1920s >> 1921 >> no-205-september-1921

The Order of St. Catherine

On July 22nd, the “Daily News” published the report of an interview with Professor Patrick Geddes, in the course of which he said: “A coming discount of women is imminently threatened, and is indeed in accelerating progress.”


The same newspaper then asked Miss Margaret Bondfield, Secretary to the Federation of Women Workers, for her views on Professor Geddes’ remarks. Miss Bondfield confirmed them and proceeded to show where she believes the remedies lie. “To perpetuate the idea that marriage is the sole aim of woman’s life,” she said, ” is to court disaster. Many hundreds of thousands of women must make up their minds that there can be no marriage at the end for them. They must, therefore, be trained to take a real interest in their career. There need be no disaster if their instincts can only find a wholesome way out.” (Quotations are from “Daily News” of July 23rd.)


Miss Bondfield suggests “social work” as the outlet, particularising child welfare, maternity work, and administration.


This is her way of meeting the emotional case. For the economic:


“One thing is vital—our young people must be sent back to school to learn discipline. The wickedest crime of the Government has been the shutting down of educational facilities and the curtailing of continuation school education at the present time, especially when unemployment is so bad. These young women are thus thrown upon the world unprepared. If it costs millions, they must be got back to school. The machinery is all ready. The Central Committee for Women’s Training and Employment” (of which Miss Bondfield is a member) “has done wonderful work; it has handled many thousands of cases, and given training varying from six months to five years in different cases. The instrument is at hand, if the Government will only use it.”


To which the “Daily News” adds this explanatory note:


“The Committee to which Miss Bondfield refers was set up last year. It was allowed £500,000 from the National Relief Fund and £100,000 left over from the Queen’s Work for Women Fund. It includes such names as Miss Mary Macarthur, Miss Violet Markham, Miss R. E. Lawrence, and Dr. Marion Phillips; and its function is to arrange for the training of women whose capacity of earning a livelihood has been injured or handicapped by conditions produced in the war. Application forms can be had at any Labour Exchange.”


Now it is true that even in a society where no outside impediment existed, not even an inequality in the numbers of the male and female populations, every woman would not marry. Many in whom the inclination is strong are not so happy as to find the husband to please them: and in the chances of human sentiment it often happens that when the desired mate is found he is not to be won. There are, besides such disappointed women, others (as there are men) whose energies are bent upon the pursuit of an exceptional purpose, and who are not at all concerned with the business of sex and parenthood. The artist is the type of these. The world’s history records the names of many such who are immortal. Miss Bondfield is right in thinking it neither possible nor desirable that women should make marriage their only goal.


Reference has often been made in these columns to the early scenes in mankind’s social life, where arose the idea that women’s only proper vocation was domestic. There, social production did not require women’s labour; their service became a private service within, the family.


But modern industry has a use for the labour-power of women, and the view of what is suitable work for them has been much modified. Hitherto in the history of capitalism employers have encouraged the presence of women in the labour market : they constituted an abundant supply of cheap labour-power. But with the rising wages of women consequent upon improving organisation, and the falling wages of men resultant from widespread unemployment, the preference is rapidly being transferred to men.


And what value have Miss Bondfield’s remedies ?


Suppose the fullest use of her Committee : what can it accomplish ? It can ensure that women shall compete on equal terms with men for such posts as are to be filled. But since in its normal workings capitalist production, never needs all the labour-power that offers itself, and since what it does need is relatively a diminishing quantity, all that the Committee can do is to change the personnel of the army of unemployed: substitute some hungry men for hungry women, incidentally providing the master class with better-trained, more serviceable material. And even of this excellent thing one can have too much, the employers think: do they need Miss Bondfield to point out the virtue of the “instrument at hand” ? Since it would appear that there is no lack of workers sufficiently well trained to do what is required of them, and no near prospect of such a lack, the shutting down of educational facilities is a measure of praiseworthy economy, from the capitalist point of view. And surely Miss Bondfield knows better than to expect another point of view from any Government? Whoever heard of a commercial concern spending millions to obtain a brand of commodity of which a sufficient supply was already to hand?


The awakened woman worker has a different word to say. It is this: That her only sure way to a happier life lies with the men of her class : that she does not benefit by readjustments of the common burden of subjection: that the only action for her is that which shall remove the burden altogether. And such is Socialist action. Suppose that triumphant, you have a world where no man is compelled to celibacy by want of means to maintain a family, and a woman need be neither man’s huntress nor his rival.


May we suggest to Miss Bondfield that here is the cause to claim the devotion of working women. The poverty and degeneration which move the compassionate to throw themselves into “social work,” are allied to the sordid snatching of one another’s bread. They are features of the same evil system of social life. And the ameliorative measures which Miss Bondfield would like to see women administrating, being concerned only with isolated features, leave untouched such a sea of misery as must make a thinking “social worker” despair. To sweep away the source of it all: that alone is the work for the clear of sight.


A. L.