© Helena Wojtczak www.hastingspress.co.uk

Webmistress: Helena Wojtczak, author of books on women's history

This website is a place where everything about British women's emancipation since the Renaissance could be brought together without being muddled up with people and events of other countries read more...

Below is a chronological narrative of women's emancipation. Detailed information about people, organisations and events is accessed via the hyperlinks placed at appropriate junctures in the narrative and also in the list to your left.

The sitemap lists all the pages on this site.

The timeline lists many extra events not included in this narrative.

The Chronological Narrative

There has never been a time, from the beginning of recorded history until the present day, in which men have regarded women as their equals. Men have always designated women as a sub-class who exist to serve male needs, most notable in the realms of sexuality and reproduction, but also as pieces of property to be passed (sold or given away) from one man to another, and as free or cheap labour both inside and outside of the home.

The origins of men's ownership and control of women are universally thought to derive from men's superior physical strength and some biological differences between the sexes read more.... These physical differences resulted in men, and men alone, constructing society and all its laws and customs and religions, a system we call 'patriarchy' (the rule of men) read more....

Women and men were indoctrinated from birth into believing that women's semi-slave status was natural. As women were routinely excluded from literacy and education, kept busy with menial, domestic and childrearing tasks, and kept in a state of total ignorance about everything outside of the home, the vast majority were not permitted to develop the mental facility to question the world around them or to challenge the status quo. If on occasion an individual daughter or wife rebelled, she was easily silenced either by being shamed or punished, or by the infliction of physical chastisement. Before written laws men's superior aggression and strength were used unthinkingly to control women by violence; when men wrote down laws that punished violence against others, those laws allowed men to beat their wives and children. Some of these ancient beliefs lasted until fairly recently read more...



The Renaissance

By the 1500s, some privileged women could read and write, and a tiny number had become scholars. Between 1500 and 1640, more than a hundred works were composed or translated by Englishwomen. Unsurprisingly, most of these writings were religious, but among these women were the very first who addressed in writing what we would now describe as 'feminist' issues. The first blatantly feminist pamphlet in England was written by Jane Anger in 1589. This was followed by several misogynistic or satirical attacks on women by men, and also by other tracts in defence of women, written by both sexes - see my timeline and my list of notable women.

The English Civil War and Interregnum (1642-60)

Civil War caused social upheaval and women were given the opportunity to take over complete control of the household in the absence of their menfolk. Some women became involved in political activity as Royalists or Parliamentarians. During the Civil War, large numbers of women refused to accept that they should undertake domestic duties and nothing more. Many had been left to run farms, businesses and estates after their menfolk had volunteered or been conscripted into the army. Some worked on building defences and in sieges many even took up arms. They also demanded a right to voice their political opinions and called for equal rights. Some even went so far as to dare to challenge women's exclusion from the public sphere:

The Levellers

The Levellers were supposedly the pioneers of modern democracy, but they wanted the parliamentary vote only for men. Nevertheless, for the first time, a group of women became involved in direct political action read more...

Leveller women raised two petitions to parliament in 1648 and 1649 read more... Although its intention was to support the imprisoned leaders of the Levellers, it forms the first mass claim of women to be heard on a political issue.

The Quakers

The nonconformist sects, especially the Quakers, allowed more input from women than the established religions. The Quakers believed the Inner Light might illuminate any Friend, male or female. Margaret Fell's 1688 treatise 'Women's Speaking Justified' defended women's speaking at church meetings. This contradicted St Paul's prohibition: 'Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak.'

The Restoration

The period after the English Civil War was one of political, scientific, and literary innovation. The secularisation of society provided openings for women in the arts, and the period produced a number of female playwrights, dramatists and satirists, including Aphra Behn (the first Englishwoman to be a professional writer); Catherine Trotter Cockburn, Mary de le Riviere Manley and Mary Pix.

A handful of women published their comments on a subject entirely neglected by men: the position of women. In 1697 one of them, Mary Astell, published 'A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest, by a Lover of Her Sex. Dedicated to Princess Ann of Denmark' and 'An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex, in a Letter to a Lady, by a Lady. She published anonymously, and several other anonymous publications on the same theme appeared around the same time (see the timeline )

The Lawes and Resolutions, printed in 1632 stated that under common law a man may with impunity beat 'an outlaw, a traitor, a Pagan, his villein, or his wife'.

