1910-1919: A period when legislative change finally began to establish gender equality.

Published 8th July 2016

Tensions over labour relations and frustration that social change was stagnating caused a backdrop of restlessness to this decade. The First World War shook the British nation to its core and led to unprecedented changes in political, legislative, and cultural structures. This was the epoch that saw the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic in 1915, the first non-stop transatlantic flight, and the reign of the new monarch King George V.

Violent Tonypandy riots began in 1910 in response to a lockout by coal mine owners and set the tone for a decade marked by strike action. Increasing industrial mechanisation was a source of anxiety for many workers in Britain because employers were trying to increase surplus as much as possible by reducing labour costs, making jobs seem unstable. A year later in 1911, a Mounted Police Convoy and the warship HMS Antrim were used in two incidents to suppress the Liverpool General Transport Strikes, which paralysed Liverpool commerce for the summer. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s liberal government took steps to address the critical problems facing workers. The National Insurance Act of December 1911 was the foundation of the modern welfare statement, insuring against loss of health, for the prevention and cure of sickness, and against unemployment.

However, until World War One labour relation issues continued to cause problems. Workers suffered from unsafe conditions in huge production plants where their lives and health were often dangerously compromised from working with toxic substances. The 1917 Silvertown Explosion is one of the most horrific examples of this in the 1910’s. Silvertown produced up to 9 tons of TNT a day, a volatile explosive used by troops on the Western Front. In an accidental explosion 70,000 buildings were damaged, 73 people killed, and over 400 injured. Molten metal showered across several miles, whilst the blast itself was heard in Southampton and Norwich.

The whole heavens were lit in awful splendour.
The Stratford Express

Conditions for the working-class were lamentable. But it was the drudgery and hardship of working-class women’s lives that aggravated Emmeline Pankhurst to campaign for female suffrage in an attempt to improve their lives. She had created the WSPU in 1903, a militant suffragette organisation, born out of frustration with the lack of progress from the peaceful suffragists in the NUWSS. Poorer women, when not burdened by frequent pregnancies, faced the backbreaking hard work necessary to keep households clean with limited resources and in squalid conditions. Average life expectancy for women in this decade was 55, slightly higher than for men.

The decade began with several major set-backs for female suffrage in the failure of three Conciliation Bills which had aimed to extend female suffrage. The Women’s Franchise Bill was dropped in November 1910, the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith arguing that it would erode ‘the distinction of sex’. Emmeline Pankhurst led a deputation of 300 women to parliament on ‘Black Friday’ in protestation. The police suppressed them and 200 women being assaulted. Many suffragettes who chained themselves to railings during the early years of the 1910s were victims of sexual assault at the hands of men in the public and police forces. In that same year the case Bebb v. Law Society ruled that women would not be allowed to take exams to qualify as solicitors, on the basis that women were not ‘persons’. Disappointment over the failure of government to pass enfranchising legislation provoked the WSPU to further militancy.

Women like Pleasance Pendred smashed windows and committed acts of vandalism to agitate for change. In 1913 Emily Wilding Davison suffered fatal injuries sustained after stepping out in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby. Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested and sentenced to 3 years in jail in 1913. She went on hunger strike in protest of her imprisonment, leading to the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-Health) Act, otherwise known as the Cat and Mouse Act. Women who went on hunger strike would be released from prison until they had recovered and then re-arrested to complete their sentence. It led to Emmeline Pankhurst being arrested 9 times in 18 months. Decadent food was placed before prisoners in their cells to tempt them. Christabel Pankhurst wrote that ‘from the moment that women had consented to prison, hunger-strikes, and forcible feeding as the price of the vote, the vote really was theirs’. Force-feeding was an act of cruel brutality that ingratiated popular opinion to the cause of female Suffrage.

At the outbreak of war Emmeline Pankhurst abruptly ended her militant approach. She encouraged women to take up the empty jobs left by men who had gone to the front, and renamed the Suffragette figure ‘Britannia’. The NUWSS suffragist society also dropped its work to join the WAAC (Women’s Active Service Corps), the British section of the Women’s International League. Women worked in jobs they had never had access to before, serving in the navy, the Red Cross, and in the police force. ‘Woman’ was used as a national symbol of patriotism, the representative and defender of family life and domesticity that British soldiers were fighting to defend. As fashions began to change women also looked different, wearing shorter hairstyles and shorter skirts. Military braiding, belts with buckles, and shorter skirts were seen everywhere as clothes adapted out of wartime necessity. By 1915 hemlines rose shockingly to mid-calf, but colours were more sober. A further consequence of World War One, rather ironically, is that the health of a number of women improved. Improvements in living conditions and nutrition partially caused better health, with some historians arguing that women’s diets improved because wartime restrictions on pubs allowed more household income to be spent on food.

Five years later in 1918, London was ‘wild with delight’ after the 11th November Armistice that ended the war. The Representation of the People Act was passed that year, allowing women over the age of 30 who met certain property qualifications to vote. If they were householders, the wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of 35 or graduates of British universities they were able to vote. A few months later the December 1918 General Election presented women with their first opportunity to vote. One woman was elected to the House of Commons out of 17 female candidates. A Sinn Fein MP, Constance Markiewicz, successfully won but refused to take her seat in line with Sinn Fein party policy. Nancy Astor would become the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons after being elected in a by-election for Plymouth Sutton. A year later, on 23rd December, royal assent was given to the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act, allowing women to enter the professions.

Legislative change finally began to establish gender equality. Cultural changes reflected and instigated further steps toward gender equality as well. In 1918 Dr. Marie Stopes authored ‘Married Love’, a book that taught readers about birth control. Her book was in its sixth printing within a fortnight of its release, groundbreaking in that it challenged the idea that female sexual enjoyment was improper. Teaching reproductive control was an essential prerequisite to female freedom. The first bra was patented in 1914 by American Mary Jacobs.

The years from 1910 to 1919 were an extraordinary time for Britain. The First World War was warfare of an unprecedented nature and scale. But even before the outbreak of war on 4th August 1914, there was a snowballing momentum for social change. At the armistice of 1918 London went ‘wild with delight’, and the last two years of the decade were a time of great relief for the nation.


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