Jenni Murray host of the acclaimed BBC Radio 4 programme, Woman's Hour, writes about being a woman in the 20th century.
By Jenni Murray
Last updated 2011-03-03
Jenni Murray host of the acclaimed BBC Radio 4 programme, Woman's Hour, writes about being a woman in the 20th century.
The twentieth century will, without doubt, be viewed by historians as the Woman's Hour. A girl born in 1899, as my grandmother was, had little chance of evading the role that was considered her destiny - to marry young, stay home and raise a family. Her forbears in the late nineteenth century had struggled hard to improve her chances of an education. Campaigners like Millicent Fawcett and Elizabeth Garret Anderson had carried out a personal and largely peaceful struggle to open professions like medicine to women. Yet still, only the privileged few, whose fathers or husbands were enlightened enough to permit it, got a foot on the ladder of opportunity. In the early part of the century the suffragists argued powerfully, but peacefully for the vote. They were unsuccessful in their immediate objective, although they still exist in the form of one of the country's main research and lobbying groups working on behalf of women, the Fawcett Society.
It was the suffragettes who would really make a difference. The term was first employed in the Daily Mail on the 10th January 1906 and by March of that year it was in general use as a means of differentiating the militant campaigners of the Women's Social and Political Union from the suffragists. The WSPU was formed in Manchester in 1903 by a small group of women led by Emmeline Pankhurst. When a London office was opened in 1906, her daughters Sylvia and Christabel joined her as leaders of a movement which dedicated itself to securing the vote for women to enable them to take full part in the democratic process. They were to achieve this by any militant means, drawing the line at any threat to human life. So they would break windows, throw stones, burn slogans on putting greens, cut telephone and telegraph wires, destroy pillar boxes and burn or bomb empty buildings. Emily Wilding Davison was the martyr of the movement, prepared to give her life for women's rights. Like many of the arrested suffragettes she went on hunger strike in Holloway prison and in 1912 she tried to kill herself by leaping over a stair railing there.
Her death came a year later when, with the WSPU flag sewn into her coat, she threw herself in front of the King's Horse at Epsom and died from her injuries. Her coffin, draped in the suffragette colours of white, green and purple, was followed by 2,000 uniformed suffragettes. She was buried near her home in Morpeth in Northumberland and inscribed on her gravestone was 'Deeds not Words'.
The WSPU called off its militant action whilst there was a common enemy - Germany - and recruited women to the munitions industry. By 1918 it was impossible to deny women's contribution to the war effort and The Electoral Reform Bill of that year granted voted rights to all women property owners of thirty or more. It was not until 1928 that the age limitation became the same as that for men - 21. So let it never be said that women were given the vote - it was hard fought for and won! The first woman MP was elected in 1918, although Constance Markievicz, a supporter of Sinn Fein and the cause of Irish Nationalism, refused to take her seat in the House of Commons. Nancy Astor thus became the first woman to take her seat in the British parliament in 1919 as member for Plymouth South. The next major breakthrough for women in politics was in 1929 when Margaret Bondfield became the first woman cabinet minister.
There were those like my gran - and subsequently my mother - who were in no position to take advantage of the changing climate. In a small mining village in Yorkshire the politicisation of the female population created barely a ripple until the vagaries of the miners strike in the eighties drove them into collective action and later the need to become breadwinners. The women in my family joined a long line of tough Yorkshire matriarchs who ran the home and the family budget with the cool efficiency and high moral standards of a Mother Superior. In the second world war they did their bit, taking in evacuees and working in the food office whilst women in other parts of the country took on the tasks that only men were believed capable of carrying out.Heavy factory work, driving huge vehicles, arduous agricultural duties - there was nothing by the end of that war that women couldn't do to keep a country running smoothly.
But, as happens frequently in conflicts around the world, women in Britain were seduced into thinking their place on or close to the front line would inevitably give them an equal share in the post war running of things. More commonly, when the country ceases to need them, they're summarily sent back to the kitchen sink and there were indeed a few glitches in the fifties and sixties when the national mood demanded a return to the domestic status quo. The returning soldiers were to be given jobs and women again would keep the home fires burning. A significant number, though, had tasted the freedom of the new ways. One old friend told me her first wage as a war worker acted on her like a drug, she couldn't give up her financial independence.
In the family, wives and mothers wanted a renegotiation of the old order. They argued for a form of democracy in the home where rights and responsibilities would be equally shared. In the work place they wanted equal rights, equal opportunity and equal pay. The lives of my mother and grandmother remained unchanged - they continued to be devoted to their domestic responsibilities, but when my turn came they pushed and cajoled me through an education system and into a job market to which they believed I had every right.
It's now estimated that without the quotas, in mixed grammar schools, two thirds of all the classes would have been occupied by girls
It never occurred to me, with their encouragement, that I was anything other than an equal citizen and it was only when I researched my book "The Woman's Hour - The story of women in Britain since the second world war" that I discovered that, even for a girl born in 1950, there was, for instance, no equal access to education. The 1944 Education Act established the principle of free education for all from primary to secondary, but at eleven plus there were quotas for admission to grammar school. The Hunts Post of 1954 published an article headlined "Girls Brainier Than Boys". It informed its readers that too many girls had been passing the exam and education authorities had decided to limit numbers. It's now estimated that without the quotas, in mixed grammar schools, two thirds of all the classes would have been occupied by girls. The quotas persisted in Birmingham and Northern Ireland until the late eighties when the High Court ruled them discriminatory.
In 1968, the year I went to university, came the second wave of feminism. The women's movement of the second part of the century began to bubble in the mid sixties as American women like Betty Friedan wrote of their dissatisfaction with their lot as wives and mothers. For anyone other than the upper classes, childcare and the running of the home was still considered woman's work, forcing women to choose between their talents and their family lives. The composer Elizabeth Lutyens described it as a ghastly tyranny of choice for someone who wanted to do what men did as a matter of course - her work and her family.
