BOLT SEVENTEEN

by Elizabeth Robins

Published in:

FORTNIGHTLY

edited by W. L. Courtney

Vol. CVII, Jan-June 1920, pages 71-76

London: Chapman and Hall Ltd.
NY: Leonard Scott Publishing Co.


Hypertext formatting by Joanne E. Gates
Numbered notes are in original as asteriks and printed at bottom of page.

page 71

      During the final stages of the war a little group of women met to discuss a wider utilisation of those new sources of energy revealed, or emphasised, by the Government "Call to Women."

      The members of the aforesaid group (most of whom were active in national service) had found fresh cause to deplore the non-existence of some common and regular meeting-ground for women awakened to a sense of public responsibility.

      In contrast to an earlier scheme (a House of Ladies, proposed by opponents to women's full share in political life) the new scheme was to realise the principal of a Commons. It was to afford a hearing for all the shades of opinion represented in the present House of Commons, and for some which are opinions not represented there.

      Naturally enough, among those who responded to the first general call to discuss the idea were some who misunderstood its purpose. They thought that the conveners of the suggested Council Parliament, or whatever it might come to be termed, accepted, for all time, the principal of separation of the sexes in political organisation. The conveners were duly warned that some of the women present did not believe in these divisions between men and women. The conveners answered that precisely because they themselves did not believe in those divisions, they hoped to see built an emergency bridge between men and women actively concerned in public affairs--between groups and persons who as yet have no easy, regular means on communication and interaction.

      Many looked forward with confidence to the woman Member of Parliament. Yet few women who have served on boards of guardians, or have been one of two or three on a committee composed almost entirely of men, are under any illusion as to the difficulty which the little advance guard of women Members of Parliament will find in securing for their views adequate time and attention in a body overwhelmingly masculine.

      In any case, the immediate future is the first concern. As yet no woman's voice is heard in Westminister. [1] Until it is, let it be heard somewhere, was the proposal before the meeting.

      The answer expected came duly: "Woman's voice is heard!--in a hundred different quarters."


page 72

      That is true; and it is the root of the trouble. It is the reason why the woman's voice is so often lifted in vain.

      The main intrest of that particular meeting turned out to be quite other than anything forseen.

      Two strongly supported views emerged in debate:--

1. There was not the slightest need, nor-- confronting, as we must, labours and costs imposed by Reconstruction--was there the slightest excure for such a Council.

2. The need for it was so great and indubitable that, in effect, such a Council already existed.

      Thereupon, a spectacle to rejoice the irresponsible. A lady rising to prove that her society (in truth, a great and vigorous one!) fulfilled all the requirements of comprehensive representation, consultation, and pressure-bringing upon Parliament. That speaker smartly succeeded by another, who protested that, on the contrary, a quite different body--one to which she belonged (and admittedly notable membership) performed all the desired functions, and that no other assemblage for the ends named in any valid reason for existence.

      I do not say that one of these societies might not have been broadened and re-shaped so that it would serve the larger aim, could be presiding genius have been willing to accept leadership of one of the parties rather than headship of the whole--which position was totally incompatiable with the idea under discussion.

      We had, both then and thereafter, renewed proof (1) of the delusion that women are sufficiently organised already; (2) of a fear on the part of present leaders of organised groups lest some other body should interfere with, or share, their work and their influence.

      The net result was further to emphasise the very weakness the meeting was called to consider: women's mental imprisonment in strictly circumscribed work. The effect of that long imprisonment is a shrinking from either giving or accepting a wider responsibility--a shrinking, in short, from acceptance of the democratic principal.

      The least of the ills resulting from this unchecked tendency is a very orgy of overlapping--multiplication of aims, of offices, of officers, of salaries. Among the greater ills are: loss of time, misuse of talent and dissipation of energy.

      Pages could be filled of instances of costly effort made by one society or another, acting on the soundest impulse toward the public good--baulked and defeated in the end because use had not been made of forces outside the society limits.

