During the 20th century the position of women within British society changed dramatically. Women's rights, legislation and political freedom have changed their roles and status within society. But has it improved? In this essay I will consider what the position of women was prior to being given the vote in 1918, and circumstances leading up to the change in law. I will also discuss what has happened affecting women since that time and what I consider to be the current role and status of women. Before 1918 women were viewed as second-class citizens and inferior to men.
This was due to the Victorian ideas of women's status, which said a woman's duty was to be a good wife and mother. Women had barely any rights at this time; they couldn't vote, didn't have free health care, education or any employment rights. Girls were expected to live at home and dependent on their fathers until they were married. After marriage they would just be seen as a possession of their husband. Any property or money, which the woman owned before her marriage, became the property of her husband on marriage. Even children were considered as belonging to the father, not both the parents.
Although some reforms had started during Victorian times to redress the many inequalities between men and women, most of them only had a minor impact on the wealthiest classes of society. The Custody of Infants Act as far back as 1839 had allowed 'women of unblemished character' some access rights in the event of divorce. Prior to this they had no rights at all. Further acts followed allowing women limited rights to their own property in the event of divorce (Matrimonial Causes Act 1857), and the right to retain i??
200 of their own earnings (Married Women's Property Act 1870). In this same year elementary education was put in place for girls as well as boys. But with many children working in factories it is debatable how many actually benefited from this Education Act. But there was still a vast gulf between the rights of men and women. The Married Women's Property Act of 1884 at last defined women as no longer being a 'chattel' but an independent person in their own right.
But little of this had any impact on ordinary women, only those well enough educated and with the financial means would be able to use this legislation through the Courts. The idea of democratic rights for women began to slowly emerge in 1894 when women were allowed to vote for parochial church councils, under the Local Government Act. This was followed by the Qualification of Women (County and Borough Councils) Act in 1907 when women were allowed to become councillors. But all of this would appear fairly insignificant with what was about to take place.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 dramatically changed the social status of women. While more and more men went away to fight an die for their country on the front lines, the women kept the country running and took over jobs that were normally considered "men's work". The war could not have been won without women working in jobs and conditions never experienced by women before. Suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Davidson had protested for many years that laws could not be fair for both men and women unless they could both take part in the democratic process.
This they believed was that right to vote and have their opinions expressed in the House of Commons. Most of their campaigns to change the laws on women's franchise were peaceful initially, but when the media started losing interest, suffragettes started using violent or more shocking methods to gain attention. Whilst this may have raised the awareness about their cause, it also lead some people to think that women were irresponsible and therefore not worthy of having the right to vote. But wartime was the ideal opportunity to show what women could do and prove their point.
Because of pressure from women's groups and their obvious abilities to work and keep the country going, the government agreed to give women the right to vote under the Representation of the People Act 1918. This also allowed women to become Members of Parliament. However at this time, this privilege was only for women over thirty who were married to a householder or were the householder. As soon as the war was over, society once again believed that women needed men's guidance and were expected to return to their homes and be dependant on men once again.
This didn't happen with all women because there was a distinct lack of servicemen returning from the war and many that did were maimed or mentally scarred. This left many women with no choice but to remain unmarried and work. Therefore the structure of society changed to include these women who were able to support themselves without male guidance. Nancy Astor became the first woman Member of Parliament to actually take her seat in 1919. During the period between world wars, women continued to campaign for more change in their status.
By 1925 legislation concluded, "a father could no longer be considered as a sole guardian of his children. " Laws were again changed in 1928 to make men and women's voting rights equal, this allowed women over twenty-one to vote. As with the First World War, the Second World War saw large changes in societies expectations of women. Social dependency on men disappeared and women were again needed to leave their homes and work on farms and in factories to help with the war effort. By this time women were able to spend more time with men unaccompanied, which lead to a rise in sexual behaviours before marriage.
Although society still frowned on this it was a little more expected than it had been in the past. There was a change in women's attitude towards marriage as now women entered into it for personal happiness and not because it was a necessary course of action. In the 1930's family planning clinics were introduced and free contraception was available. Nevertheless these benefits were only given to married women who were seriously ill. Further steps continued to be made with The Education Act of 1944 allowing female teachers to stay at work after they married.
Unfortunately this came 8 years too late for my Great Grandmother Henrietta Shields who had been forced to give up being a headmistress when she married in 1936. In 1948 the National Health Service was introduced which allowed men and women to receive free medical care. This was another change in status for women, as before they were not entitled to the same health rights as men. Further advances saw equal pay introduced in some professions such as teaching and the civil service, no doubt because a woman had become a departmental head in the civil service for the first time. 1958 saw the first women peers admitted to the House of Lords.
However the title still remained the same and did not change to the House of Lords and Ladies! The sixties were a massive turning point for women and completely changed their social status, as for the first time they got to choose what they wanted to do with their life. They could choose their career or go on to higher education and they could live alone without any stigma being attached to them. This era also saw the introduction of the contraceptive pill, abortions for social reasons and the divorce reforms act which all allowed women more freedom in their lives and more equal rights.
Women's status in the twentieth century was drastically changed by their economic independence. Before women were given the right to vote the only career options open to a middle class girl were as a governess, nurse or teacher. Whereas a working class girl had less promising prospects as either working in a textiles factory or with the domestic service. There were no employment laws or trade unions to protect women so working conditions were bad, hours were long and the pay was very little.