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What were the key drivers for equal opportunities for men and women during the 20th Century?

| June 28, 2012 | 0 Comments

The changing roles of men and women throughout the 20th century have been largely due to the growing drive to resolve gender inequalities. There have been many alterations in laws, policies and perceptions in the 20th century. The rate of change has varied between countries; countries typically defined as western countries, for example, the United Kingdom, The United States, Canada, underwent significant shifts in social conventions and the public perception of gender roles. The key drivers towards equal opportunities in the 20th century (predominantly in western countries), were generally events that challenged the traditional roles of women. This paper identifies 3 key drivers of equal opportunities, though they were not the only drivers during the 20th century. The 3 drivers discussed in the following paragraphs are; the voting rights of women, the effects of World War 1 (WWI) and World War 2 (WWII) and the increasing representation of women in politics.

In the majority of western countries women gained the right to vote in the first half of the 20th century. For example, 1920 saw the 19th amendment passed in America, this allowed 26 million American women to vote (Freeman, 1995). Also in 1920, Canada gave women the right to vote in federal elections (Thomas, 2010). By 1928, in Britain, all women over the age of 21 were granted the right to vote; this was 10 years after all men over 21 were given the right to vote (Oakland, 2002). The granting of the vote to women was one of the first major events of the 20th century that can be defined as a key driver for equal opportunities. The right for women to vote started the closing of the gap in equal opportunities between the sexes. The growing trend, in the independence of women, is shown in figure 1. This example shows that in Canada there was a steady increase in the proportion of households with a female head over the early 20th century (Thomas, 2010).

Figure 1. Percentage of household heads that were women 1911 – 1951 (Thomas, 2010).

The events of WWI and WWII were important drivers in the first half of the 20th century, they provided many occasions for the improvement of equal opportunities between men and women. It is generally agreed that the effect of the World Wars on equal opportunities was a temporary effect and that traditional stereotypes were resumed after the ceasefire (Erb, 2009; Hart, 2009). In the early part of the 20th century it was typically the role of the male to provide via employment. For example, in Canada in 1931, 16 % of women were in paid employment, compared to 70 % of men (Thomas, 2010). WWII had the effect of drastically increasing the number of women workers in western countries (Acemoghe et al. 2004; Hart, 2009). For example, in Britain, the female work force increased from 506,000 in 1939 to 1,938,000 in 1943 (Hart, 2009).

During the war years women increasingly took on roles that were traditionally held by men. This was an important driver for equal opportunities, paving the way for women to occupy positions that previously would have been deemed unsuitable. After the war years, the demand and the wages for females decreased. There was an increasing government focus on the female role as a housewife and her on caring for the family at home (Skoog, 2009). However, this does not detract from the initial breaking of the barriers between the sexes in the workforce and improving equal opportunities.

The representation of women in politics has been slowly growing during the 20th century. In the majority of western countries, women gained the right to vote during the earlier half of the century. However, by 1995, only 5 countries had governing bodies with more than 30 % of their members represented by women (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2000). The Inter-Parliamentary Union described this representation as ‘tokenistic’ (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2000, p. 1). It was not until the latter half of the 20th century, in 1960, that there was a female world leader. The Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaite, became the first women to run a government (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2000).  After her there were 68 women who ran a government in 46 different countries (up until 2005; Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2000). This supports the theory that women in politics are positive role models that encouraged the participation of other women in politics (Wolbrecht and Campbell, 2007).

The increasing representation of women in politics in the latter half of the 20th century has been a key driver in equal opportunities for men and women, even though, women are still under represented in modern governments.

The majority of the countries that the above 3 drivers apply to are western countries. These countries are typically developed and were more successful at addressing equal opportunities between men and women by the end of the 20th century.

In other countries there has not been much progress. By the end of the 20th century, many had not granted women the right to vote (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2000; Philips, 2012). In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive cars (Philips, 2012). The inequality present in these countries in often as result of a traditional government, where the traditional role of women as subservient to men is still perpetuated.

In conclusion, there was significant progress in western countries in addressing the issue of equal opportunities. In the vast majority of cases this has mean that the rights of women have been gradually increasing towards being on a par with the rights of men. Three key drivers of women’s rights in the 20th century were identified in this paper. The voting rights of women, the effect of the two world wars and the increasing presence of women in politics have all closed the gap between men and women, thereby increasing equal opportunities during the 20th century. It was found that not all countries have addressed the issue of equal opportunities during the 20th century. Many countries still consider women as inferior to men, with little progress made in equal opportunities.



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Freeman, J. (1995) ‘From suffrage to women’s liberation: Feminism in twentieth century America’. Women: A Feminist Perspective. Mayfield, 5th edition pp. 509 – 528.


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working in essential WWII industries?’. Stirling Economics Discussion Paper # 4006 Accessed 10th June 2012.


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Philips, R. (2012) ‘Jasmine revolution and turmoil in the Arab world’. PRAGATI Quarterly Research Journal. 119 pp. 14 – 39.


Skoog, K. (2009) ‘Focus on the housewife: The BBC and the post-war woman, 1945-1955’. Networking knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate network. 2:1 pp. 1 – 12.


Thomas,  D. ( 2010). ‘The Census and the evolution of gender roles in early 20th century Canada’. Component of Statistics Canada. Accessed on 10th June 2012.


Wolbrecht, C. and Campbell, D.E. (2007) ‘Leading by example: Female members of Parliament as political role models’. The American Journal of Political Science. 51:4 pp. 921 – 939.


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