Women: a brief consideration of the social and political conditions in the early twentieth century Britain

Historically there has always been an element of separation between men and women.  Initially, biological differences made women intellectually and bodily inferior[1] but with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-nineteenth century social constructions of ‘gender’ came to the fore.  While there is some debate among historians with regards to what extent the Industrial Revolution led to the polarisation between work and home and the emergence of the public and private spheres[2], ultimately, the majority of women were deliberately and systematically denied legal, political and social rights because of their sex.  In the eyes of the law, women were considered the property of their husbands and had extremely limited rights.[3]  Most women were not entitled to an education, could not enter ‘professions’ and had to leave employment upon marriage.  This oppression, for some, led to feminist causes and campaigns.

Feminist ideology and feminism as a social movement were both well established by 1900.  As an ideology, feminism took and indeed takes many different forms relevant to individual interests.[4]  It is important to remember, for example, that not all women experienced subordination, nor did they support the feminist campaigns; and indeed, feminist causes differ very much depending on social class.[5]  Working class women, for example, had to maintain the home, bring up the children and go to work to supplement an insufficient income, while middle-class women who prospered from industry growth, had more leisure time.

Not all men believed women were inferior.  In 1825 William Thompson published his appeal urging the primacy of a collective identity in which women were given the vote and given access to all public spheres.[6]  In the same year, James Mill argued against women enfranchisement on the grounds that they were inescapably dependent on men.  A few decades later Mill’s son, taking the opposite stance to his father, argued for equality of the sexes.[7]  By the early twentieth century some attitudes had begun to change, particularly Labour politicians and some women were beginning to gain recognition and access to education, society and politics.[8]

Considerable progress had been made in the education sector by the start of the twentieth century.  From 1870 primary education became compulsory for girls and boys up to 14 and academically minded girls could progress to grammar schools, established in 1902.[9]  While the majority of women still faced a life of domesticity some, notably the middle-classes, were attending part-time courses in a variety of subjects and becoming pupil-teachers at colleges; Helena Normanton is just one example.[10]

Rosemary Auchmuty in her comprehensive study of the first woman law students at Oxford and Cambridge argues that there were two rationales for higher education for women,

The first to make them better wives and mothers and to overcome the standard criticism that higher education made women unmarriageable.  Second, was as a solution to the problem of women who did not marry and whose family circumstances were such that they needed to earn a living.[11]

Many middle-class women had no chance of marrying, partly due to the loss of life during the war and because a number of eligible men immigrated to colonies; these women, therefore, had to be financially independent.  Depending on the circumstances, families may have been able to support their daughters but at a time of economic uncertainty, especially after the First World War, this could not always be guaranteed.  In addition, middle and upper-class households could afford to employ servants and women had more time to pursue education and employment.

Although the adult man was still seen as the breadwinner and it was not considered respectable for married women to work, large sections of women worked either because they had to or because of increased employment opportunities.  From the 1870s the ‘white blouse’ revolution created from a number opportunities for women in retail; civil service and local government; state and private education.[12]  During 1914-1918 there was around a 136 per cent rise in women’s employment in professional occupations.[13]  Many women went into teaching, some became clerks[14] and others, with the enactment of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, went into ‘professions’ such as law.

From 1919 the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was, at least in theory, part of the expansion of increased employment opportunities for women.  However, the removal of legislative discrimination did not amount to substantive equality because structurally, women were at a disadvantage vis-à-vis men.[15]  Some women recognised this and continued their feminist campaigns, such as Helena Normanton but by 1919 ‘first wave’ feminism as a mass movement was dead.[16]

Attitudes towards women changed, in part as a result of the First World War.  Women had proven themselves ‘fit’ for work and able to take on male roles.  The shift of attitudes, as a result of the war, should not be over stated, however, as Mary Jane Mossman highlights,

These changing ideas about ‘women’s sphere’ undoubtedly influenced the creation of new opportunities for middle-class women in relation to higher education and paid work but demographic and economic changes were at least as significant in promoting reforms.[17]

As mentioned above, economic changes played an important factor in the role of women in society.  Parents had to support and afford the education of their daughters.  With this in mind, it is not surprising that most of the early women law students came from a professional or business background that combined the necessary means to pay to educate their girls.[18]   Working class girls, no matter how bright, were unlikely to be able to enter the middle-class world of higher education and professional occupations because the family could neither spare them nor afford the education or professional fees.[19]  Some did successfully make the transition but they were the minority.

