Magoosh GRE

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

| October 4, 2012 | 0 Comments

This essay will discuss the transcendence of nineteenth century thinking towards a twentieth century that revolutionised what it meant to be a citizen of equal opportunities. An initial focus will be on the impact of the world wars, (1914-1919 – 1939-1945) as a catalyst of opportunity for women, a plausible beginning to cultural change. The essay will argue for the importance of key political movements appealing for a rethink towards the female role, transforming gender stereotypes. The essay will suggest a combination of elements, the workplace, education and the media as catalysts towards an impenetrable female united voice concerning the cause for social reform and equality. The essay will conclude with a suggestion to the effects of such reform raising awareness for other groups of inequality.  


Judith Butler in her book Undoing Gender argues that social equality is not determined as part of history, rather on going, as more issues of the norm overcomes what it means to be human. Butler discusses the need to understand gender through the acknowledgement of why differences exist, a constraint under normative obligations within society. Butler discusses an aspect of this norm, which attempts to remove these barriers to undo prior conceptions of gender: ‘to inaugurate a relatively newer one that has greater liveability as its aim’ (Butler, 2004). Nevertheless, Butler’s radical theories of gender, her freedom of speech, are part of a historical movement, part of a feminist movement, which the 20th century inaugurated. As Butler argues, it is necessary to deliberate that: ‘These norms have far-reaching consequences for how we understand the model of the human entitled to rights or included in the participatory sphere of political deliberation’ (Butler, 2004).

The end of the nineteenth century saw transcendence from Enlightenment thinking, within Europe and the United States women began to develop the questionability of their rights over self and property; a message of strength, ability and compromise. Women’s Rights groups and there subsequent movements campaigned rigorously and were granted equal rights beginning with the right to vote. The feminist movements were well grouped and organised. Beginning with the suffragettes; who used violence, self-starvation and political literature in an attempt to turn themselves visible within a masculine controlled culture. Most famous of the suffragettes was Emily Davison who threw herself under the King’s horse in 1913 on Derby Day. The sexism, ridicule and violence received in return did not perturb the women towards radical feminism. However, the previous great movement of thought influenced the three subsequent waves of feminism. The enlightenment era introduced the containment of social theory; ‘elements conducive to both the application of rational secular thought to understanding the role of women in society and the creation of ever more elaborate structures tying the destiny of women to reproduction and the domestic sphere’ (Copleman, 1990). In a time of enlightenment thought, after the dark ages, influenced women and their supporters, to express their political views through the written word, however without prospect of neither education nor the right to vote, their efforts dismissed as ineffectual.

The 20th century entered a new phase; legislation became a key way for women to receive equality. Throughout the world, women liberated with more freedom of choice. In 1900, an increasing vision towards equal opportunities began. France passed the right for women to practice Law, Japan allowed women to attend university and Sweden recognised the need for maternity leave for female industrial workers. These countries and others provided a backbone for the future. These steps were heading in the right direction. Nevertheless, whilst Europe had an impelling commitment towards social equality movements, the UK and USA were more reluctant. Transformation in the UK was the implementation into Europe’s legislation EU membership. Equality legislations gave women equal opportunities in wages, education and job opportunities.

During 1939-1943, an unexpected amount of men and women joined the military forces leaving a significant loss in civilian employment, alongside the manufacturing industry expanding with the need for military equipment. An estimated 2.2 million additional women became Britain’s civilian workplace. Many in highly skilled workplaces, previously only available to men, subsequently women began to understand their capabilities, within a male dominated environment. However, after devastating loss, disempowerment and regret, there was a necessity felt for the female to retreat to the home and allow the men who had fought for their country to return to their civil jobs (Hart, 2009).

During the 1950’s women had another vital role to play: the homemaker. The media presented the female as the Victorian vision of ‘angel of the house’, entreating women with modernisation of the home an easier, more compelling way of life. A decade later a transformation began as in 1968, the USA made history with a startling protest; women burnt their bras in protest to the expectations of beauty and perfection outside the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. The same year where the USA passed a Bill of Rights, beginning equal rights including education, property and employment (Worrell, 2002).

Detraction from the women’s movements was immigration. Through Labour, the UK underwent mass changes in terms of discrimination. A direct consequence of both the wars was the sudden uprising of immigration. Integration of minorities was crucial, to move forward in equality, for the UK and later in the USA. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act passed prohibiting discrimination in communal places (The National Archives, 2012). Though, rather than backing down the equality of minorities broadened, including sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender and religion. Equality arguably forced women from political and media attention. The feminist movements had empowered victims of inequality to find a mass voice for change. Feminist movements asked for a new identity, a place of independence and a right to a civil life of opportunities and self-choice (Charles, 2000).

From the 1970’s onwards new forms of legislation transformed feminism including necessities such as childcare, maternity leave, rights to abortion and marital rape. In the UK, legislation was at its peak in the latter half of the century; most crucial were the Equal Pay Act 1970 and the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (The National Archives, 2012).

In conclusion, the key drivers for equal opportunities in the twentieth century were a combination of feminist movements, political alignments, workforce/labour shortages and in part, population increase. However, due to domestic divisions, the allocation of childcare to women means that equal labour divisions remain. Gender-based discrimination is still apparent though the gap between genders is minimising it is a question of further opportunity for all. The end of the twentieth century highlighted the need for further analysis of division within discrimination at a broader scale of equal opportunities. The twentieth century ended with an amendment to include sex, gender and disability discrimination, being the The Equal Opportunities (Employment Legislation) (Territorial Limits) Regulations 1999 (The National Archives, 2012).  Overall, feminism sent a message of strength, ability and compromise: globally.



Breitenbach, E & Thane, P. (ed)., 2010. Women and Citizenship in Britain and Ireland in the Twentieth Century. New York, London: Continuum.

Bagheritari, M & D. Miriam., 2012. Legislation and Policy.[online] Available at: <> [Accessed 2 August 2012].

Butler, J., 2004. Undoing Gender. New York, London: Routledge.

Charles, N., 2000. Feminism, the State and Social Policy. New York: St. Martin’s Press Ltd.

Copleman, D.M., 1990. Liberal Ideology, Sexual Difference, and the Lives of Women: Recent Works in British History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Available through: <> [Accessed 2 August 2012].

Hart, A., 2009. Did British women achieve long-term economic benefits from working in essential WWII Industries. Stirling: University of Stirling. Available at: <> [Accessed 2 August 2012].

Porter, R., 2001. Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World. London: Penguin Group.

The National Archives, Legislation Available at: <> [Accessed 2 August 2012].

Worrell. J., 2002. Encyclopaedia of Women and Gender: Sex Similarities and Differences …, Volume 1. San Diego, London: Academic Press.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, History Essay Examples, Social Sciences Essay Examples

Ask a question about this article

You must be logged in to post a comment.