Time to take action: Sisters, let’s emulate Dora Montefiore!

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As a socialist feminist, I often think about what this means. There is much in my everyday experience that points out the need to change the position of women in our capitalist society. There’s everything to get pissed off about: the job, the bills, the husband or ex, the kids’ school, not being listened to. And that is overlayed with the pressure to be pretty, thin and to keep a clean house and dog and an ordered garden. You give 110%, but it just never seems to be enough to be super at all things. At some point I realised that the 1970s saying, “the personal is political,” really means that being pissed off is not enough. You have to be radical, too.

Feminists who narrow their focus to women, separating us from everyone else, aren’t taking on all the existing inequalities or getting to their source. Yes, men do benefit from our second-class status, particularly if they’re white and straight: they enjoy higher wages, more educational opportunities and less discriminatory treatment in their daily lives. But they also have to fight the boss, and their behaviour is controlled by sexist, macho expectations. Indigenous people, immigrants and all people of colour endure institutionalised racism that keeps them pinned down like specimen insects, isolated and/or abandoned and considered inferior. Queers are similarly ostracised and abhorred, and our planet’s environment is up shit creek, thanks to its corporate profit gougers. As Audre Lorde said, “feminism is for everybody!” To be real, it needs to be radical, militant and all-encompassing.

I like to look at the feminists of the past to get their stories, see how they managed the issues of their day and be inspired by their fight for something better. After all, our society today was shaped by them.

Born in 1851, Dora Montefiore, nee Fuller, came from a privileged background in Victorian England. In the late 1870s she came out to Australia to visit relatives. She had a Barbara Cartland romance when she met and fell in love with a rich, young Australian, George Barrow Montefiore, and lived happily for about a decade until George died. She was left a widow in her late 30s with two children under ten. Still, she had inherited everything and was very well off. It was her realisation that winning custody of her own children was by luck, not by right, that politicised Dora. “As far as the law goes” – the lawyer hammered the point – “there is only one parent.”

At that moment the widow began to turn herself into a warrior for women’s rights. Once she started to look around at the world – at the place of women in it – she quickly turned into a radical socialist, too. The warrior for women’s rights became a warrior against capitalism and all its inequities, and Dora would spend the rest of her long life campaigning for equality for women and the socialist emancipation of the working class from capitalist wage slavery.

She began by being one of the founders of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in New South Wales, holding the first meeting of the Womanhood Suffrage in her home. As a member of the Australian Writers’ and Artists’ Union, which was affiliated to the Trades Hall in Sydney, she was also a member of the Labor Party. She also belonged to the Australian International Socialist Party and in 1911 she edited its Sydney paper, the International Socialist Review.

She wrote, spoke and organised for the Marxist movement in Britain (the Social Democratic Federation, then the SD 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 Women’s 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, the WSPU pursued militant tactics. Its objective was to win votes for women on the same basis as men – which then was only for the propertied. In 1906 Dora Montefiore and Christabel Pankhurst, along with others, were thrown out of the lobby of theHouse of Commons and then jailed for standing on their seats to voice their views after notbeing allowed to address the House.

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 for six weeks and held off the bailiffs sent to seize her furniture, in lieu of taxes.

In the following year, Montefiore met Clara Zetkin, a German Marxist feminist visiting Britain to speak for adult suffrage. Zetkin was then the leading woman in Germany to advocate the enfranchisement of working class women. Montefiore attended the Socialist International Congress at Stuttgart, Germany as a delegate of the Socialist Democratic Federation of England. There she spoke on the division within the suffrage movement between the advocates for the vote for propertied women and those campaigning for suffrage for all women and men, which the SDF supported.

Montefiore was also a delegate to various international socialist conferences. She gave lecture tours in Chicago in 1910 and South Africa in 1912 and was at the Basle Congress of 1912, representing the British Socialist Party. There, the international socialist movement passed the famous Basle Anti-war Manifesto, which became redundant once the war broke out in 1914. Montefiore was not impressed by Basle: she saw that it did not commit its participants to a serious anti-war struggle. She favoured the call for an international general strike to stop the war.

