Changing attitudes to women in society

Queen Victoria was not supportive of women gaining political influence
Queen Victoria was not supportive of women gaining political influence

The Industrial Revolution brought many women into full-time employment. This meant they had opportunities to meet in large organised groups to discuss political and social issues.

In Britain, Acts of Parliament had been passed in 1832, 1867 and 1884 to establish universal male suffrage. However, at the outbreak of World War One, all British females continued to be excluded from the national political process:

  • they could not stand as candidates for parliament
  • they were not allowed to vote

The traditional view of women

The traditional view of a woman’s place in society had kept them out of the political sphere since democracy was established in Britain:

  • women were seen as physically, mentally, emotionally and morally inferior to men
  • it was felt that women could not be trusted to vote rationally
  • a woman's sphere of influence was seen to be the home and raising children
  • public life, including politics was seen to belong to the male sphere of influence
  • it was believed that women involved in politics would neglect their responsibilities at home
  • it was assumed that women did not need the vote - their husbands took that responsibility
  • some women even believed that females were not capable of understanding politics

Many women themselves, including Queen Victoria, agreed that women should not take part in politics

The profoundly educated women rarely make good wives or mothers.Sarah Sewell, Women and the times we live in, 1868

Women did not just lack political equality. Women had few legal rights, especially once married: all possessions became her husband's, while she had no rights over her children. Domestic abuse was commonplace, legal and widely seen as acceptable.

Changing attitudes

A number of laws were passed to improve female standing in society. All of these laws paved the way for further reform in favour of women:

  • 1873 Infant Custody Act – increased women’s rights over children including the possibility of sole custody in the case of divorce
  • 1882 and 1893 Married Women’s Property Acts – women now personally owned property that had been purchased before and during marriage, if it had been purchased with her own finances
  • 1870 and 1872 Education Acts – compulsory education for girls and boys from 5-12 years of age
  • 1894 Local Government Act – women gained the right to vote and stand for elections at local council level, although a property and tax qualification had to be met.

Women increasingly become involved in work that was seen as traditionally male, such as teaching. Other white-collar jobs such as nursing also improved the standing of women.

From 1888 women could vote in many local council elections.

The social and economic changes to the lives of women helped to reduce male prejudices.

The more females became successful in the ‘male’ world, the more it became acceptable. Many men began to see the stereotypical view of women as outdated. This, in turn led many to question women’s exclusion from politics.