In light of the above, it is important to remember that women did not only experience oppression, subordination and a life of domesticity in the early twentieth century.  David Cannadine argues that the conventional narratives on gender, one emphasising difference and inferiority and the other of sameness and equality, are both deeply confused and contradictory.[20]  For one it is difficult to distinguish between “sex difference” and “gender difference”.  It cannot be claimed that male and female identities established by biology and culture are more important than any other collective identity such as class, race or ethnicity.  Furthermore, there are so many different types of femininity “there is nothing about being a ‘female’ that naturally binds women”.[21]

Through my research I have found that women in the law then, as now, have individual causes, some related to gender, some regarding class and race and others have taken ‘differences’, such as gender, out of the equation.  It is very difficult to present a complete picture of the social and political conditions in the early twentieth century without stereotyping and thus ignoring the nuances of individual experiences.  Nevertheless, I have, albeit briefly, attempted to present these nuances all the same.  As a public historian who believes that history can engage and empower, it is important to have at least some understanding of past conditions to give perspective to society today.  With this knowledge we can begin to ask and answer the age old question, how far have women inside and outside the law really come?

[1] David Cannadine, The Undivided Past: History Beyond our Differences (London: Allen Lane, Penguin Group, 2013) draws attention to the attitude that women were considered biologically inferior, citing examples such as Aristotle who believed women inferior to men in body and brain and Rousseau who claimed it was in accordance with natural law that women were weaker than men and less clever, p.137-138.

[2] See Cannadine, 2013 debates on gender.

[3] Julia Brophy and Carol Smart, ‘Chapter 1 Locating law: a discussion of the place of law in feminist politics’, Women-In-Law (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul plc, 1985) note the Custody of Infants Act 1839 and Married Woman’s Property Act 1882 as some of the Acts that fist gave women legal rights, although it should be noted that some women actively engaged with the gradually industrialising economy as property owners and as producers, and they were also involved in many public causes, for example campaigns against the slave trade, see Cannadine, 2013.

[4] Sue Bruley, Women in Britain Since 1900 (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1999); Margaret Walters, Feminism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p.43-45.

[5] Cannadine, 2013.

[6] William Thompson, Appeal of One-Half of the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain Them in Political, and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1825; reprinted, London, 1983).

[7] Iohn Stuart Mill in his essay The Subjection of Women, 1869 argued for the equality of the sexes and deploring the fact that half of the population was held in a state of subjugation by a mixture of bribery, intimidation, and legal sanctions.

[8] Many MPs, especially Labour were supportive of women’s rights see Mari Takayanagi, Parliament and Women, c.1900-1945 (Electronic theses, King’s Research Portal: https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/, 2012.

[9] Bruley, 1999 notes that truancy especially among working-class girls was a major problem and academic opportunities were not an option for all girls no matter how academically bright if the family could not afford it.

[10] Bruley, 1999; Carol Dyhouse, No Distinction of Sex?  Women in British Universities, 1870-1939 (London: University College London, 1995) by 1900 15 per cent of women constituted the student population.

[11] Rosemary Auchmuty, “Early Women Law Students at Cambridge and Oxford”, The Journal of Legal History, 2008, 29:1, p.63-97.

[12] Bruley, 1999.

[13] Martin Pugh, Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain 1914-1959 (London: Macmillan, 1992), p.20.

[14] Meta Zimmeck, ‘Jobs for the Girls: the Expansion of the Clerical Work for Women 1850-1914’ in A. John (ed.), Unequal Opportunities, Women’s Employment in England 1800-1918 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986) notes that women clerks rose from 2000 in 1851 to 166 000 in 1911, almost a 20 per cent rise.

[15] Brophy and Smart, 1985; see Rosemary Hunter and Alison Diduck interviews, 2015.

[16] Bruley, 1999; Pugh, 1992.

[17] Mossman, 2006.

[18] Auchmuty, 2008.

[19] Bruley, 2006.

[20] Cannadine, 2013.

[21] Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s” in Linda Nicholson, ed., Feminism/Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1990), p.197.


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