Dora Montefiore was born in 1851 into a family which had become rich on the back of railway investments. She was educated at home and then in a private school in Brighton. She travelled to Australia in 1874 and later returned there in order to marry George Barrow, a wealthy businessman. After the death of George in 1889 she found out that, as a woman, her legal rights regarding the guardianship of her children were severely constrained. This led to her first involvement in women’s rights and she helped launch the Womanhood Suffrage League of New South Wales in 1891. After living some years in France she came to live in London and became an executive member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) before joining the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU). Throughout her political life she was an effective speaker, debater and writer of journal articles and pamphlets.
An important influence on Dora was the spell she had with Julia Dawson and the Clarion Van in the West Midlands; she spoke of “a very fine feeling of intellectual and spiritual comradeship”. As a result of the Boer War she publicly refused to pay income tax on the grounds that, without a vote, women had no ability to affect spending on arms. In 1906 she broadened her stance into refusing to pay taxes until women got the vote and she became involved in the “Hammersmith siege” when she barricaded her house and put up a banner reading “Women should vote for the laws they obey and the taxes they pay”. The press took a great interest in the siege and referred to her house as “The Fort” or “Fort Suffragette” whilst she was besieged by bailiffs. She received assistance from Annie Kenney and Teresa Billington and increasingly saw suffrage as a class issue. She became an increasingly popular lecturer for the WSPU but became concerned about physical violence and disillusioned with the undemocratic actions of Mrs Pankhurst and her strong anti-socialism. In 1906 she was also arrested for an ‘attack’ on the House of Commons, was charged with “using violent and abusive language” and spent some time in Holloway prison. She had excellent command of foreign languages and was responsible for the first English translation of the work of Maxim Gorky.
In 1907 she left the WSPU, joined the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) and spent some years living an itinerant though comfortable life. She lectured in Holland, attended the Socialist International Congress and lectured all over Europe before undertaking an extensive lecture tour of the United States in 1910. In 1911 she returned to Australia and edited the International Socialist Review of Australasia where she took a strong stand against the introduction of conscription. In 1912 she went to South Africa, as a result of which she wrote a number of articles on the capitalist development of South Africa. She returned to England just in time to be the British Socialist Party (BSP) delegate to the Basel Peace Congress in November 1912. She left the BSP on the grounds that it was becomingly increasingly militarist and anti-German, but did rejoin after the First World War.
In 1913 she became a leading figure in offering support to the strikers and their families involved in the Dublin Lockout. She was working with the Daily Herald League in the setting up of a “Dublin Kiddies Fund” to offer temporary foster homes. She was opposed by the Catholic Church in Ireland and was accused, with others, of ‘kidnapping’ or ‘brainwashing’ Irish children, despite considerable reassurances about respecting their religion.
In 1914 she returned to South Africa to recuperate and during the First World War she undertook voluntary war work in France.
From May 1919 onwards she was involved in discussions regarding the formation of a single united Communist Party. As a member of the BSP the principal question was what the attitude of the new party would be to the Labour Party and to parliamentary representation. Despite profound disagreements between the BSP and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) over ‘’revolutionary purity”, the Communist Party was established in August 1920 and Dora was elected to the Provisional Executive Committee.
This event happened shortly after the death of Dora’s son from the delayed effects of poison gas. She later returned to Australia to help her son’s family but first had to overcome a ban from that country. She had to agree in writing not to carry on with “communist propaganda” but subsequently joined the Australian Communist Party and represented that body at the Moscow International Congress in 1924. She worked with Adela Pankhurst and became involved with the Party but her political life was made more difficult as a result of poor health and she had to return from Moscow as she was seriously ill.
She wrote about her life in 1927 in From a Victorian to a Modern and was aware that some people in the movement viewed her with suspicion as she remained a wealthy woman and was sometimes absent for lengthy periods on cruises or recovering from exertion. Nevertheless, her commitment was genuine and she wrote in her autobiography that “as the shadows close in on my life, it seems to me that dawn is breaking for the workers of the world”.
The Working Class Movement Library has a collection of the works of Dora Montefiore to come in and read. Her autobiography ‘From a Victorian to a Modern’ is to be found at Shelfmark B10 and her pamphlet on anti-militarism in Conscription – Box 1. She wrote extensively for the ‘Social Democrat’ journal and the Library has articles on Capitalist Development in South Africa, Bourgeois Education and on Female Suffrage [R11]. There is also material on prison reform [SDF – Box 1] and Maxim Gorky [R11].
The Library has a wealth of material on female suffrage, the Communist Party, the Dublin Lockout and the broad range of Dora’s political life.