Women in the 20th Century

By Tim Lambert

Women’s Rights in the 20th Century

During the 20th century women gained equal rights with men. Technological and economic changes made it inevitable that women would be given the same rights as men.

By 1884 the majority of men in Britain were allowed to vote. So in 1897 local groups of women who demanded the vote joined to form the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The organisation was moderate and its members were called suffragists.

However, in 1903 a more radical organisation was formed called the Womens Social and Political Union (WSPU). Emmeline Pankhurst led it and its members were called suffragettes. The suffragettes committed crimes like arson and vandalism. However, the WSPU did not want votes for n women – only those who met a property qualification. The suffragettes halted their campaign when the war began in 1914.

In Britain in 1918 women over 30 were allowed to vote if they met a property qualification. In 1928 all women were allowed to vote at the age of 21 (the same as men). In 1919 Nancy Astor was elected an MP. She was the first woman MP to take her seat in the House of Commons. In 1929 Margaret Bondfield became the first female cabinet minister. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, all women in the USA were given the right to vote in 1920 (although in some states women could vote before that). Rebecca Latimer Felton was appointed (not elected) the first woman US senator in 1922. In 1925 Nellie Tayloe Ross becomes the first woman governor of a US state (Wyoming). In 1932 Hattie Ophelia Caraway became the first woman elected to the US Senate. In 1933 Frances Perkins became the first woman appointed to a presidential cabinet. She was secretary of labor. In 1981 Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman judge on the US Supreme Court.

New Zealand was the first country in the world to allow women to vote in national elections in 1893. Elizabeth McCombs was elected the first woman MP in New Zealand in 1933. In Australia, women were granted the right to vote in federal elections in 1902. Women were first elected to the Australian parliament in 1943. In Canada, women were allowed to vote in federal elections in 1918. Canada gained its first woman MP in 1921. Her name was Agnes Macphail.

Women’s Jobs in the 20th Century

More occupations were opened to women during the 20th century. In 1910 the first policewoman was appointed in Los Angeles. In 1914 the first policewomen were appointed in Britain. The 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) opened certain professions to women. They were allowed to be solicitors, barristers, vets, and chartered accountants. They were also allowed to be magistrates and members of juries. The first chartered accountant in Britain was Mary Harris Smith in 1920. The first female solicitor in England was Carrie Morrison in 1922. Also in 1922, Irene Barclay became the first female chartered surveyor.

In 1917 the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was formed. Women served in the British Army as cooks, waitresses, clerks, mechanics, and drivers. The WRNS (Women’s Royal Naval Service) was also formed in 1917. The WRAF (Women’s Royal Air Force) was formed in 1918. They were disbanded after the First World War. However, the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the female branch of the British army was formed in 1938. The Women’s Royal Naval Service was formed in 1939. So was the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

Women played a vital role in Britain during the Second World War. They operated anti-aircraft guns and worked as ambulance drivers. Many joined the services as wrens (navy) or waafs (air force). Others worked in factories or on farms as part of the women’s land army. There were also dustwomen. Many women were nurses and there was a women’s auxiliary fire service. Women were also ARP wardens.

In the mid-20th century, most married women did not work outside the home (except in wartime). However, in the 1950s and 1960s, it became much more common for them to do so – at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century housework was so time-consuming married women did not have time to work. At the same time, the economy changed. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew to create more opportunities for women.

In 1963 in the USA an Equal Pay Act compelled employers to pay men and women the same amount for doing the same job. An Equal Pay Act was passed in Britain in 1970. In 1973 in Britain women were admitted to the stock exchange for the first time. From 1975 it was made illegal to sack women for becoming pregnant. Also in 1975, the Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against women in employment, education, and training. In 1984 a new law stated that equal pay must be given for work of equal value.

In 1921 Dr Marie Stopes opened the first birth control clinic in England. Contraceptive pills became available in Britain in 1961.

Among many firsts in the 20th century in 1956 Rose Heilbron became the first woman judge in Britain and in 1958 Hilda Harding became the first woman bank manager. Then in 1976, Mary Langdon became the first female firefighter in Britain.

Women’s Clothes in the 20th Century

In 1900 women wore long dresses. It was not acceptable for women to show their legs. From 1910 women wore hobble skirts. They were so narrow women could only ‘hobble’ along while wearing them. However, during World War I clothes for women became more practical.

Meanwhile, in 1914 Mary Phelps Jacob patented the modern bra. In 1915 lipstick was sold in tubes for the first time.

A revolution in women’s clothes occurred in 1925. At that time women began wearing knee-length skirts. In the mid and late 1920s, it was fashionable for women to look boyish. However, in the 1930s women’s dress became more conservative. During World War II it was necessary to save material so skirts were shorter. Clothes were rationed until 1949.

Meanwhile, the bikini was invented in 1946. In 1947 Christian Dior introduced the New Look, with long skirts and narrow waists giving an ‘hourglass’ figure. During the 1950s women’s clothes were full and feminine. However in 1965, Mary Quant invented the mini skirt and clothes became even more informal.

My Youtube video about women in the 20th century

Last Revised 2022