Is it fair to say that the economic and social position of women improved between 1900 and 1939?
The position of women in the UK is still controversial today. Looking back to the period before 1900, several laws were passed to improve the status of women: the 1857 Divorce Law Reform, the Married Women’s Property Acts in 1870 and 1882, the winning of the local government vote in 1869, the extension of elementary, secondary and university education to women from the 1870s, the rights in the custody of children in 1873, the right to judicial separation and maintenance in 1878, the raising of the age of consent to 16 in 1885, the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1886, and the widening of access to employment in shops, schools, offices, the civil service and the medical profession.
However, many of the legal changes which helped women were the result of the suffrage movement to rationalize the judicial system rather than the result of concern for women. The ‘public’ life of women was staying at home doing domestic tasks. Once a woman was married, her way of life fully depended on her husband’s income. Women were taught to be content to be inferior to men in both mental power and physical strength. Marriage was a woman’s profession. Women working were a proof of ‘a barbarous and imperfect civilization’ (1979, Women in Public, 1850-1900). If a woman could not get a husband, she had failed in her vocation. In 1897, many people at Cambridge University strongly disapproved of the presence of women students and looked upon them with some suspicion.
Between 1900 and 1939, women’s economic and social position improved in several aspects. Firstly, some women became the chief income earner in the family. (1994, 20th Century Britain) Women made up around 30% of the total labour force in 1901 which was largely from the working class. The total female labour force grew from 5.2 million to 6.3million between 1911 and 1931. During these periods, the proportion of married working women aged under 24 rose from 12.1% to 18.5% and single working women aged under 24 also rose from 73% to 75.7%, while the proportion of widows and divorced women in the female labour force fell from 8.7 to 6.8%, which was possibly due to the introduction of widow’s pensions in 1926. (1997, War and Progress Britain, 1914-1945)
Besides, the proportion of older (35+) women at work also fell due to the depressed condition of the cotton industry. The expansion of primary education at the end of the 19th century enabled women to work in the expanding public and service sectors: as teachers, nurses, typists, telephonists or cashiers of department stores. The figures suggest that the involvement of women in the labour market became gradually accepted by the public. Women enjoyed not only independence and companionship, but also the capacity to save and improve their family’s lives in the first time.
During the 1914 war, women’s powers and capacities were undeniable. Working- class women left domestic service and traditionally ‘female’ occupations such as being maids, and took up posts in munitions factories or in a wide range of ‘male’ occupations, such as building and transport. In 1915, Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, negotiated a voluntary deal, namely Treasury Agreement, with the Trade Union. 50,000 women were registered officially as available for war work. Munitions of War Act allowed unskilled workers including women to enter into jobs traditionally held by skilled men. During the war, working class women worked in industries like munitions, transport, or were window cleaners or blacksmiths and in the policeforce, while middle class women did banking, clerical jobs in administration, and commercial and educational types of jobs.
The war enabled women to try a wider range of jobs and to abandon low- paid or unattractive work, especially domestic service and the ‘sweated trades’, for work offering higher pay and sometimes status. Upper and middle class women could extend the scope of their pre- war charitable and voluntary duties and experience new spheres of employment and responsibility. It was important that the wages they earned and the status they enjoyed were far higher than women had secured before 1914. The income they earned gave them a sense of self- worth, freedom and independence.
Secondly, several acts were passed to improve the health of women. In 1902, a central midwives’ board was set up under the Midwives Act to set the standards of midwifery as well as to secure the higher standards of care of women in childbirth. The Midwives Act of 1918 was about the funding of midwives’ training. In the same year, the Maternity and Child Welfare Act passed enabled local authorities to set up maternity homes, infant welfare centres, and antenatal clinics and provide health visitors. Women became stronger, healthier and had a longer life expectancy.
