LIFE FOR WOMEN IN THE 20TH CENTURY
By Tim Lambert
Women's Rights in the 20th Century
The rights and status of women greatly improved in the 20th century.
In 1897 local groups of women who demanded the vote joined to form the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The organisation was moderate and its members were called suffragists.
However in 1903 a more radical organisation was formed called the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Emmeline Pankhurst led it and its members were suffragettes. Some suffragettes broke the law and were imprisoned. Some prisoners went on hunger strike but in 1913 the government passed the Cat and Mouse Act which allowed them to release hunger strikers then arrest them again when they recovered.
However the suffragettes halted their campaign when the war began in 1914. Finally in 1918 in Britain women over 30 were allowed to vote. In 1928 they were allowed to vote at the age of 21 (the same as men). In 1919 Nancy Astor became the first female MP and in 1929 Margaret Bondfield became the first female cabinet minister. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister.
Women's Jobs in the 20th Century
More occupations were opened to women during the 20th century. In 1910 the first policewoman was appointed in Los Angeles. In 1916 the first policewoman (with full powers) was appointed in Britain. The 1919 Sex Disqualification Removal Act allowed women to become lawyers, vets and civil servants. (The first female solicitor was Carrie Morrison in 1922). Also in 1922 Irene Barclay became the first female chartered surveyor.
In 1917 the WRNS (Women's Royal Naval Service) was formed. So was the WRAF (Women's Royal Air Force). In 1938 the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the female branch of the British army was formed.
Nevertheless in the early 20th century it was unusual for married women to work (except in wartime). However in the 1950s and 1960s it became common for them to do so - at least part-time. By the end of the century it was normal for married women to have their own careers.
In 1970 the law was changed so women had to be paid the same wages as men for doing work of equal value. In 1973 women were admitted to the stock exchange. From 1975 it was made illegal to sack women for becoming pregnant. Also in 1975 the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against women in employment, education and training. In 1984 a new law stated that equal pay must be given for work of equal value. In the late 20th century the number of women in managerial and other highly paid jobs greatly increased.
Meanwhile during the 20th century new appliances made housework much easier. (Even at the end of the century most housework was still done by women!). By the 1920s vacuum cleaners and washing machines were available but only rich people could afford them. They became more common in the 1930s, though they were still expensive. By 1959 about two thirds of British homes had a vacuum cleaner. However fridges and washing machines did not become really common till the 1960s.
In 1921 Dr Marie Stopes opened the first birth control clinic in England. Contraceptive pills became available in Britain in 1961. They gave women new freedom.
Among many firsts in the 20th century in 1930 Amy Johnson became the first women to fly from Britain to Australia. In 1963 Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space.
Famous female scientists of the 20th century include chemists Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994), Edith Flanigen and Helen Free and pharmacologist Gertrude Elion (1918-1999). In 1903 Mary Anderson invented windscreen wipers.
Women's Clothes in the 20th Century
In 1900 women wore long dresses. It was not acceptable for women to show their legs. From 1910 women wore hobble skirts. They were so narrow women could only 'hobble' along while wearing them. However during World War I women’s clothes became more practical.
Meanwhile in 1913 Mary Crosby invented the bra. She used two handkerchiefs joined by ribbon. In 1915 lipstick was sold in tubes for the first time.
In the early 1920s women still wore knickers that ended below the knee. However during the 1920s knickers became much shorter. By the late 1920s they ended well above the knee. In the mid-20th century younger women wore briefs.
A revolution in women’s clothes occurred in 1925. At that time women began wearing knee length skirts. In the mid and late 1920s it was fashionable for women to look boyish. However in the 1930s women’s dress became more conservative.
During World War II it was necessary to save material so skirts were shorter. Clothes were rationed until 1949.
Meanwhile the bikini was invented in 1946. In 1947 Christian Dior introduced the New Look, with long skirts and narrow waists giving an 'hour glass' figure.
During the 1950s women's clothes were full and feminine. However in 1965 Mary Quant invented the mini skirt and clothes became even more informal.
Life for women in the 19th century
Life for women in the 16th century
Life for women in the Middle Ages
Life for women in the Ancient World
A history of women's rights