Dora B. Montefiore, New Age August 1903
Source: New Age, p. 523, 13 August 1903;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
A woman’s life is at present scarcely worth living, so harried is she with unasked-for advice, as to how, and to what end, she should spend it. Roosevelt, from his Presidential heights, and Margaret Bisland, from the pages of the North American Review for July, thunder forth their Mosaic command to increase and multiply in the interests of the military land-grabber and of the capitalistic life-grabber. The Guy Fawkes “Curse of Eve,” rejuvenated, and clothed in modern garments, is perambulated, stark and nodding before our weary gaze, and the “higher criticism” of this latest interpreter of myths, reveals to us in an awe-struck whisper: “What else are we reasonably to interpret as the serpent, ‘more subtle than any beast of the field,’ but the evil whisper of a false ambition, calling woman away from her appointed and primordial task, to aid at this crisis in a short swift struggle for the attainment of a dazzling intellectual and material aggrandisement?” What else indeed? But there is worse to come. The inspired prophetess from America (who surely should have been born in Pauline days, so much happier would she have felt in the companionship of Phoebe, Tryphoena, and Tryphosa, than among modern bicycling and motoring maidens) shrieks in urgent tones that “We forget, or refuse to realise, what is inevitably to follow as the result of a false equality permitted between the sexes; and we have not rightly interpreted or sustained that masculine instinct, old as the race itself, which regards as an unmixed evil any emancipation of the woman that excites her to effort and attainment beyond the bounds of domesticity.” There is plenty more in the same style for those whose jaded desires need a new sensation; the only discordant note in the whole masculine harmony being the fact that Margaret Bisland should have so far forgotten her domestic and subservient role as to step out boldly into the pages of a monthly review, and join the “shrieking sisterhood” in such a despairing screed. I must also enter a protest against her serio-comic remarks, that “Christianity invested Motherhood with a holy dignity” and “that the least peasant woman in her maternity rejoiced to follow the worthy and uplifting example of the Madonna.” Christianity idealised virginity, placing it above motherhood; and if a peasant woman, or any other woman during the Christian era, ventured to follow the example of the Madonna, and bear a child before she had gone through the marriage ceremony, both the Church and professing Christians would see to it that she did not “rejoice.”
As a contrast to the “sacred Motherhood” and “domestic seclusion” thunderers, comes the metallically hard voice of the sapient North London magistrate, remarking on “the injudicious, extravagant, and careless people, who persisted in getting married when they had no hope of feeding and clothing a wife and family.” As a means therefore of opening the eyes of all concerned, and of teaching them a well-deserved lesson, he sentenced the father of the family (who had yielded to temptation on a salary of 28 shillings a week) to three months’ imprisonment, during which time, no doubt, the wife, being sentenced to a double dose of hard labour, in that she will have to earn the living of the family and attend to home duties as well, will learn the salutary lesson that she ought to have known better “than to follow the worthy and uplifting example of the Madonna,” even with a wedding ring on her finger. If women need the lesson taught by the magistrate rubbed in a little harder let them read of the Marylebone woman, who, stumbling through hunger and weakness, was taken up by the police on a charge of drunkenness; and was found to be carrying in her arms a tiny baby corpse. She said “she had taken the baby to its father, but he refused to assist her; she had had no food during the day, arid all the money she possessed was twopence.” If women still persist in believing after these two every-day occurrences that their duty to the State lies in bearing children, or that Christianity exalts motherhood, they deserve – I feel tempted to write – no better fate than to continue to be exploited by rulers, bourgeoisie and priests. But I know too well how women are misinformed, intellectually starved, and socially and morally tricked from their earliest childhood, and that their crime against society is too often naught else but loving “not wisely, but too well”; and I realise that what they really deserve and need is fruit from the tree of real scientific knowledge, as well as that from the tree of love and life.
A friendly correspondent has sent me, in connection, with my recent notice of Mrs. Sievwright’s speech in New Zealand on the subject of the State giving its children Civic, in the place of Theologic instruction – an account of what is known in America as the “School City System” – a system which has for its object the form of teaching advocated by Mrs. Sievwright. Mr. Wilson L. Gill is the originator in America of the School City System, and Mr. L. Williams has written a book (Simpkin and Marshall, London), giving details and results, of its working. Its underlying principle is that the children are led first through thinking healthfully, to decide justly and wisely, and to act promptly and courageously. They themselves, under the scientific guidance of the teachers, help to bring order out of disorder; and they soon learn to realise that “Order is kept by the school for the school, and not by the teacher for his own special pleasure. It is simply teaching concretely what all have attempted to teach abstractly.” The results, as detailed by inspector after inspector, are entirely satisfactory, and its adoption is specially recommended in the lower grade of elementary schools, young children being so very suggestible, and the power of imitation being then at its maximum. My correspondent writes: “I am a strong advocate of adult suffrage, and believe that the School City System, when once widely organised in our schools, will, more than any other single method, tend in a practical way to remove all the ancient prejudices against the enfranchisement of women. When it is optically demonstrated in our schools that boys and girls rank, vote, legislate, and administrate equally, and equally well, how can the adult children in the larger school of the world dare to contend that men alone are competent to rule; for both sexes will have had equal tutoring, instead of, as possibly, no tutoring at all in self-government.”
Dora B. Montefiore.