This century also saw more women writers emerging. However, they encountered considerable hostility.



The 'Rights of Man' and the Age of Enlightenment

This was an age of secular intellectual reasoning and philosophical writing.The Corresponding Societies that sprang up in England after the French Revolution were groups of working men whose bible was Thomas Paine's book 'The Rights of Man' (1792). Among their demands for political reform was universal male suffrage. Mary Wollstonecraft published her 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' (1792).


Early 1800s

The immediate effect of the end of the French Wars in 1815 was economic distress. This led to an increase in demands for political rights, popular radicalism, democratic ideals, criticisms of government corruption, political meetings, riots, failed insurrections, marches, and petitions for reform. The 'Peterloo Massacre' occurred at a reform meeting at St Peter's Field in Manchester in 1819 About 60,000 people gathered to hear Henry Hunt and others speak in favour of political reforms and rights for the poor. When Hunt arrived the yeomanry were sent by magistrates to arrest him. They slashed their way through the crowd killing eleven and injuring hundreds, including women.

A campaign against the Combination Acts successfully ended in their repeal in 1824, making trade unions legal, but in 1825 a second act limited trade union activity.

Women and the Abolition of Slavery

In 1823 a new Anti-Slavery Society formed to argue for the abolition of slavery. Over the next ten years, more than seventy women's anti-slavery societies were formed, with the Sheffield Female Society the first to call for the immediate emancipation of slaves. These women's societies were more radical than the national society: through their influence the society dropped the words 'gradual abolition' from its title. The 1833 Emancipation Act outlawed slavery in the British Empire. Some women who were involved in the abolition of slavery include Sophia Sturge (1795-1845), Anna Richardson (1806-1892) and Elizabeth Pease Nichol (1807-1897).

Women and the Anti-Corn Law League, 1840s

Women organised, petitioned and raised funds for the league.

Women and the New Poor Law

The New Poor Law introduced a national system of relief based on a deterrent workhouse designed to repel all but the most desperate of claimants. Families were to be divided within the workhouse, inmates were to undertake pointless labour (such as picking oakum) and all of the conditions in the workhouse were to be below that of the poorest independent labourer.

Women and Chartism

The anti-Poor Law riots and demonstrations provided the focus for the movement that would dominate the next decade: Chartism, a working class movement between 1837-1860 but was most active between 1838 and 1848. The aim of the Chartists was to gain political rights and influence for the working classes. The movement got its name from the formal petition, or 'People's Charter', that listed the six main aims of the movement. These included a vote for all men aged over 21, but, just like the Levellers, they did not ask for votes for women. read more ...

Women and philanthropy

All members of the wealthy class were expected to make monetary donations to charities for the poor. But some women who had time and funds became involved, out of a sense of pity or outrage, in improving or supplementing existing systems and establishments that dealt with social problems such as poverty and criminality, prostitution and alcoholism.

Although this work was earlier than, wholly separate to or unconnected with the women's rights movement (that began in the mid-1800s), it is clear evidence that women were challenging systems and establishments that which had been put in place by men and so, by inference, they amount to a female critique of men's failure to handle social problems in a manner acceptable to women. read more...

Women and parliamentary politics

1832: Mr Hunt MP presented a petition from Mary Smith praying that, as a property-owner and spinster, she may be allowed to vote. 'The Age' magazine commented (5/8/32): 'we suspect that the petition is nothing more than an advertisement for a husband'.

1836: The ladies' gallery at the House of Commons

In July 1835 Mr Grantley Berkeley MP requested that a select committee be set up to consider how to adapt a portion of the Strangers' Gallery for a Ladies' Gallery in the new House of Commons. Ladies were admitted, he said, to debates in 1716, not only in the gallery but in the lower part of the house. The Times opined: 'We should like to see a list of ladies who have sought this mode of killing their time... As to their presence civilising debate, it is all fudge. The most violent scene we ever witnessed was in the House of Lords, in broad day, when the benches were filled ladies in all the imposing attractions of full dress... blood would have been shed if it has still been custom to wear swords... If the ladies of England desire this novel mode of getting rid of their ennui, let them be indulged, but let us ot be so absurd as to expect any influence on the character of the debate. The female listeners may be vulgarized; the male orators will not be refined.' The next subject was introduced with the words: 'After this childish subject was diposed of...'. It took nearly seven years for the House to finally agree to a ladies' gallery. Several publications reported on its opening in early 1842. By the 1860s The Lady's Newspaper had a female reporter based there who sent in a weekly report of proceedings. She noted that so many women wished for admittance that there was a two-week waiting list. John Bull magazine even published a poem about it in 1867. During discussions relating to prostitution, despite it being a matter directly pertinent to women, the Ladies' Gallery was cleared.

