Equal opportunity for men and women is a divisive global topic, and one that inspires political campaigning worldwide. In Western Nations, major steps were taken towards gender equality in the 20th century. However there are numerous milestones in both law and cultural perception that can be attributed as steps towards gender equality.
By looking at the campaigning of the early 20th century and the socioeconomic change caused by the World Wars, the key drivers that allowed further social change can be identified.
The movement towards equality between men and women in Western society progressed much faster in the 20th Century. This essay will look at driving forces such as the campaigning that led to political reform and helped change cultural perception of women’s roles, as well as the socioeconomic changes caused by the world wars that gave women an opportunity to take on roles previously denied to them, and how this led to further social and cultural reform.
Campaigns for women’s rights can be traced back to the 19th century, although it was not until the 20th century that legislation came into effect on a wide scale. These campaigns are best represented by suffragette movements in both Britain and the USA. In Britain in particular protesting reached heights that had not been seen for fifty years, national newspapers were awash with photographs of women chaining themselves to railings, and the death of Emily Davison only pushed the movement further. The suffrage movement was notably one of the first political movements to start breaking class and race barriers. In the US, women of lower classes and of African-American heritage gave support to the movement, and although the suffragettes were always dominated by white women of education, “[t]he shared exclusion of these different groups from the individual right of civic participation underscored their common womanhood.”(Evans)
Despite these breakthroughs in social inclusion, movements across the western world struggled to bring their governments to change policies – although Prime Minister of Britain, H.H. Asquith, did nearly sign legislation that would have allowed women who were over 30 and owned property, or were married to a property owner to vote. The Prime Minister pulled out on this due to concerns of what the boost in voters would mean for his political party’s chances on re-election. Up until this point suffragettes the world over had been fighting with very little success, apart from small steps such as The Employment of Women Act in 1906 (Checkland, p.22), which was brought around by international conference. Whilst this act protected women from being exploited in the workplace, it still restricted the amount they could work and kept the genders firmly unequal. The campaigning of women in the UK also helped push the government towards putting through the 1909 Trade Boards Act, a revolutionary step forward in maintaining the ethical rights of those in the workplace. The campaigning of the suffragettes was a major factor in bringing forth legislative reform, but was ultimately failing in its central cause to bring the vote to women.
The First World War was the key catalyst in bringing about far-reaching democratic and social reform for the Western nations. S.G Checkland said of its effect on the UK: “The war of 1914-18 cut across the policy debate of late Victorian and Edwardian times, overwhelming it with an experience of traumatic depth.” (Checkland, p.13) Key to this was a number of factors. Politicians priorities changed, and the party-squabbles that had been such a large part of many a government’s tendency to only look at their own higher class concerns were put aside for the duration of the conflict. Class barriers became thinner as men fought together on the front, and back home citizens were united in a common cause. The economic cost of the war was far reaching and caused further political change during for years after. Many suffragettes followed Millicent Fawcett in her “ceasefire” for the duration of the war, stopping their campaigning in a time of great national need. This choice helped stall the “hysteria” argument of suffrage opposition, and gave Fawcett and others like her enough influence to help lobby through what would become the 1918 Representation of the People Act. (Howarth)
More importantly however, the war caused a shortage of men in the workplace. Women found themselves given the opportunity to take on jobs previously denied to them – many in munitions factories helping the war effort. This proved to be one of the key drivers in bringing about gender equality, as once the barrier that faced women entering the workplace had fallen, the status quo could never truly be restored. In the years after the war, social reform spread through western countries, and finally women were given the right to vote in the US in 1914 and in 1918 in the UK. This step forward in equality was in itself a key driver for the rest of the 20th century: The eventual success of the suffrage movement remains an inspiration to feminist movements today, proving that democratic change towards gender equality is attainable.
Despite these steps forward, most women did not retain their jobs once the war ended. Whilst there was a small step forward for equality in the workplace, and some women did find more openings into jobs previously blocked from them. However in 1920 in the US only 21% of gainfully employed people were women. (United States Department of Labor) In World War Two, women again entered the workplace to replace the men who had gone to fight. At the end of that conflict, change was enough that women were no longer just housewives, there were firmly placed in the workplace as well. (Skoog, p.10).
The arrival of the contraceptive pill and laws allowing abortion came in the decades that followed, as did feminist movements that demanded equal pay and fought for further equality as the suffragettes once did. However, the key drivers can be attributed to those original protesters and their success in the early 20th century, as well as the society-reforming effects of the world wars on western nations. There is still debate on whether genders are truly equal, and on a global scale there most definitely inequality of opportunity. The actions and results of the movements in the 20th century do however prove there is hope for equality.
Checkland S.G. 1989. British public policy, 1776–1939. The Industrial Economies: The Development of Economic and Social Policies. Volume 8 (6), pp.13-22. Available at: Cambridge Histories Online [Accessed 19 September 2012]
Evans, S. Women in American Politics in the Twentieth Century. Available: http://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/womens-history/essays/women-american-politics-twentieth-century. Last accessed 19th Sept 2012.
Howarth, 2004. J. ‘Fawcett, Dame Millicent Garrett (1847–1929)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, online edn, Available at: [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/33096] Last accessed 20 September 2012.
Skoog, K. (2009) ‘Focus on the housewife: The BBC and the post-war woman, 1945-1955’. Networking knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate network. Volume 2 (1) p.10, Available at: [http://ojs.meccsa.org.uk/index.php/netknow/article/view/35/35]Last accessed 19th Sept 2012.
United States Department of Labor, Our History, Available at: [http://www.dol.gov/wb/info_about_wb/interwb.htm] Last accessed 19th Sept 2012.