Feminism in the United Kingdom

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As in other countries, Feminism in the United Kingdom seeks to establish political, social, and economic equality for women. The history of feminism in the UK dates to the very beginnings of feminism itself, as many of the earliest feminist writers and activists—such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Barbara Bodichon, and Lydia Becker—were British.

19th century[edit]

Ann Thornton Going Aloft, c. 1835

The advent of the reformist age during the 19th century meant that those invisible minorities or marginalised majorities were to find a catalyst and a microcosm in such new tendencies of reform. Robert Owen, while asking for "social reorganisation", was laying down the basis of a new reformational background. One of those movements that took advantage of such new spirit was the feminist movement. Activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst were trying to show that British women needed more than domestic servility. The stereotype of the Victorian gentle lady became unacceptable and even intolerable. The first organised movement for British women's suffrage was the Langham Place Circle of the 1850s, led by Barbara Bodichon (née Leigh-Smith) and Bessie Rayner Parkes. They also campaigned for improved female rights in the law, employment, education, and marriage.

20th century[edit]

World War I helped to advance the feminist cause, as women were much needed by the UK heavy industry at the time, and those working women became accustomed to their new-found economic independence.

The 20th century also saw the first and to date the only female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher, who served office from 1979 to 1990, has been viewed with mixed feelings from feminists who either feel she was a positive or detrimental cause to the feminism movement.[1][2][3]

The early 20th century, the Edwardian era, saw a loosening of Victorian rigidity and complacency: women had more employment opportunities and were more active,[clarification needed] leading to a relaxing of clothing restrictions.[citation needed]

The charismatic and controversial[clarification needed] Pankhursts formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903. As Emmline Pankhurst put it, they viewed votes for women no longer as "a right, but as a desperate necessity".[this quote needs a citation] At the state level, Australia and the United States had already granted suffrage to some women. American feminists such as Susan B Anthony (1902) visited Britain.[clarification needed] While WSPU was the best-known suffrage group,[citation needed] it was only one of many, such as the Women's Freedom League and the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) led by Millicent Garrett Fawcett.[clarification needed] WSPU was largely a family affair,[clarification needed] although externally financed. Christabel Pankhurst became the dominant figure and gathered friends such as Annie Kenney, Flora Drummond, Teresa Billington, Ethel Smythe, Grace Roe, and Norah Dacre Fox (later known as Norah Elam) around her. Veterans such as Elizabeth Garrett also joined.

In 1906, the Daily Mail first labeled these women "suffragettes" as a form of ridicule, but the term was quickly embraced[by whom?] in Britain to describe the more militant form of suffragism visible in public marches, distinctive green, purple, and white emblems, and the Artists' Suffrage League's dramatic graphics. Even underwear in WPSU colors appeared in stores.[citation needed] They feminists learned to exploit photography and the media, and left a vivid visual record including images such as the 1914 photograph of Emmeline.[citation needed] As the movement gained momentum, deep divisions separated the former leaders from the radicals. The splits were usually ideological or tactical.[citation needed] Even Christabel's sister, Sylvia, was expelled.[citation needed]

Cover of WSPU's The Suffragette, April 25, 1913 (after Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People, 1830)

The protests slowly became more violent, and included heckling, banging on doors, smashing shop windows, and arson. Emily Davison, a WSPU member, unexpectedly ran onto the track during the 1913 Epsom Derby and died under the King's horse. These tactics produced mixed results of sympathy and alienation.[citation needed] As many protesters were imprisoned and went on hunger-strike, the British government was left with an embarrassing situation. From these political actions, the suffragists successfully created publicity around their institutional discrimination and sexism.

In the 1920s, the nontraditional styles and attitudes of flappers were popular among American and British women.[4]

Electoral reform[edit]

