Maud Pember Reeves

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Maud Pember Reeves, date unknown

Maud Pember Reeves (24 December 1865 – 13 September 1953) (born Magdalene Stuart Robison) was a suffragist, socialist, feminist, writer and member of the Fabian Society. She spent most of her life in New Zealand and Britain.

Early life[edit]

She was born in Mudgee, New South Wales, Australia, to bank manager William Smoult Robison and his wife Mary, a literary and well-travelled relative of the Carr-Saunders family of Surrey. The family moved to Christchurch, New Zealand, an Anglican settlement founded on the colonizing principles of Edward Gibbon Wakefield in 1868. Maud, as she was always known, was one of the first pupils at the new Christchurch High School of girls.[1]

Marriage and Family[edit]

Described as tall and striking, with a handsome face, full red lips, dark eyes, and brown hair, Maud met her husband, Maud met William Pember Reeves at a coming-out ball when she was nineteen. Pember Reeves was a journalist, politician, and son of a newspaper proprietor, who "grew up an Englishman." His vision for New Zealand was "no slums and no poverty". They married at Christchurch on 10 February 1885.

The Reeves's first child, William, lived only a few hours. Their daughter Amber Reeves was born in 1887 and their second daughter, Beryl, in 1889. In December 1895 their son Fabian was born.[1] Fabian (1895–1917) was killed in the First World War, aged 21 and a Flight Lieutenant in the RNAS.

Maud's own household was unorthodox. In 1900 Maud's favourite sister, Effie Lascelles, recently widowed, moved in with her two daughters. Amber remembered a house filled with children, relatives, servants, nursemaids, "frightful rows" in the nursery, and her mother too busy to pay much attention to children. The Reeves marriage after the birth of Fabian was not intimate. William did not approve of birth control. The tensions in their marriage, H. G. Wells—who until his affair with Amber was a close friend—wrote, were about money and birth control. When Amber, then a student at Cambridge, became pregnant by H. G. Wells—a public and political scandal—Maud offended her daughter by suggesting an abortion.

Education, Employment and Suffrage[edit]

In the early years of their marriage Maud acted, assisted her mother-in-law in charitable works, and for three years was the lady editor of the weekly Canterbury Times, edited by her husband and owned by his father.

In 1889, Maud took the first part of a BA in French, mathematics, and English at Canterbury College (founded in 1873). In 1890 the family moved to Wellington, where William Reeves had been a radical member of the house of representatives since 1887. Maud's studies were abandoned for her duties as the wife of a minister and suffragism.

Maud was converted to women's suffrage by Julius Vogel, a former prime minister and friend of her husband. She had been president and founder of the women's section of the Christchurch Liberal Association. Education, she believed, would both convince women of the need to vote and civilize national debate. Although never a temperance advocate, Maud worked closely with Kate Sheppard, the Women's Christian Temperance Union's suffrage superintendent, and Ellen Ballance, the prime minister's wife, and she used her considerable charm to influence her husband's colleagues. In September 1893 New Zealand was the first country in the world to grant women the vote, and Maud chaired the first public meeting of enfranchised women in Christchurch on 11 October.[1]

Fabian Women's Group[edit]

In 1896 the family moved to London after William's appointment as Agent-General, the representative of New Zealand government within the British Empire.[2] There, the couple became friends with a number of left-wing intellectuals, such as George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

Maud joined the Fabian Society in 1904, a precursor to the Labour Party, which promoted social reform, the Women's Liberal Association, and the executive of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies in 1906. At Maud's instigation the Fabian Society's statement of its basic aims included a clause on equal citizenship in 1907, when she was elected, with Ethel Bentham and Marian Phillips, to the society's executive committee.[1]

Maud founded the Fabian Women’s Group with Charlotte Wilson in 1908. Held in Maud's Brunswick Gardens drawing-room early in 1908, after a winter of suffrage agitation. “the FWG intended both to give women more prominence in the Fabian Society and “to study women’s economic independence in relation to socialism."[3] Member of the FGW included Beatrice Webb, Alice Clark, Edith Nesbit, Susan Lawrence, Margaret Bondfield, and Marion Phillips.

