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.'
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