Women Enfranchisement and the World Wars

Table of contents


This essay is a short compilation of research into the reasons for the enfranchisement and supposed ‘ regendering’ of women during the years 1914 and 1945, to determine how much it was due to the actions of women during the two world wars. Historical discussion of the impact of the wars, particularly the First World War, tends to fall into two camps; the first see enfranchisement as a reward for “services rendered” during the war years (Marwick, 1974). The opposing side sees it as a consequence of the political maneuverings of the time; the need for electoral reform with respect to soldiers, changes in the make up of parliament and women’s political groups (Bartley, 1998). This enfranchisement is often linked to a wider social change in the attitudes of women, to them starting to climb out of the domestic sphere, as well as a re-evaluation of how they perceive themselves within society, although the extent to which this occurs is, for me, a key question to raise here.

1. Introduction

War bears little regard for tradition or morality. Traditional gender boundaries find themselves in a state of suspended animation in these times; men are suddenly turned from fathers to killers, women from housewives to TNT-stained laborers, and it is the war’s effects on the latter gender, with particular reference to their political rights, that will be discussed here.

2. The Wars

2.1 World War I

It is not hard to see why the idea of enfranchisement as a ‘reward’ is propounded. In WWI women found themselves thrust into difficult employment like the munitionettesor army nurses. This meant that women were often doing jobs previously filled by men, blurring the enforced boundaries between them, and unraveling previous arguments for segregation. However, they were paid less than male counterparts (although any pay was particularly important for those who had lost their partner’s wage to the war). The women that were enfranchised in the 1918 Act were limited to those over 30, which left out a majority of younger women involved in war work. Surely, if the vote was a reward, it would have been handed to all of those deserving it rather than just a small sliver?

2.2 World War II

The use of bombing by German military in WWII meant that homes were ensnared in the conflict, it‘ trampled roughshod through the women’s sphere, the home’ (Calder, 1969). Female conscription was introduced in 1941, increasing the ‘ dual burden’ of having to run a home whilst employed, which won them applause in the press and political speeches. They were drafted in to a wider variety of military occupations, often working alongside men. After 1945 though many women left their employment, and government policy pushed a reversion to the family, a pattern also seen in 1918. This correlation implies very little real change. This prevailing family emphasis, particularly for married women, is epitomized in the Beveridge Report;

“ The attitude of the housewife to gainful employment outside the home is not and should not be the same as the single woman…. housewives and mothers have vital work to do in ensuring the adequate continuance of the British race” (quoted from Smith, 1990)

Here it is important to note the use of language, particularly ‘ vital work’; it is reinforcing child rearing as an occupation itself, as it was considered pre-war. This is perhaps an attempt to appeal to independently employed women, putting the home and the workplace on even ground.

3. Political Action

3.1 The Suffrage Movement

The enfranchisement of women was its own battle, one being fought for many years prior to WWI’s outbreak. The Suffrage Movement had an undeniable impact because of its success in merely raising the idea that women should be allowed to vote. The key impact of the war was the disruption and pacification of the WSPU Party. This allowed the more‘ civilized’ NUWSS to lead negotiations of suffrage, and reluctantly accept the first steps of suffrage on a limited basis, hoping it would open the possibility for future full suffrage; “we should greatly prefer an imperfect scheme that can pass” (Fawcett, quoted in Pugh, 1977). It should be noted though, that during the war years Suffrage activity disintegrates.

3.2 The 1918 Election

1918 was to be an election year, meaning the compilation of a new electoral register, to include soldiers, opening up the pre-war reform debate, only this time on the politician’s terms, given the decrease in suffragette pressure. It is the effects of this initial limited reform that contributes to the further 1928 Act. The simple fact those who vote in 1918 do so in a competent and organized manner, as well as political help women’s organizations offered during the election campaign legitimized the campaign for further suffrage to be re-considered by government. Over time, the membership and hierarchy of the major parties change, allowing some of the pro-suffrage politicians to take on more decisive roles, and continue to push the issue. (Close, 1977).