Caroline Norton and the Custody of Infants Act 1839

When Caroline Norton separated from her violent husband in 1836, a chain of events started that led to the 1839 Custody of Infants Act

The Origins of the Organised Women's Rights Movement

The first half of the 1800s had seen lots of individual women becoming involved in public service, welfare campaigns and humanitarian social reform. Among them were Louisa Twining, Mary Carpenter, Angela Burdett Coutts, Lady Byron, Mary Somerville, Anna Jameson and Florence Nightingale were working as journalists and editors of publications, which placed them in a position to educate and influence other women, but none was predominently famous for flying a feminist flag, nor did they get together with other women to fight for the rights of women.

In June 1840, the World Anti-Slavery Convention opened in London. Its decision not to recognise women delegates (from America) sparked discussion about women's rights.

Individual women who were critical of the lowly position into which men had put women occasionally managed to get articles published in magazines read more ...

The first group of women who are known to have met to discuss women's rights was a group of two! In the 1840s a couple of women in their twenties, artist Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and poet Bessie Rayner Parkes became aware of, and incensed by, the unfair laws that men had made for women. In 1854 Barbara Leigh Smith (by then Madame Bodichon) published 'A Brief Summary of the Laws of England concerning Women' and this led to her giving evidence to a House of Commons Committee enquiring into the legal postion of wives.

In 1855 Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon called together some likeminded, middle-class, educated ladies of her acquaintance and created the first ever committee devoted to the rights of women: the Married Women's Property Committee. (Bessie Rayner Parkes, Mary Howitt , art historian Anna Jameson (1794-1860), poet Adelaide Anne Procter and painter Eliza Fox (1824-1903), with Maria Rye (1829-1903) as secretary. The initial purpose of the committee was to collect signatures on a petition to support a Married Women's Property Bill that was presently coming before parliament. If passed, the Bill would give married women the legal right to keep their own earnings, instead of everything belonging to their husbands. They collected an astonishing 26,000 signatures, including those of some eminent women, such as poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Harriet Martineau, Geraldine Jewsbury, and the novelists Elizabeth Gaskell and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot).

In 1857 the Married Women's Property Bill was discussed in parliament. It was not carried, but Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Bill , which was, removed some of the worst abuses and thereby took most of the wind out of the sails of the committee. But the members continued to meet and discussed many other issues: the concept of women having higher education, and more "occupational choices. The problem of married women's property was resurrected in 1867.


Queen's College was founded in 1848 by Frederick Denison Maurice in Harley Street, London, to provide training for governesses and schoolteachers, it was Britain's first higher education college for women. A year later Bedford College opened at Bedford Square, London. These establishments were small but they were like an oasis in a desert. Hot on their heels were the North London Collegiate School, founded by Frances Buss in 1850, and Cheltenham Ladies College, founded in 1853, by a committee of gentlemen, some of them clergy; in 1858 the legendary Dorothea Beale became the principal. Ladies' colleges opened across Britain during the 1850s and 1860s. Women could be educated to university level but were banned from every university in Britain.

EXTENDING EMPLOYMENT In March 1858 Bessie and Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon founded The English Woman's Journal. Its main theme was employment. Readers began to visit the offices at 14a Princes Street, London, and soon it became a meeting place for feminists, seventy of whom subscribed to its reading room by 1858. As a meeting place it was open till 10pm.

The following summer (1859) the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women was formed. This society also ran a registry for women's work. When printers refused to take female apprentices, Emily Faithfull (assisted by Maria Rye) trained as a typesetter, founded the Victoria Press .

