Aspects of British Political History, 1914-1995

By Stephen J. Lee | Go to book overview

22

EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES AND WOMEN'S RIGHTS IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY BRITAIN

Before 1914 women, who constituted slightly over half the total adult population of Britain, had been conceded only a handful of rights. By the Married Women's Property Act of 1882 they had been given ownership of their own possessions within the context of marriage; they had also been allowed since 1876 to register as doctors, and since the 1890s to vote in local government elections. Women did not, however, have the vote in parliamentary elections, they could not enter the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge or practise law, and they had virtually no protection or rights in employment.

This chapter will analyse the further progress made by women in attaining equal opportunities with men between 1914 and 1995. Within this period, it will be seen that the pace of change varied and that progress was far from steady or consistent.


THE GROWTH OF EQUAL OPPORTUNITIES 1914-45

The First World War brought a considerable step forward; the major change in the status of women was the achievement of the vote. This was conceded in 1918 by Lloyd George's Coalition Government: the Representation of the People Act had enfranchised women over 30 provided that they were graduates, householders, or the wives of householders. Securing the vote for women had been the object of extensive campaigns before 1914, especially from the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). The latter had been the more radical, resorting to militant measures such as smashing windows, burning letter boxes, attacking MPs and chaining themselves to railings. Both organisations

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