      A central council, in effective relation with organised women throughout the country (--throughout the Empire!--), might be, in respect of the basic and abiding interests of mankind, more


page 73

throughly "representative" than any body in existance. Such a Council might also be the quickest means of showing women that specialised work on the one hand, and correlation of the results of that work on the other, are two aspects of the same philosophy of service.

      Without the specialised work and the specialised knowledge born of it, we are like people asked to build an engine with no equiptment beyond plans and specifications. Equally, without guidance of the vision which forsees the finished whole, the skill of the individual workman will be in vain. He can make his wheel, his screw, but he can neither make the engine not run it. He is not so unlike, as he may think, to that workman lent by special favour to one of the munition factories in America. The man came with a record of nine years' service in the greater motor works in the world. "What did you do there?" his new employer asked hopefully. "I put in bolt seventeen." "Not for nine years!" "Yes, for nine years."

      A great number of women are engaged in putting in bolt seventeen. We must, of course, have that bolt put in. But we need not, as we do, devote it to our best brains.

      If women would not to the end of time work blindly, leaning on others for knowledge of the engine, how to repair it, how to drive it, they will be obliged to study the relation of the parts to the whole. Hardly a woman in these days but belongs to leagues, societies, boards, associations. Nobody denies that on every side magnificent isolated efforts are made by this group and by that to serve the nation. We know of the striking inital success that devotion and hard work have achieved. Again and again we have said; That battle is won! For instance, women at great cost have procured some piece of legislation, such as the passing of the Mental Deficiency Bill. And when it is passed, as it was some years ago--what then? That is the end of it, until, at some less pressing season than any latley seen, women take up the matter again, and again pour out time, talent, devotion--in greater profusion than wisdom.

      Women are deeply concerned with both the theory and the practice of education. They have some resprsentation (outside Parliament) on various bodies concerned to lay well and truly this corner- stone of the civilisation that it is to be. As practical people, women know the importance (far transcending and question of their personal need) in enlisting first-rate talents for this service and in securing equal pay for equal work. Women teachers have done all they can to secure this measure. They thought that by putting in bolt seventeen they would be able to drive the engine. Again and again they have failed.


page 74

      In questions of housing, of national health, of conditions in the dangerous trades, women are active in putting in bolt seventeen.

      Much preached as it has been, women have hardly begun to realise the power of co-operation, nor the waste of time, energy, money, life itself, in unrelated effort.

      The ever clearer apprehension of these truths by a certain class of men may cause public affairs to move with the irrestiable, Revolutionary quickness along the line of governance by and through industrial power.

      If that does not come about a "Mother House" might be a steadying factor in a gravely threatened system.

      The representative character of the women assembled; their closeness to the interests of order; the certainty that their majority would favour the discipline of sober Evolution rather than the intoxication of Revolution--might save a repitition of the lesson that violent and cruel measures can defeat the noblest ends.

      To consider for a moment what such a parliamentary union might immediately achieve: women in combination could among other things do away with the most glaring absurdity in the Representation of the People Bill, the provision by which a vote was allowed to every schoolboy-soldier and was denied to every one of that army of the other sex--munition workers, V. A. D.'s, and the vast majority of those whose war service provided the reason expressly given why, in the opinion of legislators, votes could no longer be denied to women.

      Our appreciation of the character and service of that army is not less than the alleged appreciation on the part of men. We see in the young woman of to-day a helper and a herald--the most inspiring figure of the time. She will "count" beyond our dreams.

      The Mother House could offer to that army of Hope opportunities which, for the time being, are found nowhere else--amongst others, an invaluable training-ground for future Members of Parliament. But one sees in the project primarily: A Clearing House of Ideas.

      It could act as the great Time-saver. Projects which smaller, less widley-informed bodies boggle over, through sitting after sitting, could be in the Mother House to be exclaimed by the disintrested, attacked, defended, and finally threshed out in the full light of day. With expert help, never before obtainable, material could be produced for the formation of an enlightened public opinion.

      As a result of this winnowing, women would have their con-


page 75

sidered findings ready to present in time to supplement or to correct the--perhaps necessarily--hasty conclusions arrived at on some occasions "in another place." Women experts could, for instance, assemble and illustrate information upon certain results (as bad as for men as well as women) of displacement in industry. They could give a wider currency and an incalculably greater force to practical views on sanitation and public health. They could take at last their just share of responsibilty in the burning question of international relations.