In December 1859 the The English Woman's Journal moved to new offices at 19 Langham Place, and by 1860 it boasted a 'Ladies Institute' which became a meeting place for feminists who became known as the Langham Place group , set or circle.

Many members became deeply involved in the various campaigns of the Victorian women's rights movement. Follow these links to find out more about:

SUFFRAGE Women being allowed to vote in parliamentary elections (i.e. for their MP), known as the suffrage movement

WIVES' RIGHTS The rights of married women, especially their property, which automatically passed by law into their husbands' hands


EMPLOYMENT Training women for a wider range of paid occupations and removing the legal and social obstacles which prevented them working in the lucrative trades and the professions

PROSTITUTION Rescuing women from the streets

THE CD ACTS Opposing the state regulation of prostitution

EMIGRATIONSending single women abroad to a better life

TEMPERANCE Opposing the use of alcohol, known as the temperance movement

BIRTH CONTROL Promoting the spread of information

PUBLICATIONS A number of magazines and journals were associated with the above. Some were specific to one campaign, others reported news about all activities related to women's emancipation and general progress. There were also novels with feminist themes, and textbooks about women's position in society

SEXUAL NONCONFORMITY Cohabitation, having children out of wedlock, open marriages, courtesans, lesbians and spinsters

HIGHER EDUCATION Another achievement of the Langham Place group was the experimental examination of girls by the examiners of Cambridge University in 1863.

THE KENSINGTON SOCIETY In the autumn of 1865, a serious ladies' discussion and debating society began to meet in Charlotte Manning' house, 44 Phillimore Gardens, Kensington. Its 68 members included Emily Davies, Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and Frances Power Cobbe from the Langham Place group, plus Helen Taylor (J.S. Mill's step-daughter), aspiring physicians Sophia Jex-Blake, Emily Bovell (later Sturge) and Elizabeth Garrett (later Anderson) and her friend Harriet Cook (the group's paid secretary, who died in 1869); educationists Mary Porter, Dorothea Beale, Frances Buss and Katherine Hare, Jane Ronniger and Anne Jemima Clough; writers Isa Craig (later Knox), Anna Keary and Eliza Keary; artist Alice Westlake, Adelaide Manning, Sophia Collet, Emelia Gurney, Fanny Heaton, and hon. sec. Louisa Smith (nee Garrett), the mother of four children. Its minutes were sent out to corresponding members outside of London, among them Elizabeth Wolstenholme and Lydia Becker in Manchester.

That year John Stuart Mill stood for parliament. He "http://www.hastingspress.co.uk/history/jex.html"and his wife Harriet were ardent supporters of women's suffrage; indeed Harriet's essay The Enfranchisement of Women had appeared in the Westminster Review as far back as 1851. The Langham Place group helped with his election campaign and he won. In 1866 a Representation of the People Bill was soon to come before parliament, and Disraeli had suggested that he might support the enfranchisement of women. Mme Bodichon asked Mr Mill, if she got up a petition for votes for women (as men had done in the past for their own sex), would he present it to the House to support and amendment to the Bill, that would gives votes to women. He asked her to get a hundred names, and she formed the Women's Suffrage Petition Committee. Members included Mme Bodichon, Emily Davies, Jessie Boucherett, Elizabeth Garrett, Jane Crowe (b.1832) and Rosamund Davenport Hill. A petition was drawn up by Helen Taylor and in two weeks they collected 1,499 signatures, including those of some famous and eminent women such as Florence Nightingale, Lady Anna Gore Langton, Martha Merington (1831-1912, the first female Poor Law guardian), Ada and Julia Barmby, Anne Ashworth, Harriet Martineau, Mary Somerville, Josephine Butler, Helen Bright (later Clarke), Elizabeth and Emma Corfield, Florence Davenport Hill, Jane Horsburgh and Ursula, wife of Jacob Bright MP. Twenty-nine members of the Kensington Society also signed. The petition sheets from all over the country were collated at Aubrey House, Kensington, home of Clementia, wife of Peter Taylor MP. Copies of the petition were printed into pamphlets and sent to various publications. The Representation of the People Bill was later aborted because of the fall of the Liberal government, but the Conservatives intended to bring in a Reform Bill. On 7th June 1866 J.S. Mill presented the women's suffrage petition to the House of Commmons.


