Women Workers Who Think

F. W. Stella Browne

The New Generation September 1922

The way of the birth control propagandist is difficult, and the most hardened of us have known to sigh a little when we were called upon - unto seventy times seven - to refuse the cheerful assertion of some masculine wage-earners, that to bear and rear children was "all women had to do"; or to face the dreadful frozen anaemic apathy of certain utterly devitalised and probably inherently somewhat deficient women. But there is - thanks to that queer unaccountable quality, human goodness and thanks also the very greatness of our message and their need - one thing we hardly ever have to face among the genuine workers: the indecent giggling and innuendo which aims at throwing dirt at birth control. The workers meet our teaching with seriousness, with attention, and as they realise its import more deeply, with sympathy and cordial agreement. And when we meet an audience of women drawn from the Co-operative Guilds or local Labour groups, we enjoy a rare treat. The members of these circles are "picked" in so far as they can feel and make effective an interest in impersonal things - and a perception that the complex big world to today surrounds and acts and interacts on their homes and their dearest. In order to belong to their group or guild, they have had to spend a subscription which has meant hard earning and much saving and contrivance; they have had to arrange and "spare" time; their membership of and participation in their guild or group is for them an individual achievement. And, like all strong successful effort, it gives them power to express and fulfil themselves more widely. The social and mental life of these women has been obtained at a great price, which the fortunate possessors of leisure and opportunity can hardly appreciate, and in the teeth of a system of which it has been well said that "it feeds upon the flesh of men and it swallows women whole."

What are the salient notes which strike one's attention most clearly when addressing such an audience? It struck me particularly when reading Mrs Tull's enthusiastic account of her Co-operative Guild meeting at St. Albans on July 5, and comparing it with my own most instructive and encouraging experience at Southend on June 20, that these women whose lives are so tightly bound down to bread-and-butter considerations by material facts, show emphatically a human and social rather than a purely economic point of view. Mrs Tall dealt with birth control from both the individual and the national point of view; my subject, though immense, was more restricted, being the Economics of the Population Question. But in both cases, though every reference to concrete practical difficulties was heartily appreciated - especially at Southend, prices and housing - the note of human fellowship and sympathy predominated.

The interest in our clinic was particularly and touchingly keen. How I wish Mrs Preece had been there, to have explained and described and answered questions which I was not always able to meet fully! And in both Mrs Tull's case and my own, the women co-operators pressed for further information on various aspects of the subject and filled in several application forms for the practical leaflet as well as buying current and back number of the New Generation. The baby on the cover was unanimously approved -- it did not, apparently, strike the co-operators as "unwanted". Intense interest was shown when, during question time, I spoke of the genesis of the movement in America, and Margaret Sanger's work as a nurse on the East Side, and as a law-breaking pioneer of freedom. I wish Comstock could have heard those working-class wives and mothers.

I have been struck, too, by the comparative freedom of these women's minds from effete formulae in the region of personal conduct. They have an ethical standard and a high one, and they consistently live up to in a remarkable way: their courage, their kindliness, their forbearance put one to shame. But for good or ill, the traditions and superstitions of Christianity mean very little to them; they have been up against realities and thing as they are, too long and too close to accept that opiate any more. There is an entire indifference, a deep contempt. They have put away childish things.

And if any readers of these remarks feel that I see the working-class wife and mother through rose-coloured glasses, that I idealise and unduly exalt her, the reply is that these women struggle, often subconsciously, all their lives against the double burden of economic conditions and a bondage to reproduction which only too often is not glorified by any of the sweetness and rapture of sex love except for a few fugitive glimmers at courting-time. Poverty, ignorance, lack of time and space to live fully or finely, take their toll. Well may Walter Lippman (in his illuminating "Preface to Politics"(1)) complain that there is no testimony by psychologists and industrial experts to show how monotony and fatigue affect the expression of the sex impulse. But we can see the results in the broken lives of women and children handicapped before birth.

The phrase "Working Women who think" brings before me the picture of a woman of the working-class, who was one of the dearest friends I have ever known. She was a worker for all her days, from her middle teens, as a wife, as a mother, as a grandmother, and not only a worker as child bearer and home-maker, but as an earner. Her story has some relevance to birth control as well - in fact, there is no great human issue that she did not help to lighten up and define for me. She was the mother of thirteen children; two of these died in early youth and two were born dead - one prematurely. She had also two miscarriages. Of the nine survivors, she made a useful self-respecting group of men and women, with a good share of happiness and quick intelligence, though none were very robust. Between forty and fifty, she was infected with syphilis by her second husband, whom she mainly supported. She lost the sight of one eye and suffered terribly from ulcers, for, of course, prompt and adequate treatment was out of the question in her case. Yet she remained till the day of her death a tower of mental and psychic strength and a source of help and happiness to many distressed and unhappy people. She had gifts which, had they received anything to the cultivation lavished on any blockhead born into the classes which arrogate to themselves the name "fit", would have made her famous. She had a nature of the most exquisite tenderness, the most undaunted courage. And she remains for me the shining example of the woman worker who loves and helps and things, and whose sisters this League is out to help.

1. 0Published in England by T. Fisher Unwin, 1913


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