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The Changing Role and Status of Women in Britain Since 1900 Assignment

1. Explain why women failed to gain the right to vote between 1900 and 1914. (15 marks)

At the beginning of the 20th century the women in Great Britain suffered from traditional weaknesses in social, economic and cultural life. They had played a secondary and supporting role for men for centuries, few of them received serious education than men and were banned from most universities, most jobs and professions. If they were present in any form of employed work it was usually only as domestic servants, nurses, tutors and governesses and all these positions were usually considered as temporary because they were expected to end the moment the woman got married. In popular culture marriage was still seen as the only path through which women could find fulfilment. For this reason involvement of women in politics seemed to be a far fetched idea.

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Given these deep rooted cultural attitudes it was an unavoidable fact that the vast majority of men in Great Britain as well as a large but unknown proportion of women themselves felt either indifferent or totally hostile to the idea of women having the right to vote. This is one of the underlying reasons for the failure of the suffrage campaign up to 1914.

Another basic reason was that not all men by any means as yet had the right to vote, and to a lot of people it seemed premature to argue about female suffrage when the arguments about universal male suffrage had still not been settled. In Britain the right to vote had been closely linked with the owning of property so that even in 1900 men without property were still excluded from having the right to vote. When a woman married, they and all that they possessed became the property of their husband. This added a legal disadvantage to women which weakened their arguments in favour of having the right to vote.

The women’s campaign spilt up into two groups, the Suffragists and the Suffragettes. To start of with, the Suffragists also known as the National Union of Women’s Societies were too moderate and peaceful. The worst they did was civil disobedience. The Suffragettes also known as the Women’s Social and Political Union used violent and aggressive methods to give women the right to vote. They were very militant and extreme. This group consisted of the three main leaders, Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst and Sylvia Pankhurst along with other women and it was not a democratic group instead there was nepotism taking place in the W.S.P.U (Women’s social political union).

This group carried out many harmful tactics to make them heard. Some women left bombs and set fire to buildings thought there was no attempt to hurt anybody. Lloyd George was stripped on a golf course by some women and others fluttered leaflets around London on a hot air balloon. Mary Richardson took a knife to a painting of Venus and slashed it, soon she was known as “Slasher Mary.” This period was known as the “Reign of Terror,” 1909. This period did not help the women to gain the right to vote. The government felt that they should not give into extremists because it would ruin their credibility.

The main political parties and the government felt that they had more urgent issues to resolve than the issue of women’s votes. The period 100-1914 was one of economic and social changes and instability that gave the politicians lots of pressing concerns to worry about. There was a big controversy about whether to abandon free trade in favour of protectionism, there was an arms race with Germany and after the 1909 budget, and a serious constitutional conflict began over the power of the House of Lords. There were lots of industrial disputes and strikes which involved the trade union movement. All of this was the top concern of the Labour party, far more important to them than votes for women.

The top priority for the Irish Nationalists was the “Irish home rule” which was a massive problem that took up a lot of time and energy for all political parties. The Conservative party was mainly opposed to giving women the vote and the Liberal party formed the government from 1905-1914 and had to struggle from day to day with all important questions of which votes for women was only one.

2. Attitudes towards women and their right to vote had changed by 1918. How important was the First World War in bringing about this change? Explain your answer. (10 marks)

The start of the First World War was like a total interruption to the campaign for female suffrage. In the great wave of patriotism and national unity that broke out in 1914, the reasons of he suffragettes was to call off their militant campaign, stop their protests and support the war effort. Christabel Pankhurst led a march of thirty thousand women to White Hall chanting, “We demand the right to serve.” This greatly improved the standing of the women’s image in the popular eye.

One of the main consequences of the outbreak of the war was a massive labour shortage in the UK’s fields and factories. Because young men enlisted in such large numbers, because the war lasted much longer than expected and because the large numbers of casualties meant that more men had to be sent to replace those who had fallen, the female population became involved for the first time in British history ion the work of heavy industry, especially in the metallurgical and munitions industry. By 1918 more than a million British women were working in munitions factories making shells, guns and bullets. They also worked in shipyards and in transport as bus and tram conductors.

They also worked on farms where there was a need to produce as much food as possible because of the interruption to normal peace-time trade. The large number of casualties created additional work for the nurses in hospitals. Before the war it had generally been thought that women were incapable of doing men’s jobs, but the war proved the opposite and this indirectly strengthened the claim of women to have equality with men, to e able to vote like men and to be held in equal professional respect.

The enormous effort and sacrifice that Britain’s women put in and the long duration called for recognition by the government and parliament and the pressure on these institutions, the longer the war lasted. Former key opponents like Asquith who had been prime minister during the Suffragette campaign, changed their minds during the war and was won over to the idea of female suffrage.

As well as the war causing people to have second thoughts about the claims of the women’s campaign, there was also a parallel shift of attitude about all men getting the right to vote. The sacrifice of a whole generation of young men together with the declining trust in the traditional ruling class and political leaders prepared the way for a universal right to vote and as part of a new democratic start for Britain and Europe. This disposed of the argument that it was too soon to give women the vote when not all men had the vote. The government was embraced that many poor men fighting in the war did not have the right to vote. At the end of the war both the war heroes and the war heroines needed to be rewarded for what they had done.

During the second half of the war, work started in parliament, with the support of all the main parties to prepare a new law to give the vote to all men and most women. This measure became law in 1918. It was called “The representation of the people’s act” and it gave the vote to men aged 21 and over and women aged 30 and over. Another factor that contributed to the new attitude of parliament was the wish to make a fresh start and to settle the question of womens’ vote once and for all. In 1914, when war broke out, women decided that the nation should work together as a team. In 1915, Christabel Pankhurst led 30,000 women down White Hall chanting, “We demand the right to serve.” The women played a hug role on the western front and home front. Due to their impressive help, they gained a lot of credit and had the right to vote.

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