To be a young woman in the late sixties and early seventies was unimaginably exciting
In 1968 the women's liberation movement had its first major raft of publicity when women demonstrated at the Miss America competition and threw their stiletto heels in the bin ( Betty friedan, who was there, told Woman's Hour, in 1971, that no-one ever burned a bra - that was just media hype.) But whatever the hated symbols of oppression were, women were saying that what is most personal is political and they were questioning and redefining their roles as wives, mothers, workers and lovers in the light of their own experience, rather than through men's eyes. In her book, Sexing the Millennium, Linda Grant reports that some of the women felt the sexual revolution of the sixties had given them the right to say yes, feminism told them it was OK to say no.
To be a young woman in the late sixties and early seventies was unimaginably exciting. Feminist light bulbs, as the American author, Gloria Steinem described them, were coming on all over the place as women faced a problem and forced change. At the BBC women weren't allowed to wear trousers, as Susannah Simons discovered. In 1969 she was one of that year's intake of new studio managers. Her pride and joy was a white polo neck sweater, white trousers and knee length jerkin. A senior executive pointed out her transgression in the Broadcasting House lift, so she removed the trousers, leaving herself only the shortest of mini skirts. The rules were soon changed. A young Australian, Carmen Calil, realised that fiction by women was not being published and classics from the past were out of print. Around her kitchen table in 1973 she formed the first feminist publishing house, Virago. Her countrywoman, Germaine Greer, who published The Female Eunuch in 1970 had already whetted the appetite for work by women.
It was also one of those rare moments in history when a grass roots movement of immense power and energy meets a sympathetic politician with similar interests. In 1970 the first British conference of the Women's Liberation movement in Oxford resolved to press for employment legislation. That same year Barbara Castle as Secretary of State for Employment introduced the Equal Pay bill. It was enacted in 1975 together with the Sex Discrimination Act. The laws have not proved perfect, but they provided a legal framework for change. So, when I applied for a mortgage in 1976 and was told I needed my father's signature on the form, my irate response and invocation of the Act quickly made the Building Society manager back down for fear of legal action!
What has characterised the modern women's movement has been its ability to put everything up for discussion. And the crucial question that has been most hotly debated has been what it means to be a woman. We've examined what we wear. Shall it be dungarees, trousers, long skirts, short skirts, lipstick, high heels, flatties? We've concluded anything goes. How shall we give birth? Let's fight for choice. Should we shave our legs and armpits, be thin or fat. Conclusion? Whatever you want. Do we go out to work or stay at home and raise children? Whichever you choose. Can girls study maths and physics? Of course they can. Why are they doing badly? Not enough attention to the way they learn. Provide it. They do better. In every arena, in every sphere women have attended to their kind and made a difference.
...feminism - known in some quarters as the f-word - has become almost too shameful to admit
The revolution has not been without its casualties. Relationships between men and women have frequently been stretched on the rack of unmatched expectations. Men have frequently been reluctant to embrace women's new found autonomy and have ridiculed new hopes and aspirations, clinging like dinosaurs to the old ways where man was master and woman served. Men at the end of the century still earn on average 30 per cent more than women and research carried out in 1999 by the Equal opportunities Commission has shown that this has nothing to do with the fact that many women chose part time work to enable them to juggle their family and their work. It begins at school leaving age in manual trades and post higher education for professionals. Women are still sacked for being pregnant and are sexually harassed at work. A Professor of Sociology, Jonathon Gershuny has identified a late twentieth syndrome among professional couples which he calls Allerednic - Cinderella backwards, or the fairy tale in reverse. An equal princess marries her handsome prince and he turns her into his scullery maid. There's still a way to go as the Millennium turns.
And of course feminism - known in some quarters as the f-word - has become almost too shameful to admit, with lots of women prefacing their opinions with 'I'm not a feminist but.....' The Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood came up with a definition with which most of those women might have found a comfort. 'Does feminist mean large unpleasant person who'll shout at you or someone who believes women are human beings. To me it's the latter, so I sign up'. It's an echo of what Rebecca West said in 1913, 'I myself have never able to find out precisely what a feminist is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.'
Women's History in Britain, 1850-1945 ed. June Purvis (London UCL Press 1995) A collection of essays covering a range of topics from women's work and the family to education, health, sexuality and politics.
The First Industrial Woman by Deborah Valenze (Oxford OUP, 1995) Good on the implications of shifting employment patterns, agricultural work and domestic service.
A History of European Women's Work, 1700 to the present by Deborah Simonton, (New York Routledge, 1998) Good for the longer time perspective and for European similarities and contrasts.
The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder, and Women by Elizabeth Wilson, (London, 1991)
In Scotland, the People's Palace Museum on Glasgow Green contains lots of artefacts relating to women's lives including a whole section on working-class housing. Also in Glasgow, you can visit the Tenement House, a preserved tenement apartment containing the original furnishings of the last inhabitant.
Women's History Trails have been established in a number of cities - including Dundee, Manchester and London. These trails, usually taken on foot, allow you to visit places of significance for women's history such as the homes of notable women or sites of historical significance. Take a look in your local press for details.
Jenni is the presenter of Woman's Hour. She was born and educated in Barnsley, and has a degree in French and Drama from Hull University. Jenni joined the BBC Radio in 1973. In 1985 she joined Radio 4 as a presenter for the Today programme. She became the regular presenter of Woman's Hour in 1987. In the Queen's Birthday Honours 1999 she was made an OBE for radio broadcasting. Jenni is the author of The Woman's Hour: A History of Women Since World War II and Is It Me or Is It Hot In Here: A Modern Woman's Guide to the Menopause.