By Tim Lambert

Women's Rights in the 20th Century

During the 20th century women gained equal rights with men. Technological and economic changes made it inevitable that women would be given the same rights as men.

By 1884 the majority of men in Britain were allowed to vote. So 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 called suffragettes. The suffragettes committed crimes like arson and vandalism. However the suffragettes halted their campaign when the war began in 1914.

However 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.

Meanwhile all women in the USA were given the right to vote in 1920 (although in some states women could vote before that). Rebecca Latimer Felton became the first woman US senator in 1922. In 1925 Nellie Tayloe Ross becomes the first woman governor of a US state (Wyoming). 1933 Frances Perkins became the first woman appointed to a presidential cabinet. She was secretary of labor. In 1981 Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman judge on the US Supreme Court.

A history of women's rights

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 and a law of 1919 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. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century housework was so time consuming married women did not have time to work. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew creating more opportunities for women.

In 1963 in the USA an Equal Pay Act compelled employers to pay men and women the same amount for doing the same job. An Equal Pay Act was passed in Britain in 1970. In 1973 in Britain women were admitted to the stock exchange for the first time. 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.

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.

Among many firsts in the 20th century in 1956 Rose Heilbron became the first woman judge in Britain and in 1958 Hilda Harding became the first woman bank manager. Then in 1976 Mary Langdon became the first female fire fighter in Britain.

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 Phelps Jacob 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 well below the knee. However during the 1920s knickers became shorter. They ended 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.

One of the biggest changes in the 20th century was the availability of artificial fibers. Nylon was first made in the 1935 by Wallace Carothers and polyester was invented in 1941 by John Whinfield and James Dickson. It became common in the 1950s. Vinyl (a substitute for leather) was invented in 1924.

A history of women's clothes

Life for women in the 19th century

Life for women in the 16th century

Life for women in the Middle Ages

A timeline of women in the 20th century

Daily life in the 20th century

My Youtube video about women in the 20th Century