men and women during the 20th Century

Last Updated: 08 Apr 2020
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At the beginning of the 20th century women in Britain were in an inferior position to men in virtually all walks of life.
The actions of individuals had a major impact on the development of equal opportunities for women.

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The two world wars gave many women their first experience of ‘men’s work’.
The new ideas which developed during the sixties and seventies paved the way for our current conception of what equality of opportunity means.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the concept of equality of opportunity was virtually an alien notion in Britainand most of the rest of the world. Women, Gypsies, the elderly, Roman Catholics, those with disabilities and homosexuals, among others, all suffered from discrimination in different ways and to various degrees. The primary focus of this essay will be the drivers which have brought about the social, political and economic emancipation of women and the degree to which these goals have been achieved. These drivers can be identified as, firstly, those experiencing inequality, such as the Suffragettes and second stage feminists, with support, organising and challenging the status quo. Secondly, it is necessary to take into account the impact of the first and second world wars, the two most significant events of the century in terms of social, political and economic upheaval. The third driver has been cultural change from the 1960s onwards, with a focus on higher standards of living and more relaxed social and sexual attitudes. Lastly, it will be crucial to take into account the legal framework put in place by government to promote equality.

In 1900 British women could best be described as second class citizens, since they were politically unenfranchised and although the industrial revolution had brought ever increasing numbers of women into the workplace, they were not entitled to the same rights and privileges as working males.[1] In addition, regardless of work outside it, they were expected to care for their families and maintain the home. The prevailing Victorian attitude to women was well summed up by the poet and art historian John Ruskin (1864). ‘ Her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement and decision.’

The earliest change came in the area of political power. Female suffrage in Britaincan be seen as both a part of a wider movement in the Western world and a product of the campaigning National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and the more militant Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmaline Pankhurst in 1903.[2] The early achievement of the suffrage movement’s goals elsewhere in the west undoubtedly encouraged it’s supporters in Britain, and close links were established between Pankhurst’s group and the American movement.[3] Between 1905 and 1914 the WSPU embarked on an increasingly violent campaign of civil disobedience which culminated in one of its members, Emily Davison, being trampled to death by a horse owned by King George V at Epsom races. After compromises were agreed with Lloyd George’s coalition government, the majority of the women’s suffrage movement agreed to work towards the war effort. (Cawood & Mackinnon-Bell, p.71) Whether the Representation of the People Act of 1918 can be seen as a form of reward or a means of enfranchising enough women to replace those men killed in the war without giving them a majority, is debatable. (MacCalman, pp.36-47 & Marwick pp.112-120). However, limited suffrage was achieved in 1918, followed in 1928 by the vote for all women over the age of 21, thereby achieving equality with men.

Between 1914 and 1918 an estimated two million women were employed in industries such as dockyards, munitions and transport, previously the sole preserve of men. Wages were higher than in employment such as domestic service but still lower than that of their male counterparts. In addition, many women found employment inFranceandBelgiumas nurses, ambulance drivers and in auxiliary roles in the newly-formed WRNS and WAAC. However, the claim made by the NUWSS president, Millicent Fawcett, that ‘The war revolutionised the industrial position of women – it found them serfs and left them free’, seems exaggerated. More accurate is the assessment made in 1919 by Beatrice Webb, that women’s economic and sexual status had not changed. ( Webb, p.334) At the end of the conflict, the numbers of women employed in the ‘war industries’ declined rapidly as returning servicemen replaced them. In a situation in which unemployment and labour unrest were rife, the backlash against the continued employment of married women in particular and promotion of their domestic role, was perhaps understandable.

