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About this book

This new edition of an established text brings the history of the women's movement in Britain right up to the present day. Updated and expanded, the third edition features a new final chapter focusing on the parliamentary breakthrough of 1997 and the likely impact of women in the upcoming general election. Another major addition is the study of the effects of the Thatcher era on a generation of women, from a greater distance. The book has been thoroughly revised throughout to analyse the themes and developments of the new millennium, including women's employment, women and liberal society, and women in public life.

Table of Contents

1. The impact of the Great War

Abstract
In August 1914, Britain boasted the world’s most successfully organised women’s movement. It originally took shape in the 1850s and 1860s by means of a series of single-issue pressure groups that were more organisationally co-ordinated than they appeared as a result of the overlapping personnel and the publication of several women’s journals. But its reach had extended much further into British society via a number of more general organisations, most of which were not explicitly feminist but incorporated feminists and promoted feminism even if indirectly, including the Women’s Co-operative Guild, the Mothers’ Union, the Girls’ Friendly Society, the Women’s Local Government Society, the Primrose League and the Women’s Liberal Federation, not to mention a host of societies promoting women’s suffrage.
Martin Pugh

2. Strategy and tactics of the women’s movement in the 1920s

Abstract
Looking back from the perspective of 1928, the equal rights feminist, Ray Strachey, admitted that in 1917–18 suffragists had been too exhausted and distracted to realise that the tide was turning decisively in their favour.1 Until a very late stage the life-and-death struggle with Germany absorbed their thoughts. After the comparative ease with which parliament granted the vote came a greater surprise: in October 1918 MPs conceded, almost without debate, the right of women to sit in the House of Commons, preferring to settle the issue rather than leaving it to Returning Officers to decide whether to accept women’s nominations as valid. Hard on the heels of this coup came the December general election. There followed a scramble to find female candidates, and constituencies willing to take them, but there was no time for a serious effort to place women in winnable seats.
Martin Pugh

3. The anti-feminist reaction

Abstract
War had had the effect of focusing attention upon women in general and young women in particular, and after 1918 the popular press regarded them as eminently newsworthy. Many contemporaries believed that the whole experience had unsettled the relations between the sexes leading thereby to a debate over the proper roles of men and women in peacetime. In this debate we can distinguish three broad views. Many men and some prominent anti-feminist women, reacting sharply against the entire wartime experience, simply wanted everything put back in its proper place; thus men must recover lost ground in employment and women devote themselves to their homes. The magazine Home Chat breathed a sigh of relief: ‘Now we are feminine again’. A second and intermediate position was held by those women, including many feminists, who had long accepted the fundamental differences between the sexes. For them war had not changed anything so much as sharpened their perception of the relations between men and women. While it was a matter for satisfaction that women had sustained the war effort, war itself was the especial work, indeed crime, of man; as women their responsibility lay in using their political power for peace and conciliation in the post-war world. This approach culminated in the kind of argument used by Mary Stocks, an articulate critic of ‘equal rights’ feminism between the wars, when she contended that no sensible woman would wish to take equality to the length of joining her country’s armed forces on the same footing as men.
Martin Pugh

4. The domestication of British politics

Abstract
During the summer of 1917 when the enfranchisement of women was becoming an accepted fact, Millicent Fawcett urged Helena Swanwick to start tackling the next problem: the organisation of women voters with a view to subjecting the political system to effective pressure on women’s issues. ‘I remarked on the difficulty of organising what doesn’t exist’, recalled Mrs Swanwick, to which Fawcett replied, ‘Oh. I shall retire and watch you all floundering.’1 The question remains ]largely unexplored by historians: how much difference did the enfranchisement of women really make? Any answer must involve consideration of a number of distinct themes: changes in the style and agenda of politics, the extent of the success of the women’s movement in achieving its legislative goals, the motivation and tactics of the political parties in managing the influx of women into the system, and the actual impact made by women in electoral terms.
Martin Pugh

5. The political containment of women 1918–39

Abstract
Up to the present day many talented women have found the search for a secure seat in the House of Commons a frustrating experience. One study of parliamentary candidates found that even in the 1950s and 1960s it was still common for Conservative selection committees to ask married women why they were prepared to neglect their husbands and children, while also interrogating single women on their marriage plans!1 Each of the party organisations has invariably excused its discrimination against female aspirants by pointing to the prejudice amongst the electorate. However, there is reason to think that such prejudice has dwindled to negligible proportions, and that the heart of the problem has always been the constituency selection committees.2 There has been very little attempt to ascertain for the inter-war period how far women’s ambitions were obstructed by male prejudice in the parties, how far by the voters and how far by the limited aspirations of women themselves. Clearly female candidates represented a novelty in the 1920s although as they had an established record in elective local government this should not be exaggerated.
Martin Pugh

6. The cult of domesticity in the 1930s

Abstract
‘In another fifty years’ time when social historians are writing deep books on the early twentieth century’, commented Woman in its first edition in 1937, ‘earnest hours will be spent in reconstructing the Woman of the Period. We ought to be able to tell them, since we are the living creature which they … will be trying to reconstruct.’ Even allowing for the hyperbole of an ambitious and optimistic editor, the writer had a point. Popular women’s magazines constitute an important but rather neglected source for the ordinary British woman of the inter-war period, for both the campaigns of the feminists and the strategies of the politicians designed to confine women to domesticity have to be seen in the context of the much more pervasive social and commercial pressures that enveloped the mass of women in their daily lives. Whether they reflected women’s ideas and behaviour or actively influenced them, they were too universal to be ignored.
Martin Pugh