Round About a Pound a Week (1913)[edit]

Initiated by Maud in 1909, the FWG’s Motherhood Special Fund Committee began a study of the domestic lives of families with new babies living on a subsistence wage of about a pound a week. The FWG had raised money and was able to give each mother extra cash for her children’s food for their first year of life. The Fabians expected that the extra money would improve infant health and survival statistics for the sample group, which it definitely did—demonstrating that high child death rates in slum areas were caused by poverty and not maternal ignorance or negligence.[3]

The Lambeth mothers' project was prompted by the recognition that more infants died in the London slums than in Kensington or Hampstead. It asked 'How does a working man's wife bring up a family on 20s a week?'. Forty-two families were selected from a lying-in hospital in Lambeth, London, to have weekly visits, medical examinations from Dr Ethel Benthamevery two weeks, and 5s. to be paid to the mother for extra nourishment for three months before the birth of the baby and for one year afterwards. The mothers wrote down their weekly expenditure. Eight families withdrew because the husbands objected to this weekly scrutiny. Eight other mothers who could not read or write dictated their sums to their husbands or children. The verbatim accounts of the 'maternal manner of recollecting'—'Mr. G's wages was 19 bob out of that e took thruppons for es diner witch is not mutch e bein sutch a arty man'—is one of the features of the book which is in part an ironic comment on class relations: Lambeth women, familiar with the habits of educated visitors, politely anticipated sitting in draughts, listening to the gospel of porridge, and being advised against marriage.[1]

The conclusions from the project were first published in 1912 as a Fabian Tract and later became Maud's Round about a Pound a Week (1913). Poverty, the book argued, and neither maternal ignorance nor degeneration, caused ill health and high mortality. Had the children of Lambeth been 'well housed, well fed, well clothed and well tended from birth' who knows what they would have become. Fabian women were would-be law makers. The state must cast off its 'masculine' guise and 'co-parent'. The individual not the family should be the economic unit, and the state should pay family endowment, train midwives, make burial 'a free and honourable public service', introduce a legal minimum wage, and build clean, light, roomy buildings at economic rents for the working classes. If socialism should address the needs of working mothers then women themselves must want more: 'If people living on £1 a week had lively imaginations, their lives, and perhaps the face of England, would be different.'[1]

Round about a Pound a Week is available via archive.org and was reprinted in 2008 by Persephone Books. Persephone's online description of the text states:

The reason the book remains unique is its mixture of factual rigour, wit and polemic. As Polly Toynbee points out in her new Persephone Preface, one of the most shocking facts to emerge is that ‘the Fabian women deliberately avoided the poorest families… because they wanted to show how the general standard of living among ordinary manual workers was below a level which could support good health or nutrition.’ Yet the book is consistently on the side of the mothers; without being in any sense do-gooding it explains ‘to a middle-class world of power and condescension’ that they could not do better than they were doing on the tiny house-keeping allowance that their husbands were able to give them. And it is about far more than how the women of Lambeth ‘managed’. It is full of the kind of human detail that is usually only found in a novel. Polly Toynbee ends her preface by asking what Maud Pember Reeves would think nowadays. She concludes that she would be proud of the NHS and the welfare state but that she would be perplexed that the inequalities between rich and poor are still so enormous.[4]

Later Life and Death[edit]

In March 1917 Maud was appointed director of women's services in the Ministry of Food. Following the death of Fabian in June 1917 from wounds sustained during service in the First World War, Maud turned privately to spiritualism, and later to Higher Thought.

From the early 1920s her participation in public life declined. She travelled to New Zealand with William in 1925, but while she had conversed with the London poor she had never met a Maori.

She was a conscientious grandmother, and she nursed both William and her sister through their final illnesses. Amber described her mother as "serious-minded" and "obviously chaste to the last degree". Her focus on the needs of others was as austere as her prose, but the unflinching eye for detail and clamour of voices in Round about a Pound a Week dramatized both the "almost intolerable conditions" of women's daily lives and Fabian feminism's response.

After twenty-one years as a widow, having lived with her sister Effie in Cambridge, Maud died in a nursing home at 27 Powis Gardens, Golders Green, Middlesex, on 13 September 1953.[1]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g Alexander, Sally. "Reeves [née Robison], Magdalen Stuart [known as Maud Pember Reeves] (1865–1953), suffragist and socialist." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 2004-09-23. Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ Fry, Ruth. "Magdalene Stuart Reeves". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 23 April 2017.
  3. ^ a b Ross, Ellen. “Maud Pember Reeves.” Slum Travelers: Ladies and London Poverty, 1860-1920, University of California Press, 2007, pp. 208–225.
  4. ^ "Round About a Pound a Week". Retrieved 9 March 2018.