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

| September 23, 2012 | 0 Comments

Although it is inaccurate to describe the century as a straightforward story of progressive reform, it is clear to see how underlying themes fuelled the drivers for equal opportunities. The drivers being governmental legislation granting opportunities to women that brought about profound changes in perception and attitude. The three key drivers I will focus on are; suffrage and political participation; war and the interwar period; sexual attitudes including marriage, divorce and contraceptive rights. All of which both reflected and shaped the increase in equal opportunities through the ‘transformation of lifestyles, families, workplace and the public sphere’[1].

Between 1890 and the mid-1930s the first countries to give women the vote were Western democracies, some European colonies, the Soviet union and the United States[2]. Eastern Europe, France, Italy and the most developed countries of the Third World between 1930 and 1950 granted the next phase of female suffrage[3]. The United Kingdom enacted the Representation of the People Act in 1918[4], which enfranchised women over the age of 30 and enabled their participation in politics. Further advancement of this principle occurred in 1928 with the Equal Franchise Act which put women on equal terms as men regarding suffrage, and as a result ‘3.29 million women aged 21-29 gained the vote, as did a further 1.95 million who were over 30’[5]. The United States enacted similar legislation in 1920[6], as did Sweden in 1918, Spain in 1931, Norway in 1913, Canada in 1918 Ireland in 1918, Luxembourg in 1919, and New Zealand first granting full voting rights and then the right to be elected in 1893 and 1918 respectively[7]. Legislation giving women the vote is a key driver for equal opportunities; it allowed females to influence governmental policy, challenge entrenched prejudices and thus further advance the opportunities for women outside of the domestic sphere. It was also a vital precursor to female participation in politics. With the advancement of women’s political rights came the gradual increase of female representation in national governments. This diagram[8] gives us a snapshot of the percentage statistics of female representation as of four years ago. Clearly we can observe that the aforementioned countries that enacted the first consignment of female voting rights have a higher than average number of women representing themselves and their constituencies, primarily in parliamentary democracies. The key drivers of voting legislation paved the way for equal opportunities for women in politics. It comes as no coincidence that the majority of the wave of female suffrage legislation came at the end of the First World War (WWI). Women replaced men in skilled jobs, which in turn broke gender based myths on the intellectual and physiological capacity of female workers[9], reinforcing a subtle but gradual change in perception. Judith Lorber takes the view that many governments granted suffrage to women after WWI in repayment for their war efforts involving skilled labour[10]. The UK government enacted the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in 1919[11]that dismantled the prohibitions on women’s participation in most professions does support Lorber’s notion. In my opinion a more accurate view is that pre-WWI activism combined with the effort females played during the course of WWI led to the inevitable enfranchisement of women. Traditional culture at the turn of the century projected the nuclear family as the ideal. Men were the breadwinners and were free to negotiate the public world of politics and work, while women were restricted to a domestic sphere associated with motherhood and marriage[12]. Cultural shifts during and after the World Wars changed this traditional, patriarchal ideal. The Second World War (WWII) would create considerable precedents for females in employment in the traditionally male dominated sphere of the workplace, more so than WWI. In the United States alone, six million women went to work for the first time[13] over the course of WWII. In 1939 there was five million women in the labour force of the UK, and in just four years that statistic rose to eight million[14]. Industrial nations in the aftermath of WWII saw a sharp increase in female orientated occupations[15]. WWI led to a legal right for women to work in male dominated professions in the UK (Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919), but the Second World War saw widespread utilisation of this legal right. Along with the War and its demographic upheaval came the growth of non-traditional households with changing patterns of marriage and divorce[16]. Women as a result had more opportunities for financial autonomy and employment. Crucial legal changes in the latter half of the twentieth century tackled disparity in the laws governing marriage, divorce and contraception. I shall use the United Kingdoms legislature during Wilson’s Labour government as examples highlighting a trend of the liberalisation of women’s rights across westernised culture and nations. 1967 saw the enactment of the NHS (Family Planning) Act, which permitted local authorities to provide contraception on the NHS to anyone, regardless of gender or marital status[17]. The same year also saw the Abortion Act widened. Divorce Law was under scrutinisation throughout the 60s, eventually leading to the enactment of the Divorce Law Reform Act (1969)[18]. The Government had financially dependent wives in mind when the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act (1970) was passed to solidify the financial rights and monetary security of women in the event of a divorce[19], underlining a clear consideration to women that governments possessed. In conclusion, Important shifts characterised men and women’s social, political and legal roles in the twentieth century, primarily in westernised nations. Cultural modifications in developed socioeconomic countries (most notably theUnited Kingdom,United States,Canadaand a proportion of European and Australasian nations) enabled steps to be taken towards equality of gender roles in the home, family and workplace. As the century progressed so too did opportunities for women in the public sphere, established by the key drivers I have discussed in this essay.