      We have had before our eyes for five years a daily object-lesson, showing that those issues believed by some in the past to lie outside woman's sphere, have in truth their very core and centre of her being. But let no woman think that out of supineness on other public questions she can rise suddenly into an activity that shall count in these tremendous decisions. Not even six million sound opinions will count if the holders of those opinions are unversed in the method by which opinion is translated into power.

      Hard as women the world over will have had to work for votes, they will have to work harder still to accustom Parliament and the general public to realise that the views of professionally-trained, or life-trained, women must be reckoned with in shaping a satisfactory public policy.

      It may be that the first step toward ensuring that their views shall be reckoned with, may be that acquirement among women of a habit and a facility in formulating conviction more openly than has yet been attempted and learning to support convictions (or submit to their correction) in the cross-fire of debate. Practice in this duty is one of the best clarifiers of vague good intention; one of the best ways to releasing latent intellectual energy and so preventing women from being mere echoes and thus impovershing counsel. If women know they will have to put themselves on record, they will be stirred to see that the record shall not shame them--nor their children.

      If the women of Germany had cultivated that habit, what might they not have saved the world! Had the women of Russia been better prepared to use their power, what might not Democracy have gained!

      I made it my business in the first year or so of the Revolution to ask more than one person newly arrived from Russia about the women. Were they really enfranchised? Oh, yes. They were even elected to the Soviets. They had been seen at the meetings. But never once--and this is of peculiar intrest to us--never had any of my interlocutors heard a woman raise her voice in public. They could not all be supposed to be timid.


page 76

The likelihood was that they were wary. They knew themselves hampered by their inexperience of public life. A Russian woman was even amongst the handful of delegates to the fateful Conference of Brest-Litovsk. What contribution did she make? What did she so much as think of that duel between the practised diplomat, von Kühlmann, and the headlong apostle of philosophic anarchy--Commissioner for the People Trotsky? What did the woman think of the world-shaking result of that encounter? The world has never heard. She and the women of the Soviets are unversed in that which every pot-house politician knows: how to express conviction in public. There were among the women of Soviet members, we are told, those who could think straight and speak to the point--in private. In Council they sat and watched and listened. We are told on the authority of a close observer that the women of Hungary made the same mistake and paid the bitter price.
[2]

      British women will do more that "sit and watch and listen." But will they do more than carry on their unrelated group activities? If it were possible for any women to do more at this stage of history it should be the British. They have the oldest political tradition, the longest political training. That tradition and that training, reinforced by the valiant practice of the past dozen years, would seem to point to British women as natural leaders in that contribution which is the privilege of these islands to give the world.

      With my own view of the main difficulty I shall not expect many at first blush to agree; i.e., that woman's striking success in the lesser tasks is a handicap in her assumption of the larger. She is too absorbed in, too hypnotised by, bolt seventeen to see it and kindred important details in their true proportion, as means to an end.

      The end should be Power--that spiritual, or, as I prefer to call it, that moral Power which is the sole antidote to the perversion of physical power which has desolated the world. The problem, then, is the directing of the Woman-Power. They do not need to prove afresh (and yet they will!) the devotion, the incorrigible patience, the will to work resident in their sex. What they have yet to prove is a fitness for leadership combined with a fitness for co-operation.

Elizabeth Robins


NOTES
[1] While this is in the press the first voice is rasied: Lady Astor's, making a stronger point by apt interjection (as the Press admits) than many another M.P. by a set speech. Back to text

[2] "I was particulary impressed," says Alice Riggs Hunt, "with the similarity of a problem presented in both countries" (Italy and Hungary). "It is an over-conscientious effacement in favour of men, who they think might be able to do the work better," said one of the Hungarians. In Italy, one of the most prominent women leaders told me that the problem of the lack of self-confidence in really capable women was most difficult to solve. "Our only hope for good leadership among women in the future is in the training and help which we can give to the young girls now," said this experienced leader. Back to text


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