7. The new feminism and the decline of the women’s movement in the 1930s

Abstract
‘Today the battle we thought won is going badly against us’, commented Cicely Hamilton in 1935, ‘we are retreating where once we advanced.’1 Her younger colleague on Time and Tide, Winifred Holtby, got closer to an explanation when she posed the question: ‘Why, in 1934, are women themselves often the first to repudiate the movements of the past hundred and fifty years, which gained for them at least the foundations of political, economic, educational and moral equality?’2 Such remarks by contemporary feminists are a valuable corrective to the claims made by Dale Spender that the inter-war decline of the women’s movement is no more than another male conspiracy to deny women their heritage!3 Indeed the theme of decline has exercised several scholars who have felt that feminism struggled to withstand the impact of the Depression and the Second World War. Susan Kingsley Kent has pointed to the effect of the Great War on perceptions of gender, suggesting that as early as the 1920s ‘feminism as a distinct political and social movement no longer existed’. And the most severe verdict comes from Sheila Jeffries, who has condemned the leading inter-war feminist Eleanor Rathbone for ‘defeatism’ and speaks of her ‘betrayal’ of the movement.4
Martin Pugh

8. Women in the Second World War

Abstract
On the face of it the Second World War represented a more significant and formative phase for British women than the Great War. They entered it as citizens of their country for the first time, and as such could expect to be called upon to play a more equal part in the war effort than previously. Also the experience of the First World War meant that a number of the policies relevant to women were adopted more quickly or applied more extensively: rationing, the provision of milk and school meals, the establishment of day nurseries and the emergency hospital service. More importantly the political momentum behind such social measures ensured that they were largely sustained after the war. Finally, the military circumstances prevailing during 1939–45 were rather different. For much of the period the British effort was comparatively slight in quantitative terms as a consequence of Germany’s dramatic successes and the reluctance of the allies to engage them again on the European mainland. As a result the conflict turned quickly into a ‘People’s War’ which put women in the front line. Amongst the 130,000 civilians killed during the blitz there were no fewer than 63,000 women. Moreover, in industry Britain broke new ground as the first power to conscript its women for the war effort, a feat that neither Nazi Germany nor Stalinist Russia managed to emulate. About twice as many women were mobilised for industry and the services as in the First World War.
Martin Pugh

9. The nadir of British feminism 1945–59?

Abstract
Whatever happened to British feminists and the women’s movement during the period between the Labour landslide of 1945 and the revivalism associated with ‘women’s liberation’ in the 1960s? The conventional assumption that feminism was a spent force that petered out in a decade of conservatism and materialism, though not without empirical foundation, is a considerable exaggeration. The post-war backlash against feminism flourished through the 1950s, especially in the pages of the women’s magazines. Witness a typical attack on the working mother by Monica Dickens in 1956:
Will her children love her more if she is an efficient career woman who pops in and out of the house at intervals, knows a lot of stimulating people, and can talk about everything, except pleasant, trivial, day-to-day matters that are the breath of family life? … She is not cheating her children by staying at home. She is giving them the supreme gift — herself. Long after they have left home, they will be grateful to her.1
Martin Pugh

10. Women’s Liberation

Abstract
By the 1960s the women’s movement had reached a critical stage in the cycle that affects all radical causes. This, of course, is not to suggest that the movement had disappeared during the 1950s. Activists including Marjory Corbett Ashby, Dora Russell and Rebecca West provided a living link with the campaigns of the early part of the century, while organisations such as the Fawcett Society and the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) maintained direct continuity with the equal rights tradition stretching back to the late-Victorian period. However, the winding up of the WFL in 1961 symbolised the gradual decline of the earlier generation of feminists. When Dale Spender researched the lives of women active in previous decades she began with the assumption characteristic of younger feminists that the movement had virtually died out at some stage since the inter-war period, and was corrected by her respondents.1 The realisation that the movement enjoyed a longer history than they had supposed was a great stimulus for 1970s feminists, but the very fact that they had to rediscover it speaks volumes for the dwindling impact of the cause on the consciousness of the post-war generation.
Martin Pugh

11. Feminism in the era of Thatcherism 1979–97

Abstract
Like all successful radical movements Women’s Liberation had eventually to confront the problem of maintaining its momentum. By the later 1970s the growing contrast between women’s advances on the socioeconomic front on the one hand and the static political situation on the other raised the old question as to whether a change of tactics would now be appropriate. While many Radical feminists, alienated by the political process, preferred to pursue their aims by organising an alternative feminist culture within patriarchal society, others began to conclude that the achievement of further reforms required greater support within the male-controlled system; as a result, attention switched to potential alliances with the trade unions and the Labour Party.
Martin Pugh

12. Fourth wave feminism 1997–2014

Abstract
‘Is there a future for feminism?’ Time magazine asked in December 1989. A typical media sally, it reflected the hope, among reactionaries, that women had achieved enough — or too much. By the late 1990s it had become fashionable to portray the women’s movement as uncertain about its direction and lacking popular support. These hostile views appeared to find an echo within the movement as the terms ‘New’ and ‘Old’ feminist began to reappear, though the differences between them were largely matters of emphasis and priorities rather than fundamentals. Certain issues, such as free contraception, abortion on demand, educational reform, legal and financial independence for women and ending discrimination against lesbians, stood lower down the agenda by this time, while the key concerns of the movement now centred around equal opportunities in employment, equal pay and improvements in the provision of childcare; women’s role as mothers seemed the greatest remaining obstacle to female equality in the labour force.
Martin Pugh
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