Thirdly, women began to enter more professional occupation that had been dominated by men. Under a Separate Act of 1918, women were able to stand for election to Parliament from the age of 21. Lady Astor was the first women to enter the Commons in Plymouth at a by- election in 1919. In order to open up a wider range of occupations for women, Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed in 1919. Between 1930 and 1931, the proportion of females among the academic staff of the various English universities ranged from 5% at Cambridge, 8% at Sheffield, 21% at London and Nottingham, 22% at Exeter, 24% at Southampton and 29% at Reading. (1995, Women in the 1920s)
Moreover, during the 1920s and 1930s, the number of magazines catering to women increased to more than 50, such as Woman’s Own (1932), Woman’s Illustrated (1936) and Women (1937). Besides, in the late 1920s and early 1930s because of technological change and the new occupational structure which emphasized light engineering and service sector, there was an expansion of electricity, food processing, tobacco and motor cars. A greater number of clerical workers in these industries were women. In 1931, there were around 250, 000 typists and most of them were women. Besides, there was an expansion of lower professions such as teachers and nurses. The above illustrated the recognition of women’s ability and position in society.
However, women were still seen as a poorly paid, poorly trained, and casual temporary worker. They were often greeted with suspicion by both employers and male colleagues. Trade Unions and workmen saw women as casual cheap labour, and believed women were not interested in long term careers or in acquiring skills. In fact, there was a serious gender prejudice. While the press and government praised patriotism and the skills of new female recruits, male workers opposed the idea deeply. “I have to bear with a woman for 12 hours a day and I will not bear with women for 24.” (1995, Women in the 1920s) This was the response of one skilled worker when he was faced with the arrival of female colleagues. In fact, the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was unable to remove personal prejudice.
Restrictions in professions were maintained. It was not until 1925 that the first open exam was arranged to let females be able to enter the prestigious administrative class of the Civil Service in open competition with men. In 1922, branch managers of the Westminster Bank were asked to employ female clerks. Most opposed the idea. The male workers treated women as a threat to their employment. It was because women did the job cheaply; employers might prefer women to men. Besides, the policy of exclusion was applied to women by medical schools. Both female academic staff and students encountered strong gender hostility at universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge. Only a tiny number were able to achieve professional standing. At the end of the 1920s, women were still seen as intellectually inferior to men and as lacking the experience and knowledge required to exercise power effectively.
Throughout the postwar economy, there was a sexual inequality in pay. Women’s pay in all occupations remained at about 55% of that of men between 1913-1914 and 1935-1936. (1997, War and Progress Britain, 1914-1945) In the civil service and teaching, a female clerical civil servant in 1924 earned ï¿½206 a year and a male clerical civil servant earned ï¿½284; the figures for qualified female and male teachers were ï¿½272 and ï¿½353 respectively. (1997, War and Progress Britain, 1914-1945) This was because women depended on men; they should be paid less than men. Besides, a marriage ban was applied to women. Once they were married they had to stop working. Pamela Horn (1995, Women in the 1920s) pointed out that females had to choose between a career and celibacy, or marriage and redundancy. At Bournville, female employees had to resign on marriage. The marriage bar operated in both clerical and factory jobs and teaching and medicine. Middle and working class women suffered most.
The wider employment opportunities offered to women depended on the duration of the war. Most women war workers had been employed on the understanding that their jobs were temporary and were dismissed at the end of the war. After the end of the war, female workers were urged to ‘go home’ by the press, release their jobs to returning soldiers and get back to domestic service and the laundry trade. Doing domestic work and childcare at home was a ‘proper’ place for women. Women’s role as wives and mothers were increasing emphasized.
Although women in the period of 1900 to 1939 received a higher degree of freedom and independence than before due to the suffrage movement, the outbreak of the 1914 war and other factors, the improvement women got was not enough. In fact, the gender prejudice they experienced at work, school and in society had never stopped and still existed. The social status of women still stayed in a domestic sphere and women had to face many difficulties given by the society. Although women had the ability to earn money, they were still under men’s control and depended on men to live. To conclude, just a small amount of change in women’s life during the period could not be said to constitute an improvement. Therefore, it is not fair to say that the economic and social position of women improved between 1900 and 1939.
1. Dewey P., War and Progress Britain, 1914-1945, London Longman 1997
2. Hollis P., Women in Public, 1859-1900: Documents of the Victorian women’s movement, London Allen and Unwin 1979
3. Horn P., Women in the 1920s, Stroud Alan Suiton 1995
4. Johnson P., 20th Century Britain: Economic, Social and Cultural Change, Pearson Education Limited, 1994
5. Pugh M., Women and the Women’s movement in Britain 1914-1959, Basingstoke Macmillan 1992
6. Purvis J., Women’s history Britain, 1850-1945: an introduction, London UCL Press 1995