3.3 The Labour Party

Another important political factor for the plight of women was the growth of the Labour Party. Their 1923 manifesto claimed:

“Labour stands for equality between men and women: equal political and legal rights, equal right and privileges in parenthood, equal pay for equal work” (quoted from Time and Tide magazine, 1924)

Being a party rooted in socialist ideology they saw equal voting among the genders and classes as integral to the political system. Understandably, given the period, this was seen as a radical attitude, but their election successes meant that women had one less political party to convince, and an increasingly powerful ally. After their 1924 election win, not appearing as revolutionary as many feared they would further legitimized their ideological stand point, and allowed them to begin the debate of reform promised in their manifesto, thus restarting the gears of the full suffrage debate.

4. Conclusion

Whilst war can be seen as a catalyst, it is not the catalyst for reform; instead I think there are several integral factors that intertwine in the period to allow reform. Given the horrors of the wars, it is not hard to understand why people have used it almost as a scapegoat for reform; this way, something positive can be seen to have risen from the ashes of terror. The treatment employed women faced, such as lower pay, in indicative of an unequal attitude towards them, and the continued inequality during the intervening years and WWII does not indicate a wide shift in attitudes . Similarly, if the right to vote was a reward for work undertaken in WWI, surely it would have been extended to all women involved, rather than a section.

This mistakenly ignores the extensive efforts of organizations like the NUWSS and the Primrose League, whose intelligent campaigning undermines preconceptions about women’s emotional capabilities, and gives men political equals to consort with on their own ideological terms and see the similarities in opinion they both hold. The inclusion of the socialist Labour Party in the Commons ensures that reform has at least one consistent political ally. Pragmatically, the need for a new electoral register in 1916 allows the limited female vote to be added on without the need for its own Bill, which many find easier to stomach.

If there were a marked social change though, surely it would be shown in data collected from the period, such as the ‘Wartime Social Survey’. The picture presented of female attitudes to employment is of a “temporary response to an abnormal situation” (Smith, 1990). Interviews with women of the period reinforce this idea, showing how, despite higher legal equality, old perceptions are still rife, and leads one to pessimistically conclude that psychological changes weren’t as great;

“Of course when we get married I shan’t want to work; I shall want to stay at home and have some children. You can’t look on anything you do during the war as what you really mean to do; it’s just filling in time till you can live your own life again” (quoted in Smith, 1990).

Archdale, Helen “Editorial” Time and Tide, January 25, 1924

Bartley, Paula “Votes for Women, 1860-1928”,London, Hodder Murray,1998

Calkins, Susanna “Women in Service during World War I” Women and War: A Historical Encyclopedia from Antiquity to the Present. 2006, pp 237-241

Calkins, Susanna “Women on the Home Front” Women and War: A Historical Enccylopedia from Antiquity to Present. 2006, pp 246-248

Close, David “The Collapse of Resistance to Democracy: Conservatives, Adult Suffrage and Second Chamber Reform, 1911-1928”, The Historical Journal, Issue 20, pp 893-918, 1977

Donelly, Mark “Britainin the Second World War”,Oxford, Routledge, 1999

Doerr, Paul “Women in Service during WWII”. Woman and War: A Historical Encylopedia from Antiquity to the Present. 2006, pp 241-244

Goldstein, Joshua S. “War and Gender: How Gender Shapes the War System and Vise Versa”,Cambridge,CambridgeUniversityPress, 2001

McMillan, James F. “The Coming of Women’s Suffrage, 1914-1945” [Online] http://www.keele.ac.uk/history/currentundergraduates/tltp/SUFFRAGE/COREDOCS/COREDOC3.HTM Date unknown

Martin, Sara “Women and WWI-Women in the Workforce: Temporary Men” [Online]

http://www.firstworldwar.com/features/womenww1_four.htm August 22, 2009

Marwick, Arthur “Women at War 1914-1918”,London, Croom Helm, 1977

Pugh, Martin D. “Politicians and the Women’s Vote, 1914-1918”, History, Vol. 59, Issue 197, pp 358-374, Oct 1974

Schwarz, Marc L. “Social Impact of World War I on Women”. Women and War: A Historical Encylopedia from Antiquity to the Present. 2006, pp 235-236

Smith, Harold L. “War and Social Change: British Society in the Second World War” Manchester,ManchesterUniversityPress, 1990

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