The Changing Roles of Women Essay

Between 1900 and 1980, the lives of women in Britain underwent a variety of transformations, ranging from economic and sexual development to political and social reform. The purpose of this essay is to analyse the key changes, and identify how they affected women’s lives. Throughout this time, women achieved more than they had ever done before, in terms of reaching equality with men: generally considered as subordinate to men in various aspects of life, including at home and in the workplace, it was their battle for equality that provoked many of the transformations that took place during this time period.

By the end of these eighty years, women had earned the right to vote, the right to work, were increasingly attending higher education and had much greater social and sexual liberties than they had ever had before. In 1979, Britain saw the election of its first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher; this can be used to measure the remarkable change in attitudes towards women- in the early 1900s, it would have been unthinkable. When she took office, she declared that ‘the battle for women’s rights has largely been won. ‘

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It was an evolutionary process, sped up by certain revolutionary acts such as the women’s rights movements, who put extreme pressure on the male-dominated governments. It must also be noted that not all women’s lives changed; the extent to which equality was achieved largely depended upon the social class of the women, and how much access to opportunities they had outside of the home. Though much change took place to the public perceptions and freedom of women, the process of women’s equalisation with men is an ever-evolving one, as even now women have not yet completely reached parity with men.

In order to evaluate how women’s lives changed, and the extent to which they achieved equality with men, it is necessary to use sources to pinpoint central occurrences within this struggle, and understand how they triggered change. In the mid-nineteenth century, women from all social classes were in a subordinate position to men, with few rights under the laws which had been set up by the male-dominated government, although their experiences were very different.

Middle-class women were seen as the moral guidelines of the home and were dependent upon male relatives for economic support. Working-class women, however, often had to contribute to family income, but their main association with the home meant that their paid employment was viewed as an insignificant activity, and they were clustered in a narrow range of low-paid, low-skilled and often casual jobs.

Even during the earlier part of the 20th century- before the First World War- most women were expected to live up to the typical housewife persona, where their main role in life was to bring up the children and do the housework. The husband was usually the head of the house, and his word was law to both his children and his wife, which is somewhat unfair, seeing as the woman was the one expected to look after the children. Middle-class girls were not allowed out without a chaperone, only ‘one married woman in ten’ had a job and no woman was allowed the vote.

It was the general view that politics and work were only suitable for men alone. The First World War helped to bring about change to some of these things; as most men had been sent off to fight in the war, the shortage meant that women now had to play a full part in the war effort, and had to do many of the jobs usually done by men. Many of the trade unions, however, largely resented and opposed women taking men’s jobs; women were paid half a man’s wage for the same job. Women also worked in munitions factories, making the weapons of war.

For the first time, women were a valuable asset to the success of Britain; as former British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith states in source 55, ‘how could we have carried on the war without women? ‘ Male attitudes towards women were forced to change, as they had proved themselves capable of doing a man’s job. They had earned a considerable amount of respect. Their efforts in the war earned women over the age of 30 the right to vote in 1918 (Representation of the Peoples Act), at the same time that the first woman MP was elected.

Though you often hear many people complaining about their jobs, and how much work they have, the women generally preferred factory life to domestic life; as stated in source 46, ‘they like the freedom, the spirit of independence fostered by their new found earning power, the social life… these women will not want to return to their domestic duties after the war. ‘ The war had brought women their own money and independence, something that many of them had never had before. It was rather unfortunate, then, that as soon as the men returned back home, many women were forced to give up work.

As source 3 shows, ‘when all the men came back after the war the bank said “now you’ve got to teach the men. ” Instead of having four of us (women) on the counter, they had seven men… we didn’t get paid extra for teaching the men. ‘ In 1919 the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was put into place, which stated that women could no longer be barred from any job because of their gender. The aim of the act was to open up new professions, such as lawyers, magistrates and architects.

Sources 14 and 16 show us the way in which women’s labour changed from 1911 to 1921; in 1911, there were 2,127,000 women working in Domestic service, as cleaners, cooks and so on. By 1921, however, this number was 1,845,000. There were also 383,000 women working in the Professions, such as teachers or doctors in 1911, whereas in 1921 there were 441,000. This shows that the nature of women’s labour was, though slowly, surely changing from that of a domestic value to a more intellectual one. However, it had little effect upon jobs in industry, and it applied only to single women.

A woman could still lose her job if she married; it was only in 1939, at the start of the Second World War, that married women were allowed to work. Although men were still in the top position, the experience did force a change in attitudes, and six million women earned the right to vote due to WW1. Though WW1 played a major role in attaining the vote for women, it was not the only contributing factor. Women’s Rights Movements such as the Suffragettes had been putting pressure on the government for about fifty years before action was taken.