Brill, A., ‘ A Rising Public Voice: Women in Politics Worldwide’ (City University of New York, 1995) ed. Carnevali, F., Strange, JM., ‘20th CenturyBritain. Economic, Cultural and Social Change’, (Pearson Education Ltd, 2007) contained the studies of: -Brooke, S., Class and Gender, pages 42-58 -Jennings, R., Sexuality, pages 293-308 -Pugh, M., Suffrage and Citizenship, pages 97-111 Connelly, S., ‘Gender Equality’, (Smart Apple Media, 2006) Inglehart, R., Norris, P., ‘Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World’, (CambridgeUniversityPress, 2003) Karp, A. J., ‘Electoral Studies’, Volume 27, Issue 1, (University of Exeter, 2008) Lorber, J., ‘Gender Inequality. Feminist Theories and Politics’, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2010) Zollinger Giele, J., ‘Women and Equality in the Workplace: A Reference Handbook’, (Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data, 2003)

[1] Inglehart, R., Norris, p., Rising Tide. Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the Worl, (Cambridge University Press, 2003, pg. xi
2 &[3] Zollinger Giele, J., Women and Equality in the Workplace: A Reference Handbook, (Library of Congress Catalouging-in-Publication Data, 2003), pg. 7.
4 &[5] Pugh, M., Suffrage and Citizenship, in ‘20th Century Britain’ (Pearson Longman, 2004) pg. 100 & 107
6 & [7] Brill, A., A Rising Public Voice: Women in Politics Worldwide (City University of New York, 1995) pg. 211
[8] Fig. 1. ‘Women’s representation in national parliaments.’ Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2008. Located in, Karp, A. J., ‘Electoral Studies’, Volume 27, Issue 1, (University of Exeter, March 2008) Pages 105–115
[9] Brooke, S., Class and Gender, in ‘20th Century Britain. Economic , Cultural and Social Change’ (Pearson Longman, 2007)
[10] Lorber, J., Gender Inequality. Feminist theories and Politics (New York, Oxford University Press, 2010) pg. 2
[12] Brooke, S., Class and Gender, in ‘20th Century Britain. Economic , Cultural and Social Change’ (Pearson Longman, 2007)
[13] Connelly, S., Gender Equality (Smart Apple Media, 2006) pg. 25
[14] Brooke, S., Class and Gender, in ‘20th Century Britain. Economic , Cultural and Social Change’ (Pearson Longman, 2007)
[15] Zollinger Giele, J., Women and Equality in the Workplace: A Reference Handbook (Library of Congress Catalouging-in-Publication Data, 2003) pg. 9.
[16] Inglehart, R., Norris, p., Rising Tide. Gender Equality and Cultural Change Around the World (Cambridge University Press, 2003) pg. 17
17 & 18 Jennings, R., Sexuality , in ‘20th Century Britain. Economic, Cultural and Social Change’ (Pearson Longman, 2007)
[19] Jennin gs, R., Sexuality , in ‘20th Century Britain. Economic , Cultural and Social Change’ (Pearson Longman, 2007) Pg. 297

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