How, why and to what extent did life change for women in Britain, 1918-1939?
Women's lives could be seen to be governed by male chauvinistic views, and confined by a
patriarchal society which enforced what would now be seen as archaic attitudes towards
women. However, women did see stepped progress and change in three aspects of their life, in
status, role and social standing. Although some changes were more significant than others, the
changes that occurred cannot be underappreciated as they began the journey to women’s
equality in all aspects of their lives. Legislative progress such as the Representation of the
Peoples Act and the Equal Enfranchisement Act both furthered the effort to give women equal
political equality, although the role of women remained largely unchanged; most notably the role
of women in society advanced as a result of the war effort and women beginning to enter the
workforce, although this was limited drastically to WW1, when the men were away. Limited
change was also seen in women’s social lives, although acts such as the Matrimonial Causes
Act aimed to better women's lives socially, i.e in marriage, the societal expectations and stigma
caused a period of seeming stagnation.
The Representation of the People's Act of 1918, gave ‘respectable’ women the right to vote,
which entailed women, owning land/property and being 30 years old or above. Although this had
excluded a majority of women to vote, the act can be seen to be the first step in achieving
political equality for women, which was more closely seen as a result of the 1928 Equal
Enfranchisement Act which gave votes to all women aged 21 and above, the same as men.
This enabled over 5 million new voters to enter the electorate, forming a majority of 53% and
arguably acting as a catalyst for further legislative changes as politicians now needed to cater to
the, now majority, voting population. Therefore, this was an extremely significant change to the
lives of women for the better, as it marked one of the first time where women were treated as
equals to men in a significant matter and were not disregarded, but were all included. However
women’s the change to women's lives, politically, was not wholly positive as women saw
stepped progress occur. Pearce pointed out that ‘Enfranchisement was no guarantee of
emancipation or equality’ which can be seen in the number of female MP’s, which reached its
height in 1931 at 15. This is because places like the house of commons was like ‘a boys school
that had decided to take a few girls’ as noted by Edith Summerskill. As such we can see that
although substantial change had occurred politically, in the status of women, political equality
was far from achieved.
Similarly, the attitudes towards women had hindered the progression of women's role in society,
economically. The belief in there being two distinctly separate spheres between women and
men's work had held strong throughout this period, with the women’s sphere of work dictating
that women should stay at home and focus on domestic chores whilst men act as the
“breadwinners” and work for money. Although the war period of 1914-1918 saw the number of
women in the workforce rise to 40% (around 7.5 million), this number fall back to 25% once the
men had returned from the war, largely until the second World War. This was a result of a
combination of factors, men being preferred to be employed due to social stigma, husbands not
allowing their wives to work but even as a result of legislative causes such as the 1919
Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act, which returned the number of women to 5.7 million (the
same level as 1914). As such, this period of 1918-1939 could almost be described as one of
regression rather than progression, as women's lives were far more liberated when the men
were at the war, with poets like Madeline Ida Bedford writing about their enjoyment of the time
away from men. However, this is not fully accurate; though attitudes towards women had
stagnated more often than not subjecting them to a life of domesticity, some change had
occurred: a result of the war was that there was a shortage of men capable to work, between
the injured and dead, and as a result there were 2 million more women than men. As ⅓ were
unmarried and young, society became more accepting of them working, out of necessity, and as
such the number and role of women in society had risen and progressed, but given the fact that
they received far less pay than men and were confined, largely, to clerical jobs, this progress
could be seen as limited.
In theory, women’s lives had progressed socially with the passing of legislation such as the
1937 Matrimonial Causes Act which had equalised the grounds for divorce for women. This was
a great advancement in the effort to give women greater freedom, as prior to this divorce was
hugely skewed to favour men, with courts taking the word of a man who accused his wife of
adultery whilst making women prove both adultery and another grounds for divorce before
granting it. Yet after the 1937 act, women and men both had the same ability to get a divorce.
Yet, there was no immediate rise in the divorce rate, this is a result of the wife losing a family
allowance of £1 per child. As most married women had children, getting a divorce would have
put these women at a great disadvantage economically and as a result, most women with
families had opted to remain married. Therefore, though there was an effort to liberate women
and give them greater social freedom, a result of other policies, as well as the stigma that
surrounded divorce a majority of women had found it hard to use the new possibility for change.
This effort was furthered by other prominent women, such as Marie Stopes. Stopes had
published ‘Married love’ in 1918, one of the first books to ever address and educate women on
birth control. This was significant as it was indicative of a more educated and well off female
population rising, who began to take the first steps into having greater control over themselves
and their own bodies. However, this too saw its limitations as the US Customs Service banned
the book as it was considered obscene until April 6, 1931.. This highlight the male chauvinistic
attitude at the time as men found the fact that women having control of themselves to be ‘crude’ and
‘obscene’. Consequently, the change in women’s lives, in practice, can be seen to be stagnant
as the new opportunities of social freedom did develop, however they were often inaccessible to
all women due to external factors out of their control.
In conclusion, women’s lives saw substantial yet disproportionate progress, with the patriarchal
society and male chauvinistic attitudes holding strong. Although a significant change in their
position on the political spectrum and status as a result of the representations of the peoples act
and the equal franchise act, this political change was not seen in all aspects of women’s lives
with the significant shortage of female MP’s, which is indicative of the stagnation of negative
attitudes towards women that were held, that resulted in women not having a substantial
change in their role in society. The progress made during the war in the attitude towards
women;s work can be seen to be artificial, as it stemmed from necessity not from any
progression of ideals. Therefore when the government introduced the Restoration of the Pre-
War Act, it could be seen as a regressive step by the government reinforcing preconceived
notions of women's inferiority. The government had, however, made attempts to better women’s
lives socially, but a result of this being ineffective due to external factors essentially nullified
these attempts with the Matrimonial Causes Act. As such I believe that women’s lives somewhat
changed, however there was still a great deal to be covered before a more equal society was
achieved, most predominantly attitudes towards women being changed.