The campaign to win the vote for women began in 1850, when local women’s groups (mainly middle-class women) held meetings all over the country to present the case for giving women the vote. They were known as ‘suffragists. ‘ In 1890 the groups formed a national organisation named the NUWSS led by Millicent Fawcett. They believed in peaceful methods of campaigning. Some women lost patience with these tactics, and so in 1903 Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters formed a breakaway group called the Women’s Social and Political Union.

They were nicknamed the ‘Suffragettes. ‘ As Sylvia Pankhurst describes, their aims were ‘to create an impression upon the public throughout the country, to set everyone talking about votes for women, to keep the subject in the press, to leave the government no peace from it. ‘ Source 24 shows us the types of things they did, including ‘heckling at government meetings,’ ‘start occasional attacks on property,’ and ‘carry out arson, bombing and sabotage in many areas of Britain. They put immense pressure on the government, and published much propaganda in order to win public support.

After WW1, the women’s rights movements all strongly argued that women, through their contributions to the war, deserved the vote, and public opinion generally favoured this view. Though women over the age of 30 had gained the vote in 1918, it was another 10 years before women could vote on equal terms to men; it was in 1928 that the Equal Franchise Act let all women over the age of 21 have the vote.

Without such pressure from groups such as the Suffragettes, the emancipation of women would have arrived a lot slower. As source 66, part of the obituary for Millicent Fawcett of the NUWSS, says; ‘there were three stages in the emancipation of women: the first was the long campaign of propaganda and organisation… the second was the campaign of the militants (the Suffragettes), the third was war. ‘ The work that women’s rights organisations did formed two of the three leading factors in the liberation of women.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Victorian views of women had gradually died out among the younger generations; women’s clothing became simpler and less restrictive, young women no longer needed chaperones to accompany them on dates, make-up became more acceptable and it was also deemed acceptable to wear one-piece swimming costumes. Because of the money they had earned from working in WW1, they could afford a new look; source 81 tells us that ‘powder and make-up became common… they smoked openly in public. Though WW1 had changed attitudes in the way that it was now socially acceptable for women to work, once a woman was married she was expected to return to the traditional role of looking after the home and the children. Between the two World Wars, many women had paid jobs until they were married. Once married, they were expected to give up paid work; women generally did jobs such as clerks, typists, telephonists and nurses, as these jobs were considered suitable only for women.

Also, a woman’s pay was much less than a man’s: a woman teacher earned less than a man doing the same job. So women were still very unfairly treated. When WW2 began, women were once again needed to fill the gaps left by men. They were once again called upon to work in industry, on farms, as nurses and also in the forces; though not in the front line. This time round, however, there were a few differences which marked women’s statuses at this point compared to in WW1; in WW1, male-dominated trade unions had largely resented women taking men’s jobs.

This time, they agreed that women had equal rights to employment. Also, by 1941 the shortage of labour was so severe that women were conscripted into the workforce, and so many more women were involved than in WW1. Married women with children were not required to take a job, but many of them volunteered all the same, and nurseries had to be provided to allow women to work. Most women enjoyed the opportunity, and those who did stay at home were expected to help out by childminding and taking in laundry.

In source 74, Mona Marshall, a nursemaid before the war and a steelworker during it, tells us about how she feels WW2 affected women; ‘war was the best thing that happened to us… my generation had been taught to do exactly as we were told. At work you did as your boss told you and at home you did as your husband told you. The war changed all that. The war made me stand on my own two feet. ‘ So, though WW1 helped make a difference in that women were allowed to work, in WW2 many more women saw freedom and enjoyed it.

However, women with children were still at a disadvantage in the labour market, since child-care commitments meant that they were seen as unreliable, and they were generally employed in lower-paid, more insecure, less skilled jobs than the ones they had enjoyed before marriage and children. Contraception was another major factor in the changing lives of women; in 1900, a working-class woman married young and often spent up to 15 years having babies and bringing them up. By 1930, the Family Planning Association had been formed, and national birth control clinics were started around the country.

By the mid-1950s, one in ten women did not have children at all. In the 1960s, the contraceptive pill was introduced; it was the most effective method of contraception yet. At this time, it was not for free, so only middle-class women really benefited from its effects. It meant that women could finally control how long of their lives they spent looking after children. They could therefore plan their careers more systematically, and in their relationship with men the Pill gave women a greater sense of freedom and equality.

