Fringe Box



The Changing Role Of Women Since 1914

Published on: 12 Mar, 2014
Updated on: 12 Mar, 2014

International Women’s Day has been marked at the Guildford Institute with member Margaret Westwood and Carol Brown from Guildford Museum each giving fascinating talks.

Here, Margaret reports on the talks given.

Every year (since goodness knows when) the Guildford Institute has marked International Women’s Day with a special talk featuring outstanding women and their achievements.

Notable local examples include Lucy Broadwood, pioneer folk-song collector of the 19th century; Yvonne Arnaud, the actress who gave her name to Guildford’s theatre; Bice Bellairs whose small studio for dance and drama in Millbrook evolved into the celebrated Guildford School of Acting and is now part of the University of Surrey.

This year the scope was broadened: two talks in the first week of March opened what now seems to have become International Women’s Month.

Lady girl from the First World War.

Land girl from the First World War.

Carol Brown rom Guildford Museum took on the enormous task of describing The Role of Women in World War I. With an impressive collection of old photographs, she demonstrated how the idea that “working women” in the early 1900s were “in service” – all white caps and frilly aprons – was a long way from the reality.

Women worked in cotton mills, biscuit factories, gutted fish at the sea ports, heaved coal in sacks at the pit heads, worked from home as laundresses and dressmakers. When the call came in 1914, they responded by taking up the jobs that men had left when they joined the army.

They drove vehicles, worked on the railways, became post “men”, milk “men” and entered the civil service and police forces. Later when they went into the munitions factories (called canaries because the toxic TNT turned their skin yellow) they slogged through a 12-hour day with only a half-hour break – but earned more money than they could ever have dreamed of in “service”.

Young ladies who had never made their own beds or brushed their own hair donned uniforms and joined the many auxiliary /military services or worked as nurses with the VAD.

Locally, Noeline Baker took charge of the Surrey Division of the Women’s Land Army and marshalled the women to the plough.

Lady Roberts of Henley Park gave up her home as a hospital for wounded soldiers. The “war to end all wars” was certainly a catalyst to women’s emancipation but actually it merely accelerated the unstoppable march of women into a man-dominated world – and ultimately universal suffrage.

Margaret Westwood, retired lecturer from the University of Surrey, followed the story from 1914. The suffragettes campaigning for Votes for Women put their militant activities on hold and engaged in the war effort. At the end of the war in 1918, a general election was called and as a reward women over 30 who were householders or married to householders were given the right to vote.

However, there was a marked reluctance on the part of the mainstream political parties to support women candidates. The very idea of a “female MP” was shocking to some people – and supported by learned medical men who declared that “women’s sexuality rendered them unfit for any civic responsibility”. Given this climate of opinion it is not surprising that only three women were elected in the decade – and they took seats formerly occupied by their husbands.

Universal suffrage for men and women aged over 21 in 1928 meant that seven million women came on to the electoral rolls for the so-called Flapper election in 1929. From 69 brave candidates, 14 were elected. However, the depression and the gathering clouds of war did not see any political advance, and it was not until 1945 when nearly 90 women stood (mostly for the Labour Party) that 24 were elected – representing 3.8% of the House of Commons.

For the next 30 years, women remained very much a minority group – even though many of them demonstrated outstanding abilities and were promoted to serve as ministers of state.

Then in 1975 the unexpected (even unthinkable) happened; the Conservative Party elected Margaret Thatcher as their leader. Four years later she became Britain’s first woman prime minister.

This might have been seen as an indication that women had at last arrived! But in fact the decade or more of Mrs T did little for women politicians. Few were promoted and she had no women in her Cabinet. The Labour landslide of 1997 hit the headlines with Blair’s Babes – 101 women MPs elected (but only 13 Conservatives) giving an all-time 20% record of women in the House.

Today there are 147 women MPs – about 23% – still well short of the 50% aim of the 300 Groupbut Guildford can be proud to be a constituency that has elected women – Sue Doughty (Lib Dem) and currently Anne Milton (Conservative).

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