She played an important part in the 1913-14 Labour War in Dublin. It was she 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 she went to Dublin herself, at the age of 62, to try to get them out.

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

As a member of the anti-war BSP executive, she had to go into hiding in 1918 to escape the police, who persecuted and jailed anti-war socialists under the Defence of the Realm Act. John Maclean was one who stood out like a mythic hero against the First World War and went to jail for it. Despite her evasion of the police, Montefiore came out to greet Maclean on his release with an immense crowd of workers.

At the age of 69, with three decades of militant feminist and socialist activity behind her, she 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 fresh start in England.

In 1923, Dora Montefiore was 72 years old and suffering from chronic bronchial asthma. Still, the Australian government did not let her, an Australian citizen by marriage, return to Australia to visit her son’s grave and her grandchildren until she promised not to engage in political agitation or communist propaganda while there. Once she was in Australia, she totally ignored the agreement she had been forced to sign! The next year, Montefiore represented the Australian Communist Party in Moscow at the Fifth World Congress of the Communist International.

She died at the age of 82, in Hastings, England, in December 1933.

Looking at Montefiore’s life today, we could almost hear her say, “the personal is political.” She fought for the issues that affected her life and times. If she were alive today I believe she would be an environmentalist warrior sitting in treetops to stop logging of old growth forests and leading a movement to reduce personal footprints on the earth. She would be a fighter for justice for asylum seekers and making her presence and thoughts felt about the atrocities of Christmas Island and in Indonesia’s detention camps. She would be a campaigner against the Northern Territory Intervention and fighting for the return and repayment of Indigenous stolen lands, stolen wealth and stolen children. As she said, “Our message is… that Marx never said ‘White proletarians of all lands unite!’ but ‘Proletarians of all lands unite!'” and “the Australian Communist Party has no colour prejudice and no wish for a ‘white Australia.'”

In her day, Montefiore argued against child labour and the Poor Law, which limited government assistance to women who had been abandoned by their husbands. Today, she would be letting the government and the public know that all working women need childcare and medical support, that men should not tell women what to do with their own bodies when it came to reproductive decisions. As she stated in 1909, “The economic independence of women will be one of the most important phases of the Social Revolution… Woman, economically independent, will once more control her own sex life, and will exercise freely in natural selection the choice that that implies.” Montefiore sounds like today’s woman!

I believe Dora Montefiore would be a member of Radical Women. The Radical Women Manifesto states that RW, which formed in 1969, is still alive and kicking when so many feminist organisations from the 1970s have gone under. By “being audacious, multiracial, queer and straight, socialist feminist advocates for the overthrow of capitalism” and “embracing a theory that explains why war, environmental devastation and all forms of oppression are the order of the day under a system run for private profit,” we have “dramatically changed the political landscape.” I want to walk in the footsteps of this gutsy activist Sister. For women also inspired by Dora Montefiore’s story, now is the best time to join and change this earth’s landscape.

What Every Socialist Woman Should Know

“We English Social-Democratic women marked the same line of cleavage when we attended, the Adult Suffrage Conference and joined with Socialist men in passing the resolution which was sent up to the Prime Minister. That in view of the fact that two thirds of the adult population of this country is politically unrepresented, this Conference of Socialist and Labour organisations declares that no electoral reform will be satisfactory which does not extend the franchise to every adult man and women, and demands that the Government shall make this the basis of the Democratic Reform Bill foreshadowed by the Prime Minister. If the rank and file of the Labour women had been as class conscious as their Russian sisters they would have joined solidly in our Social Democratic demand; but, unfortunately, the majority of Labour women at the present juncture are no wiser than are the Labour men, and they still think that reform instead of revolution is going to enfranchise the workers economically and politically. As long as a majority of them are of that way of thinking, they are still playing into the hands of the capitalist, and putting off to a more distant date the coming of Socialism.”

Dora Montefiore, 1909

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