years, she was a member in its first period of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Founded in 1905 by Emmeline Pankhurst, and her daughters, Christabel, Sylvia and Adele, the WSPU pursued militant tactics. But its objective was to gain, not universal suffrage, the vote for all women and men over a certain age (many working class men too had no vote), but votes for women, “on the same basis as men.” In practice, this meant winning the vote not for all women but for only the small stratum of women who could meet the property qualification. Thereby, its advocates argued, would be established the principle of woman’s equality with man. It was, its opponents argued, not votes for women, but “votes for ladies.”

Dora Montefiore was jailed in 1906 for participating in a suffrage demonstration in the Lobby of the House of Commons.

In the same year, taking up the old revolutionary democratic rallying cry, “no taxation without representation,” Montefiore protested against the denial of the Parliamentary vote to women by refusing to pay taxes. She barricaded herself in her house at Hammersmith, and for a number of weeks, held off the bailiffs sent to seize her furniture, in lieu of taxes.

Montefiore – as a member of the anti-war BSP executive – had to go into hiding in 1918 to escape the police, who persecuted and jailed anti-war socialists under the notorious “Defence of the Realm Act.” (We will see what war time jailing did to the most prominent of its anti-war socialist victims – John Maclean.)

This was the heroic age of British Communism, if ever there was one, the period before and immediately after the Russian Revolution. After that, from the mid ‘20s onwards, everything was poisoned by Stalinism.

It was the period of John Maclean, Britain’s Karl Liebknecht, who stood out like a mythic hero against the First World War and went to jail for it. He came out psychologically mutilated and ruined.

Dora Montefiore was there with the immense crowd of Clydeside workers who greeted Maclean on his release from jail in 1918. She travelled with him to his home in the carriage from which the workers unhitched the horses, to pull it themselves through the streets, John Maclean standing up on the seat waving a large red flag. She describes what prison had done to poor John Maclean.

“His thoughts are 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... When I stayed at his home after his second term of imprisonment, 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 tortures of a prison system which takes the souls of men and of women and leaves them wrung out rags of humanity.”

Montefiore was a delegate to various international Socialist conferences. She was at the Basle Congress of 1912 representing the BSP. There, the international socialist movement passed the famous Basle ‘Anti-war Manifesto’, which became a dead letter immediately the war broke out in 1914. She was not impressed by Basle – a scheduled three-day event, cut down to one day of rubber-stamping and resolution-passing, with almost no discussion. She saw that it did not commit its participants to a serious struggle against war (she was one of those who favoured an attempt to call an international General Strike to stop war).

Back in Britain, she expressed her opinion about it in George Lansbury’s Daily Herald, and left the BSP when the British nationalist leadership of that organisation pointedly disagreed. She rejoined it in 1916, after the patriotic minority – led by HM Hyndman, the founder of the British Marxist movement – had left the BSP. The BSP would be by far the largest component of the Communist Party founded in 1920-21.

In 1923 she was 72 years old and suffering from chronic bronchial asthma. Still, the Australian Government did not dare let her, an Australian citizen by marriage, return to Australia to visit her son’s grave – gassed in the World War, he died soon afterwards – and her grandchildren, until she promised not to engage in political agitation or communist propaganda while there! Once she was in Australia, she ignored the agreement she had been forced to sign.

Montefiore represented the Australian Communist Party in Moscow at the Fifth World Congress of the Communist International in 1924. She died at the age of 82, in Hastings, England, in December 1933.

Dora Montefiore belonged, perhaps, to that type of old-style socialist leaders whom the American Trotskyist J.P. Cannon would retrospectively denounce as well-off, bourgeois dilettantes. She was always able to take the doctor’s advice to restore her health with a long sea-voyage to South Africa, or wherever. Yet she was solidly committed and, once committed, stayed with the working class movement, and, at each turning point, with its best elements, all the way through into old age. And she was, again and again, in the thick of the fight, despite inconvenience, ill-health, or danger. We need more such dilettantes!

I sought out her autobiography (From a Victorian to a Modern, 1927) because I knew she had played an important part in one such fight – the 1913-14 Labour War in Dublin.

It was Dora Montefiore who conceived the idea of evacuating the starving children of working class Dublin to more prosperous homes in Britain for the duration of the Dublin fight, and Montefiore – aged 62 – who went to Dublin to try to get them out.

Her book contains an illuminating account of this important episode in Irish working class history and with your indulgence, I will come back to it. (For her role in the Dublin Stock strike see Sean Matgamna’s article).