20th century women’s history: social changes…

The 20th century saw an incredible change in the roles of women in the UK. At the start of the century they were denied a voice and a vote and were told that a woman’s place was in the home. By the end of it their position had changed beyond recognition.
The causes of this amazing transformation (and its effects on the lives of ordinary women) are examined in ‘The Women’s Century: a celebration of changing roles’.
The book is written in an accessible style in order to bring 20th century women’s history to the attention of a wider audience.

Her-stories.co.uk aims to continue this work. This section is based on the book and provides brief outlines of the major causes of change. It suggests further reading for those who would like to know more. In due course other periods of history will be covered but for the moment this section of the site is concentrating on 20th century women’s history.
suffragettes    first world war    the interwar years
second world war    second wave feminism    having it all?
the new feminism    further reading

The Suffragettes:

At the start of the century, women had been agitating for the vote for almost 40 years with no success. Their method was both ladylike and constitutional. It involved writing to and lobbying members of parliament (MPs). Although they won the support of many MPs the government always blocked any move to give women the vote. Women who campaigned for the vote using these methods are known as suffragists.

The 20th century was a mere 3 years old when Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters formed the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) to campaign for the vote. With their call for ‘Deeds not Words’, the WSPU shocked society by campaigning in a way thought to be unladylike. Instead of sitting at home writing polite letters or having cosy meetings with sympathetic MPs, these campaigners took to the streets.

They held public meetings, heckled politicians, marched on Parliament with petitions and handed out leaflets in the streets. At the start even these innocuous tactics were considered militant, but before long other women’s suffrage groups became more pro-active and they too organised marches and campaigned in a more vigorous way.

In 1905 Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney served a prison sentence rather than pay a fine after being found guilty of disrupting an election rally. Their prison sentence brought the campaign a great deal of publicity. It was soon after that the press coined the term suffragettes to describe the more militant campaigners.

When most people are asked about the suffragettes the usual response (if they know anything at all) is to mention women chaining themselves to railings and setting fire to letterboxes. They seem know nothing of the police brutality towards demonstrators or of the vicious treatment meted out to suffragettes who went on hunger strike in prison. Doctors’ reports of the time testify to the rough treatment by the police of women whose only offence was to attempt to hand in a petition to the Prime Minister.

When taken to court on charges of disturbing the peace or obstructing the police, many suffragettes chose a prison sentence rather than pay a fine. They demanded to be treated as political prisoners and when this was denied them, several went on hunger strike. The government’s response to the hunger strikers was to force-feed them. Public outrage at force-feeding caused the government to change tactics and they passed a law (known as The Cat and Mouse Act) which allowed them to release starving suffragettes until they were strong enough to return to prison. Often prison authorities waited until a woman was close to death before releasing her.

As news of the brutal treatment of hunger strikers spread, the more militant suffragettes responded with a campaign of violence. While stone-throwing and the smashing of shop windows was widely done, a few embarked on more serious violence with arson and the bombing of an empty house. In justification they argued that they only caused harm to property. The only people harmed during this period were suffragettes and more than one woman died as a result of the treatment she received at the hands of the authorities.

When war broke out in 1914, women called off their campaigns and directed their energies to the war effort. They were no nearer gaining the vote in 1914 than in 1900 and some argued that the militants had set the cause back. Yet within a few years of the WSPU’s rallying cry ‘Deeds not Words’ it had become acceptable for women to be involved in political campaigning. (Even the anti suffrage groups had encouraged women to speak out against the vote.)

The government (that had once considered her public enemy no 1) now called on Mrs Pankhurst to organise a rally to encourage women to volunteer for war work. Women who had been campaigning for years to show that they had a role to play outside the home were only too happy to answer the call.

Suggested Reading:

‘Rebel Girls’ by Jill Liddington draws on new evidence to reveal the untold stories of young suffragettes including that of Dora Thewlis, nicknamed the ‘Baby Suffragette’, whose picture was splashed across The Daily Mirror. Shortlisted for the PORTICO PRIZE FOR LITERATURE and well worth reading.

Back to top

The First World War

Suggested reading:

Chronicle Of Youth: Vera Brittain’s Great War Diary, 1913-1917: Great War Diary, 1913-17

Testament Of Youth by Vera Brittain

The Interwar Years

information coming soon – thank you for your patience

The Second World War

Suggested Reading:

Books about Nancy Wake
(Nancy will be featured soon in the spotlight section of this site)

Nancy Wake by Russell Braddon

Nancy Wake: The inspiring story of one of the war’s greatest heroines
by Peter Fitzsimons

Other books about the women of the SOE

Heroines of SOE by Beryl E. Escott

Second Wave Feminism

information coming soon – thank you for your patience

Having It All?

information coming soon – thank you for your patience

The New Feminism (Third Wave Feminism?)

Suggested reading:

Nina Power: One Dimensional Woman (zero books 2009)

Natasha Walter: Living Dolls – the Return of Sexism (Virago Press 2010)

Further reading: click on title for further information

Titles covering the 20th Century:

Turner, Mary ‘The Women’s Century: a Celebration of Changing Roles 1900 -2000’
(The National Archives 2003)

Mayer, Annette ‘Women in Britain 1900-2000’ (Hodder and Stoughton, 2002)

Bruley, Sue ‘Women in Britain since 1900’ (Palgrave 1999)

Rowbotham, Sheila, ‘A Century of Women: The History of Women in Britain and the United States’ (Penguin 1999)