Many women chose to have a family and then return to work when their children were old enough. A poll, taken in 1961, shows that there were more married working women than unmarried ones, and the married women also spent less time looking after children. Also, in 1967 the Abortion Act was passed, which legalised abortion. Now, women who became pregnant and could not provide for their babies sufficiently, or who were scared of their parent’s reactions, could get abortions legally as opposed to getting them done backstreet, which was potentially extremely harmful and life-threatening.

This Act gave women even more freedom; now a woman could end a pregnancy if she really wanted or needed to, and the danger factor was a lot less than a backstreet abortion. In the 1970s, the contraceptive pill was made free on the NHS, which made it easier for the working-class women to get hold of; now women of all social statuses could control how long they spent looking after children. Freedom of another kind was also gained for married women; many girls had been married off to men by their father’s will and not their own, and this often meant that the women were unhappy in marriage.

A divorce in 1900 was very expensive, and for many, there was no way out of an unsuccessful marriage. The Divorce Reform Act of 1969 tried to make marriage easier: it laid just one ground for divorce, which was the complete breakdown of marriage, for whatever reason. Now, miserable couples who had previously been stuck together could part ways; in fact, many couples who had been married for years, especially older generations, rushed to get divorces. Along with all these freedoms came the idea of higher aspirations for women, and in the 1960s more women than ever before attended university.

They were taking full advantage of educational opportunities at all levels and entered a range of occupations, including the professions such as law and medicine. Though women had equal educational prospects as men, many of the best jobs were still closed to them, which led to extreme frustration. The increasing agitation of this resulted in women joining together and forming the active and often very angry ‘women’s liberation movement. ‘ This movement attacked many of the social norms that had gone unquestioned for hundreds of years; it questioned why women were considered as so inferior to men, and put extreme pressure on the government.

They managed to get their point across; in 1970, for the first time, the Equal Pay Act made it illegal to pay women less than men for the same work. Then, in 1975, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Employment Protection Act were introduced, which outlawed discrimination in jobs and housing. Women were finally able to assert their rights in many areas. Source 4, an interview with a woman who was born in 1949 states that ‘I wasn’t prepared to just sit back and accept the role that my mother had. She was clever but had not had the chance to get a decent job… I wanted a good job, and it was good to be surrounded by women who felt the same. This woman, compared to her mother, had a lot more opportunities to follow her dreams, and shows how things changed between her and her mother’s generations.

Her mother’s generation were an oppressed, limited bunch: her own generation were more liberated, and able to follow their dreams. It wasn’t only people around them; the women themselves, their attitudes changed. They no longer accepted the male-dominated society in which they lived. However, this was not true for all women: single mothers were and still are among the poorest groups in society, and they often take the low-paid part-time jobs due to their childcare responsibilities.

Ethnic minorities are also unable to get good jobs, due to prejudice and racism. The start of the Open University in 1971 meant that married women could study for a degree at home, whilst bringing up the children. Again, only the better- off women could do this, as university costs a lot of money. Middle-class women, now that they were allowed to have careers, and many were now expected to obtain a decent career, were and still are under the more pressure than before as they are now expected to have successful careers as well as taking responsibility for the family.

Because of this, it could be said that many women found that having a job gave them less freedom, not more. These days, however, many women are not prepared to accept the housewife role, and, as divorce is legal, an unhappy marriage can be ended easily. Eighty years ago, this would not have been possible. Over the past eighty years, many events have taken place, and many people have helped to bring women the equality that they deserve.

In 1980, the end of the period being studied in this essay, Britain was being run by a woman. In 1900 it would have been a ridiculous idea, but events and people over the years helped general attitudes to evolve: by 1980, women were, although not completely, generally considered equal. At this time, women had so many more liberties than in 1900: women could vote on the same terms as men, it was perfectly acceptable for a woman to get an education and a job and it was the law to treat women equally in the workplace.

Contraception became widely available, so that women could plan out how many children they wanted and plan their careers easily. Women were not forced to have families, and base their lives around their husband and children; instead, they were allowed to concentrate on their ambitions. The people that made these things possible were the women’s rights organisations, such as the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the Suffragettes, who fought for the vote and the right to equal opportunities for men and women.

Catalysts within this process were the two world wars, in which many women had jobs for the first time and gained a sense of freedom. Now that they had tasted freedom, they did not want to go back. Attitudes towards women were forced to change, and now, even though sexism still continues to limit some women, most women are free to express themselves in what they wear, and are able to continue life without having to obey the men in their lives.

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