How important was the First World War in bringing about this change
The First World War had some importance in enabling women to be enfranchised, yet its influence was limited. There had been increasing long term progress before it, and it did not fundamentally change attitudes towards women. There is a lot of evidence to show that attitudes were already changing before the war. Women had won the right to vote in local elections, and also had new legal rights such as the Divorce Act of 1857 and the Married Property Acts of 1870/1872. It was still widely perceived that the woman’s role was in the home, to be a wife and a mother.
Those women that were employed were working class in majority doing unskilled jobs, and were frowned upon by society. Their pay was half that of men of equal position, and it was usual for a woman to be sacked after marriage. Changes in work were more apparent for middle class women; Britain’s economy was changing – there were more jobs being created in the service industries such as teaching, typing or nursing. Educationally they had advanced, with free compulsory state education up till the age of 11, and the acceptance for some women (richer) to go into higher education.
These were positive changes for women, however, society in general still had deeply rooted beliefs on the status of women, and they were still regarded as inferior, practically second class citizens. The various groups that campaigned for women’s suffrage had been successful in swaying the majority of Parliament, and had there been a free vote between 1900 and 1914 there would have been a majority in favour. However the issue of suffrage was complicated by calculations of political party advantage. The Liberal party had been in power from 1905 – 1915, and were in favour of the vote.
However, their leader and Prime Minister, Lloyd Asquith was completely against it. This made it much more difficult to pass a suffrage law. Bills introduced in 1910 and 1913 both failed, due to complications such as lack of time, however they were succeeding in winning a majority. Finally, it seemed in 1914 that the vote could be delayed no longer, and Asquith met with a delegation of women from the suffrage organisations. The War had started, and was far more important than issues of suffrage, so progress stopped.
This is key evidence that attitudes towards women and the vote had already changed greatly before the war. During the war, women played a very positive role. Because of the lack of male workers during the war, there was a massive increase in the numbers of women in paid work. New jobs that had previously only been available to men had opened, women were now working in munitions factories, transport, even in the armed forces as cooks, drivers or nurses. Most of the Suffragettes and Suffragists immediately stopped their campaign, and encouraged woman to serve their country.
It was partly because of their calling on the government that women were allowed to serve. Women’s social habits changed; they were now more independant, and were free to do many things previously regarded as unacceptable. The war was such a massively demanding period of time that it brought the whole nation together. Women were praised for their work, patriotism had swept over the previous social status differences. However, the war only helped as a contribution towards the long term progress of changes in attitudes towards women.
There were still no fundamental changes. Women were still paid up to two thirds lower than men, and there were still opportunities that were only open to men, such as employment as engineering. Also, the work was temporary. After the end of the war, men returned wanting their jobs back Women were simply sacked. It seemed that although the women had proven themselves and served their country in the most devastating war in history, attitudes seemed to have reverted back to the state they were in 1914. The war did lead to a partial victory for women however.
It helped to change Asquith’s opinion on women, which was important. The media had changed its attitudes; an example would be that they published articles on the efficient work performed by women at work during the war. Soon after in 1918, some women did receive the vote. It was carefully planned by the government; only available to home owning women over 30, and tacked onto a law giving all men over 21 the vote (or soldiers over 18). Because it was a war, the country was run by a Coalition Government. This meant that it was easier for the suffrage organisations to compromise with them.
Because of the all males law tacked on, the Liberals were satisfied, and because the women’s law only allowed higher class respectable women, the Conservatives were satisfied. Because each party had their own respective interests, they were happy that there would be balance between the voters for each party. The war also meant that the vote could be given to women as a way of thanks for their service in the war. They had wanted to give them the vote previously but did not want to seem to be giving in to Suffragette militancy, or literally, terrorism. In the long term, attitudes towards women did not greatly change.
The war, whilst contributing to the slow progress that women were making, did not significantly change society’s opinion. Women were still not regarded as men’s equals, and the vote that they did receive in 1918 was not on equal terms. Evidence for the inequality would be to look at political figures. In 1918 there were only 17 women candidates out of over 600 MP’s. Even looking at 1935’s figures there were only 35 women candidates; so it is noticable that there was not a significant change. In conclusion, overall the continuities were more significant than the changes.