The Changing Role and Status of Women in Britain Since 1900

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Last updated: November 11, 2019

Prior to 1900, women were given hardly any rights; they did not have the right to vote. Those that were married had even less as it was believed that all of your possessions effectively belonged to your husband, and women were very much thought as being inferior to men. Only in the 1850s and 1860s did the first women’s movement emerge in London.

By 1903, there were two clear groups campaigning for women’s suffrage, there was the NUWSS, formed in 1896, headed by Millicent Fawcett. The other was the WSPU formed in 1903, headed by Emmeline Pankhurst. These groups were to become known as the suffragists and the suffragettes respectively, and each would adopt different tactics. They both believed that if working women had to pay tax to a government, that they should surely have an opinion about who that government is.

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In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, their place was considered to be at home, to carry out the domestic chores. Women were allowed to attain a degree at universities, however where women performed the same jobs as men, they were paid less. The idea was that men worked and were paid to support his family whereas a woman works to amuse herself. Politics was seen as very much a man’s job, and women would not be able to make such an important decision, therefore not be allowed to vote. Between 1900 and 1914 the women did not get the right to vote for a number of reasons.Both the organisations were constantly squabbling over various matters and strategies, and so were perceived by many as merely as a nuisance, and based on this sort of conduct not responsible enough to have the vote.

They had no clear aims as a result and their campaigns would have been unsuccessful as a result. The WSPU were also very tyrannical in the way they were run, prepared to use violence to show their beliefs and to try and acquire their objective; ‘votes for women.’ Emmeline Pankhurst and her sisters were in charge of the campaign.

The NUWSS used much subtler forms of campaigning, petitioning for the government to give the vote to women.Women did not get the right to vote between 1900 and 1914 because of other more pressing issues for the government. In 1906, the Liberals, had just been elected to govern,emt, led by Campell-Bannermann with a healthy majority, but 4 years later, the Liberals now led by Asquith, and although still in power, no longer had such a great majority. He was now concerned with the Irish Nationalists who were demanding their own party. Such was the importance of this event, that it completely eclipsed the campaign by the two women’s unions. The issue of women would have been seen as trivial compared to Ireland at the time. As a result women did not get the vote until after 1914, which was when the Liberals finally did agree to give the Irish home rule.The suffragettes had to find a way of getting the attention of the government, and so the suffragettes employed the radical methods of WSPU, using illegal methods.

Illegal methods ranged from minor civil disobedience to major attacks of arson and violence, from the late 1900s to the early 1910s. At first women were trying to boycott the daily running of a state that refused to recognise their rights in Parliament.These attacks continued until 1914 and although they generated publicity, the government could not be seen to be giving in to these types of violent campaigning and as a result any plans Asquith might have had to give women the vote were scuppered. Indeed, there was proof that there were plans, but that Asquith changed his mind. If they had been seen to give in to these tactics, then other groups with demands would have done the same, something that the government definitely didn’t want. Asquith had made a promise that there would be a women’s suffrage bill in the next Parliament but had not carried this out. It was a case of setting a precedent, and this was why the women did not get the vote before 1914.The divide between the militant and non-militant methods of the NUWSS and WSPU respectively was noticeable.

The WSPU did not break from the suffragist past. They supplemented their constitutional methods with violence, but did continue to use legal methods as well. Both the WSPU and the NUWSS attempt to overcome the stalemate reached between themselves and the Liberal Government by supporting the two Conciliation Bills; the WSPU called a truce during negotiations but returned to violence when the Bills failed. Many of the NUWSS members resigned in response to the same disappoint.Neither the NUWSS nor the WSPU ever affiliated themselves with a political party (even though some of them supported the Liberals) and they kept dividing over whether they should do so. If they had, it might have brought more publicity and also help portray them as a responsible set of women, and putting a stop the thought of women not knowing anything about politics.There was also a lack of support behind the suffragettes and suffragists, and this was also a reason as to why women did not get the vote before 1914.

There were only about 50,000 behind the suffragettes, and although there were more behind the peaceful suffragists, this was only a small proportion of women in the country. Working Class women did not join, as nobody would have paid any attention to them, and it was left to the sophisticated middle and upper class women, who were respected and esteemed. In fact, some conservative middle-class women even set up anti-suffrage societies, feeling that their role was domestically based.Even though the suffragettes had gained sympathy for the way some of them were sent to prison, their violent tactics meant that they themselves were then treated violently. Some went on hunger strikes when in prison and were force fed, they were then freed. However they continued their protest and eventually ended up back in prison, this ‘cat and mouse’ act continued for many years between. A combination of this, traditional values, the governments’ lack of attention, greediness and lack of affiliation ensured that women would not get the vote until after 1914, when the First World War started.Women’s campaign for suffrage had been futile.

However with the start of the First World War, the role of women changed and as a result so did the attitudes towards them. By 1918, some women had obtained the right to vote. There were many reasons for this, and all as a result of the war, which was important in causing about this change.To begin with in 1914, conscription caused many men to sign up for army service and as a result there was no-one left to fill their void except women.

Women therefore helped greatly with the war effort; many working-class women worked in munitions factories and by 1918, 90% of people working in munitions factories were women. Not only this, but many middle-class women became nurses to tend to injured soldiers on the Western Front. Women were employed in public transport and even as policewomen towards the end of the war. These jobs were important as it showed that women were indeed capable of helping the war effort greatly, and could carry out many of the jobs that society considered only men could do, and could continue many of the business’s and trading done by the men .Also important, was that both the women’s societies decided to stop campaigning and support the war effort as much as possible. This showed that women could be responsible, and helped support the theory that women could perhaps after all handle the responsibility of the vote.

Millicent Fawcett, the leader of the NUWSS said that they must support the war, while Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the WSPU decided to stop all their militant activities and also support the war effort. After this, attitudes would have changed for the better towards women, since their actions were useful instead of annoying. Public opinion changed and many started supporting their cause for the vote, seeing that they were competent.In 1916, Asquith was removed as Prime Minister. He had not supported the women’s cause much but was replaced by Lloyd-George, who did support their cause.

It was Arthur Henderson, the Labour minister, who effectively forced the government to introduce votes to working-class men with conscription. This was seen as the first step towards giving votes towards women. If working-class men were helping the war effort and therefore got the vote in return, women are doing the same thing, and should also get the vote, for their support of the war efforts.At a Speaker’s Conference it was decided that women deserved to get the vote, in view of the fact that they had helped significantly with the war effort. Yet, they did not agree with the idea that all women would get the vote, as they thought that the women would be the majority of the Electorate. So they agreed to give all women homeowners over 30 the vote, thinking that they would be the most responsible. Millicent Fawcett’s decision over whether to accept this was also imperative because she believed in equal franchise, but decided to agree nonetheless, thinking that it would be better to get a foothold first, then progress from there. Equal franchise was passed 10 years later, in 1928.

The First World War was fundamental in bringing about this act. The new Representation of the People Act was a reflection of the gratitude of the women’s work for the war effort, including all jobs which the men could not do and women carried out on their behalf. Without the war, they may never have had the chance to show off their responsibility and usefulness and so change feelings towards them and got women the vote.

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