The United Kingdom's Representation of the People Act 1918[5][dead link] gave near-universal suffrage to men, and suffrage to women over 30. The Representation of the People Act 1928 extended equal suffrage to both men and women. It also shifted the socioeconomic makeup of the electorate towards the working class, favoring the Labour Party, who were more sympathetic to women's issues.[citation needed] The following election and gave Labour the most seats in the house to date. The electoral reforms also allowed women to run for Parliament. Christabel Pankhurst narrowly failed to win a seat in 1918, but in 1919 and 1920, both Lady Astor and Margaret Wintringham won seats for the Conservatives and Liberals respectively by succeeding their husband's seats. Labour swept to power in 1924. Constance Markievicz (Sinn Féin) was the first woman elected in Ireland in 1918, but as an Irish nationalist, refused to take her seat. Astor's proposal to form a women's party in 1929 was unsuccessful, which some historians[who?] feel was a missed opportunity, as there were only 12 women in Parliament by 1940. Women gained considerable electoral experience over the next few years as a series of minority governments ensured almost annual elections. Close affiliation with Labour also proved to be a problem for the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC), which had little support in the Conservative party. However, their persistence with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was rewarded with the passage of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928.[citation needed]

Social reform[edit]

The political change did not immediately change social circumstances. With the economic recession, women were the most vulnerable sector of the workforce. Some women who held jobs prior to the war were obliged to forfeit them to returning soldiers, and others were excessed. With limited franchise, the UK National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) pivoted into a new organization, the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC),[6] which still advocated for equality in franchise, but extended its scope to examine equality in social and economic areas. Legislative reform was sought for discriminatory laws (e.g., family law and prostitution) and over the differences between equality and equity, the accommodations that would allow women to overcome barriers to fulfillment (known in later years as the "equality vs. difference conundrum").[7] Eleanor Rathbone, who became a British Member of Parliament in 1929, succeeded Millicent Garrett as president of NUSEC in 1919. She expressed the critical need for consideration of difference in gender relationships as "what women need to fulfill the potentialities of their own natures".[this quote needs a citation] The 1924 Labour government's social reforms created a formal split, as a splinter group of strict egalitarians formed the Open Door Council in May 1926.[8] This eventually became an international movement, and continued until 1965.[citation needed] Other important social legislation of this period included the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 (which opened professions to women), and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1923. In 1932, NUSEC separated advocacy from education, and continued the former activities as the National Council for Equal Citizenship and the latter as the Townswomen's Guild. The council continued until the end of the Second World War.[citation needed]

In 1921, Margaret Mackworth (Lady Rhondda) founded the Six Point Group,[9] which included Rebecca West. As a political lobby group it aimed at political, occupational, moral, social, economic and legal equality. Thus it was ideologically allied with the Open Door Council, rather than National Council. It also lobbied at an international level, such as the League of Nations, and continued its work till 1983. In retrospect both ideological groups were influential in advancing women's rights in their own way. Despite women being admitted to the House of Commons from 1918, Mackworth, a Viscountess in her own right, spent a lifetime fighting to take her seat in the House of Lords against bitter opposition, a battle which only achieved its goal in the year of her death (1958). This revealed the weaknesses of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. Mackworth also founded Time and Tide which became the group's journal, and to which West, Virginia Woolf, Rose Macaulay and many others contributed. A number of other women's periodicals also appeared in the 1920s, including Woman and Home, and Good Housekeeping, but whose content reflect very different aspirations. In 1925 Rebecca West wrote in Time and Tide something that reflected not only the movement's need to redefine itself post suffrage, but a continual need for re-examination of goals. "When those of our army whose voices are inclined to coolly tell us that the day of sex-antagonism is over and henceforth we have only to advance hand in hand with the male, I do not believe it."[citation needed]

Reproductive rights[edit]

Annie Besant had been tried in 1877 for publishing Charles Knowlton's Fruits of Philosophy, a work on family planning, under the Obscene Publications Act 1857.[10][11] Knowlton had previously been convicted in the United States. She and her colleague Charles Bradlaugh were convicted but acquitted on appeal, the subsequent publicity resulting in a decline in the birth rate.[12][13] Not discouraged in the slightest, Besant followed this with The Law of Population.[14]


1950s Britain has traditionally been regarded as a bleak period for feminism. In the aftermath of World War II, a new emphasis was placed on the nuclear family as a foundation of the new British welfare state. Although during the war most women worked outside the home and participated in the war effort, after its end they were encouraged to assume roles of wives and mothers, as the government aimed to “re-establish domesticity as women’s primary occupation (see Ward 2004: 50, Pugh 1990: 158).

