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Women's rights


During discussions in Parliament on electoral reform in May 1867, it was proposed by the liberal philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill that women should be given the vote. Mill received predictably little support from his contemporaries for this idea. His support of voting rights for women (he also co-founded the first women's suffrage society in the same year) was a minority position. Women remained beyond the constitutional pale for another 51 years.
'Mill's logic' (cartoon) - opens new window
'Mill's logic' (Punch cartoon)
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The dangers of pit-brow work, 1911 - opens new window
The dangers of pit-brow work, 1911
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Nevertheless, the position of women in late-Victorian Britain improved in a number of important areas: divorce law reform (1857), the right to vote in local government elections (1869), improved rights over the custody of children (1873), and the raising of the age of consent to 16 (1885). Despite the many remaining barriers to advancement, such improvements illustrate that the successes of late-Victorian feminism have often been overlooked.

Women's suffrage movement

Conversely, the achievements of the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), the most radical branch of the women's movement during the early years of the 20th century, have often been overstated - not least by the WSPU's founders and chief supporters, the Pankhursts. Much attention has been focused on the militant campaigns of the WSPU between 1910 and 1914, which included attacks on property and politicians, as well as hunger strikes during imprisonment.

Women's Freedom League banner, 1908 - opens new window
Women's Freedom League banner, 1908
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Suffragette petition, 1911 - opens new window
Suffragette petition, 1911
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These actions required courage and self-sacrifice. However, their historical importance is questionable. The violent tactics of the WSPU alienated not only the political elite in Edwardian Britain (many of whom already supported the principle of female suffrage) but also many working-class women. Historians now emphasise the important role played by the moderate National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) in building up legal and constitutional support for the enfranchisement of women before the First World War.

Women and the First World War

The First World War strongly influenced the development of women's rights in 20th-century Britain. It opened up new employment opportunities for many women, who replaced the millions of men sent to fight on the Western Front and elsewhere. Jobs in munitions factories, transport and other key areas that had been dominated by men now became increasingly feminised, and under the Representation of the People Act (1918) the franchise was for the first time extended to women.

Forced-feeding protest, 1912 - opens new window
Forced-feeding protest, 1912
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Suffragette in prison (photograph) - opens new window
Suffragette in prison
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To equate the First World War with the 'liberation' of women in Britain, however, is far too simplistic. The 'democratic' franchise of 1918 in fact gave the vote only to women over the age of 30. More important in this regard was the Equal Franchise Act of 1928, which finally gave women the vote on the same terms and at the same age (21) as men. The apparent advances made in the workplace were often illusory. Many women lost their jobs when demobilised soldiers returned to Britain in late 1918 and in 1919. Women continued to face barriers to equal pay and to equal access to certain professions, despite the Sex Disqualification Removal Act of 1919 - which, in theory at least, made it illegal to exclude women from jobs because of their gender.

1930s and 1940s

The interwar period was marked by an increase in the amount of 'women's legislation' passed by Parliament. It also saw Britain's first female MPs. A huge number of organisations now represented women's interests. These included the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (the new name given to the NUWSS in 1919), women's trade unions and the Women's Institute.

Leeds Women Citizens' League (poster) - opens new window
Leeds Women Citizens' League
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Lowering the voting age for women - opens new window
Lowering the voting age for women
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Yet on the eve of the Second World War the women's movement seemed to be in decline. Both economic depression and the achievement of equal franchise in 1928 contributed to this development. A revived 'cult of domesticity', associated with mass circulation magazines such as Woman, emerged during the 1930s. Marriage rates rose rapidly. The number of local branches of NUSEC dropped from 220 in 1920 to just 48 in 1935.
As was the case during the First World War, women's experiences during the Second World War (1939-45) were mixed. In many ways they played a more direct and active role in Britain's war effort - both its sufferings and its successes - than women had done during the Great War. Women constituted 63,000 of the 130,000 civilians killed during the Blitz. They also contributed in far greater numbers to wartime labour, particularly after the introduction of industrial conscription in 1941. By 1943 there were 7.25 million women employed in industry, agriculture, the armed forces and civil defence organisations. Many more of these women survived the postwar return of men to the workplace than had been the case after the First World War.
Land girls in action (photograph) - opens new window
Land girls in action
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Women's Land Army

The postwar world

In political terms, the war helped to revive the women's movement. In particular, the growing consensus in favour of social and welfare reform - as proposed by the Beveridge Report (1942) and the Education Bill (1944) - allowed organisations such as the Equal Pay Campaign Committee to remind the public of ongoing inequalities in the treatment of men and women.

However, no great reforms were enacted between 1939 and 1945 to give an institutional basis to the idea of equality in the workplace. Politicians used delaying tactics to sink the equal pay campaign. Old prejudices about women's working capabilities were alive and well, particularly in the armed forces - home to 470,000 servicewomen during the war. Even progressive measures such as the Beveridge Report were by no means feminist in their outlook. Beveridge himself believed that welfare reform would encourage motherhood, thereby increasing the size of Britain's population. Women's Land Army
Women's Land Army As Mass Observation reports and other wartime surveys illustrate, women generally found the Second World War a more dispiriting experience than men did. Women workers often viewed their jobs in a negative light, particularly after the introduction of conscription. Full-time housewives, of whom there were almost 9 million in wartime Britain, were troubled by the disruption to family life caused by the war, as well as everyday inconveniences such as food queues and the blackout.

1960s and after

As the experiences of women in Britain during the first half of the 20th century illustrated, there was no inevitable or easy path to the establishment of improved women's rights. This point was re-emphasised by the fact that after the Second World War the feminist movement went into a decline, before emerging once more in the 'new feminism' of the 1960s. Despite the substantial achievements of the women's movement in the 20th century, few people would deny that equality of the sexes is still some way from being accomplished in 21st-century Britain.


Women's Land Army

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