During the second world war, under pressure from a small group of the 15 female MPs, the cabinet introduced the 1941 National Service Act, which recruited single women aged 20 to 30 as auxiliaries in the Armed Forces, Civil Defence or war industry. From 1939 to 1943 there was an increase in the percentage of women in the total workforce from 25.8% to 32.5%. (Summerfield) However, equal pay was not achieved. In 1945, demobilisation of women was not as sudden as in 1918 and in some industries where post-war demand was high, such as shipbuilding, many women remained in work. In addition, a late 1940s drive by the Labour government to expand the female workforce, led to many more women being employed as nurses, teachers and clerical workers, as well as in factories.(Summerfield)

During the 1950s, women made strides towards pay equality in teaching (1952) and the civil service (1954), due largely to pressure from female MPs such as Edith Summerskill and non-party pressure groups. (Pugh, pp. 144–62). The focus of second wave feminism, a term used to describe a movement which began in the the 1960s and had strong support in Britainand Europe, was equal opportunities in employment and education as well as legal, social and reproductive rights. Against the background of greater prosperity, new ideas, art and music, together with the social and sexual change which characterized the sixties, feminist thinkers and writers, such as Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Marilyn French and Betty Frieden, created a level of debate in British society and media. The Equal Pay Act (1970) and subsequent Sex Discrimination Act (1975), the underpinnings of British equalities legislation, prohibited the unequal treatment of men and women in terms of pay and conditions of employment. The latter act also covers discrimination in training and education and the issue of harassment. [4]

As a result of a century of action by individuals, governments and the influence of monumental events such as two world wars and the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, Britainis undoubtedly a much more equal place at the end of the twentieth century than at the beginning. Margaret Thatcher remains the sole British female Prime Minister. There are currently 144 women out of 649 MPs at Westminsterand four out of twenty four cabinet members are women. ( In terms of business, in 2009 29% of the self-employed were women and 15% of the 4.8 million businesses in the UK were majority owned by women. (GROWE). In terms of elite sport, the success of team GB’s women in the London Olympic and Paralympic Games (82 out of 185 medals won) masks the lack of media coverage for women’s sport outside the Olympics and Grand Slam tennis events.[5] In terms of music and the arts, women such as J.K. Rowling, Tracy Emin and Adele are top earners in their respective fields. Thus it can be seen that, although women have made important advances towards equality in terms of political and economic power and their position in society, there are still significant battles to be won.


Harrison, J. (1991, Late VictorianBritain1875-1901 London

Cawood, I. & McKinnon-Bell, D. The First World War. Routledge (2001)

GROWE Greater Return on Women’sEnterprise. Women’s Enterprise Task Force (2009)

McCalman, J. Labour History No. 21 (Nov., 1971)

Maroula. J & Purvis, J. The women’s suffrage movement: new feminist perspectives.ManchesterUniversity Press, 1998).

Marwick, A. The DelugeLondon(1965)

Pugh, M.. “Domesticity and the Decline of Feminism 1930–1950.” In British Feminism in the Twentieth Century, ed. Harold L. Smith. (1990)

Report of the War Cabinet on Women in Industry, 1919

Ruskin, J. Lecture was given December 14, 1864, at the Town Hall,Manchester

Summerfield, P. Women Workers in the Second World War. Production and Patriarchy in Conflict (1984)

Women in Sport: The State of Play 2006; UK Sport,2006, p.24)

[1]Harrison (pp 157-183) states that in the 1901 census, 29.15 of women listed an occupation, generally badly paid. He lists the most common occupations for working class women as textile mill worker and domestic service whilst those from lower middle class backgrounds generally became teachers, nurses or clerks.

[2] Between 1893 and 1928, universal female suffrage was achieved inNew Zealand,Australia,Finland,Norway,Russia,Denmark,Canada,Germany,Holland,Sweden,U.S.A. and theUK.

[3] Pankhurst herself spoke at a rally in Conneticut in 1913.( Joannou and Purvis, p.157)

[4] The Act also created the Equal opportunities Commission, later the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to oversee its operation and bring prosecutions where appropriate.

[5] On average approximately 5% of all sports covers women’s sports.(Women in Sport: The State of Play 2006; UK Sport,2006, p.24)

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