In 1951, the proportion of adult women who were (or had been) married was 75%; more specifically, 84.8% of women between the ages of 45 and 49 were married (Lewis 1984: 3). At that time: “marriage was more popular than ever before” (Bruely 131). In 1953, a popular book of advice for women states: “A happy marriage may be seen, not as a holy state or something to which a few may luckily attain, but rather as the best course, the simplest, and the easiest way of life for us all” (Whiteman 67).

While at the end of the war, childcare facilities were closed and assistance for working women became limited, the social reforms implemented by the new welfare state included family allowances meant to subsidize families, that is, to support women in the “capacity as wife and mother” (Pugh 1990: 158). Sue Bruely argues that “the progressive vision of the New Britain of 1945 was flawed by a fundamentally conservative view of women” (118).

The encouragement to marry and was reinforced by popular media: films, radio and popular women's magazines. In the 1950s, women's magazines had considerable influence on forming opinion in all walks of life, including the attitude to women’s employment. Cynthia White maintains that their attitude to this issue was “regressive,” and that they used their great influence “positively to discourage women from trying to combine work and marriage” (135). Martin Pugh regards women’s magazines as prescriptive literature, and claims they “threw themselves back into the task of discouraging women from seeking careers” (1990: 162). Through fiction and real-life stories, women’s magazines promoted the ideal of women’s domesticity and dependence, encouraging the return of the female labor force to the kitchen and the nursery (Ferguson 1983: 21). Similarly, women’s programs on the radio and on the recently introduced television were just as dogmatic, and served to reinforce the image of the woman as a successful housewife.

In spite of this, 1950s Britain saw several strides towards the parity of women, such as equal pay for teachers (1952) and for men and women in the civil service (1954). Thanks to activists like Edith Summerskill, who fought for women’s causes both in parliament and in the traditional non-party pressure groups throughout the 1950s (See Pugh 284). Barbara Caine argues: “Ironically here, as with the vote, success was sometimes the worst enemy of organized feminism, as the achievement of each goal brought to an end the campaign which had been organized around it, leaving nothing in its place” (1997: 223).

Feminist writers of that period, such as Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein, started to allow for the possibility that women should be able to combine home with outside employment. 1950s’ form of feminism is often derogatorily termed “welfare feminism” (see Banks 1981:176). Indeed, many activists went to great length to stress that their position was that of ‘reasonable modern feminism,’ which accepted sexual diversity, and sought to establish what women’s social contribution was rather than emphasizing equality or the similarity of the sexes. Feminism in 1950s England was strongly connected to social responsibility and involved the well-being of society as a whole. This often came at the cost of the liberation and personal fulfillment of self-declared feminists. Even those women who regarded themselves as feminists strongly endorsed prevailing ideas about the primacy of children’s needs, as advocated, for example, by John Bowlby the head of the Children's Department at the Tavistock Clinic, who published extensively throughout the 1950s and by Donald Winnicott who promoted through radio broadcasts and in the press the idea of the home as a private emotional world in which mother and child are bound to each other and in which the mother has control and finds freedom to fulfill herself (see Finch and Summerfield 11).

21st century[edit]

Since 2007, Harriet Harman has been Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, the UK's current opposition party. Traditionally, being Deputy Leader has ensured the cabinet role of Deputy Prime Minister. However, Gordon Brown announced that he would not have a Deputy Prime Minister, much to the consternation of feminists,[15] particularly with suggestions that privately Brown considered Jack Straw to be de facto deputy prime minister[16] and thus bypassing Harman. With Harman's cabinet post of Leader of the House of Commons, Brown allowed her to chair Prime Minister's Questions when he was out of the country. Harman also held the post Minister for Women and Equality. In 2013, the first oral history archive of the United Kingdom women’s liberation movement (titled Sisterhood and After) was launched by the British Library.[17]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Melanie Phillips; The Ascent of Woman — A History of the Suffragette Movement and the ideas behind it, Time Warner Book Group London, 2003. ISBN 0-349-11660-1.
  • Martin Pugh, Women and the women's movement in Britain, 1914–1999, Basingstoke [u.a.]: * St. Martin's Press [u.a.], 2000.
  • Barbara Caine, Victorian Feminists, Oxford University Press 1992
  • Barbara Bodichon founder of the women's right movement in England.
  • Beauvoir, Simone de. 1974 [1953]. The Second Sex. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Bowlby, John. 1966. Maternal Care and Mental Health: A Report Prepared on Behalf of the World Health Organization as a Contribution to the United Nations Programme for the Welfare of Homeless Children. New York: Schoken Books.
  • Brittain, Vera. 1960. The Women at Oxford. London: George G. Harrap.
  • Bruley, Sue. 1999. Women in Britain since 1900. Houndmill: Macmilan.
  • Caine, Barbara. 1997. English Feminism 1780-1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Campbell, Olwen Ward ed. 1952. The Report of the Conference on the Feminine Point of View. London: Williams & Norgate.
  • Elizabeth The II. 1947. “Act of Dedication.” Coming of Age Broadcast. Listener 37/952. P. 613. .
  • Ferguson, Marjorie. 1983. Forever Feminine. Aldershot: Gower.
  • Goldsmith, Margaret. 1943. Women At War. London: Lindsay Drummond.
  • Finch, Janet and Penny Summerfield. “Social Reconstruction and the Emergence of Companionate Marriage, 1945–59.” In Marriage, Domestic Life and Social Change, ed. David Clark. London: Routledge, pp. 7–32.
  • Hubback, Judith. 1957. Wives Who Went to College. London: Heinemann.
  • Lewis, Jane ed. 1983. Women’s Welfare Women’s Rights. Beckenham: Croom Helm.
  • ———. 1984. Women in England 1870-1950. Sussex: Wheatsheaf Books.
  • ———. 1990. “Myrdal, Klein, Women’s Two Roles and Postwar Feminism 1945–1960.” In British Feminism in the Twentieth Century, ed. Harold L. Smith. Aldershot Hants: Edward Elgar, pp. 167–88.

Myrdal, Alva, and Viola Klein. 1956. Women’s Two Roles: Home and Work. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

  • Pierce, Rachel. M. 1963. “Marriage in the Fifties.” The Sociological Review 11/2: 215–41.
  • Pugh, Martin. 1990. “Domesticity and the Decline of Feminism 1930–1950.” In British Feminism in the Twentieth Century, ed. Harold L. Smith. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press, pp. 144–62.
  • ———. 1992. Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain 1914–1959. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Raz, Orna. Social Dimensions in the Novels of Barbara Pym, 1949—1963. The Writer as Hidden Observer. Lewinston: Edwin Mellen. 2007.

  • Spencer, Stephanie, 2005. Gender, Work and Education in Britain of the 1950s,Basingstoke: Macmillan.
  • Whiteman,Phyllis, 1953. 'Speaking as a Woman', (London : Chapman & Hall)


  1. ^ Margaret Thatcher: a feminist success story - Guardian
  2. ^ Margaret Thatcher: The housewife with power - The Telegraph
  3. ^ New feminism, droning on about nail polish and toilet cleaning, is just a branch office of capitalism - New Statesman
  4. ^ Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Flappers in the Roaring Twenties". About.com. Retrieved 2010-04-25. 
  5. ^ Representation of the People Act 1918
  6. ^ Records of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship. London Metropolitan University, Women's Library. Archives in London
  7. ^ Offen, Karen. Women in the western world. Journal of Women's Studies 1995 Summer 7(2):145
  8. ^ Records of the Open Door Council. London Metropolitan University, Women's Library. Archives in London
  9. ^ Records of the Six Point Group including Hazel Hunkins-Hallinan Papers. London Metropolitan University, Women's Library. Archives in London
  10. ^ Chandrasekhar, S. "A Dirty, Filthy Book": The Writing of Charles Knowlton and Annie Besant on Reproductive Physiology and British Control and an Account of the Bradlaugh-Besant Trial. University of California Berkeley 1981
  11. ^ Manvell, Roger. The trial of Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh. Elek, London 1976
  12. ^ Banks, J. A. and O. "The Bradlaugh-Besant Trial and the English Newspapers". Population Studies 1954 July 8(1):22-34
  13. ^ Balaram P. "Population". Current Science 2003 August 85 (3: 233-4)
  14. ^ Besant, Annie. The Law of Population: Its consequences and its bearing upon human conduct and morals. London: Freethought Publishing, 1877.
  15. ^ http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article1980533.ece Harman snatches an empty victory - The Times
  16. ^ Harriet Harman will fill in for Brown at Prime Minister's Questions next week - This is London
  17. ^ http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/activistmedia/2013/03/sisterhoodandafter/