That autumn Mme Bodichon read a paper on women's suffrage to the Social Science Congress in Manchester, which incited Lydia Becker to to devote the rest of her life to the cause. Among her first activities were to write an article putting the case for women's suffrage in The Spectator and a letter to Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative prime minister. The Kensington Society collected more names on petitions and by the end of 1866 had formed a new committee dedicated to getting the vote. As well as women previously mentioned, committee members included Lady Goldsmid and some highly-placed men, including Russell Gurney MP.

Other societies formed in Dublin, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol. Eventually there were to be 17, and they grouped together as the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies in 1887, headed first by Lydia Becker, then from 1888 by Millicent Garrett Fawcett.

In early 1867 over 3,000 people signed a petition for women's suffrage; another was signed by 1,600 women householders, who would be the first women to vote if Mr Mill's Amendment to the Reform Act was passed. In May Mill presented a logical, well-argued, unanswerable case to which his opponents replied with with illogical prejudice. Read excerpts from the debate . The House voted 123 against and 73 for Mill's Amendment and the Reform Act was passed without it, but the term used was 'every man', not 'male persons'.

An article in The Spectator commented that Mr Disraeli, the Prime Minister, must have known what he was doing when he used the term 'every man' instead of 'male persons'. The article continued: 'But whether the object was merely to puzzle claimants, objectors, overseers, and revising barristers, or was to introduce by a side wind one of those changes which the House of Commons is scarcely prepared to sanction directly, must be left for the Court of Common Pleas to determine... When [Disraeli] was asked in Parliament what would be the result of the new phrase he replied vaguely. When addressed by letter, he left his private secretary to reply that the whole question rested with the revising barristers.'

UPDATE ON THE KENSINGTON SOCIETY The society fragmented in mid-1867, soon after the Reform Act was passed. The problems were party allegiance and tactics. Some members were Conservatives (notably Emily Davies); others were Liberals (such as Helen Taylor ). Emily Davies also argued against women being too strident in their demands, for fear of alarming the public. Others, among them Helen Taylor , disagreed. The group was dissolved and Helen Taylor invited those who shared her views to form the London National Society for Women's Suffrage. It had strong links with the sister groups in Edinburgh (founded by Flora Stevenson and Priscilla Bright, Jacob's sister) and Manchester ( Lydia Becker , Elizabeth Wolstenholme , Ursula Bright), but lost some of its activists. Emily Davies turned her attention to higher education. The group began to meet at the palatial Kensington home of MP's wife Clementia Taylor, the treasurer. Members included Caroline Biggs (as secretary), Sarah Bunting (later Mrs Amos), Anna Harrison (sister of Mary Howitt), Amy Burbury, Frances Power Cobbe and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Florence Nightingale, Eliza Keary, and a host of men, many of them MPs, professors and noblemen. Larger, public meetings and conferences were held at which, for the first time, there were female speakers.

In late 1867 Elizabeth Wolstenholme and some others from the Kensington Society sent a petition, signed by 300 women, to the Social Science Association requesting a reform of the married women's property laws. The Association drafted a a Bill to give married women full rights over their property and person, and Elizabeth Wolstenholme formed a new Married Women's Property Committee, based in Manchester. members included Richard Pankhurst and Josephine Butler. The Married Women's Property Bill was introduced to parliament in 1869 by Jacob Bright, a Manchester MP. It was passed in 1870, heavily amended so as to leave married women still under coverture and without equal rights over their property.

At a by-election in Manchester on 26th November 1867, Lily Maxwell, who kept a chandler's shop at 25 Ludlow Street; and Jesse Godber, 22 London Road, had got onto the electoral register by mistake. Miss Godber voted in the municipal election in Oxford Ward for Mr Ingham. Jacob Bright's canvassing team spotted Mrs Maxwell's name on the register and contacted the secretary of the Manchester Women's Suffrage Society, Miss Lydia Becker, who then canvassed Mrs Maxwell's vote on behalf of Jacob Bright and received the reply: "If I'd 20 votes I would give them all to Jacob Bright".' Mrs Maxwell 'was escorted to the polling booth by a bodyguard of Liberal supporters, to protect her from loutish behaviour by opponents of women's voting rights. Her action caused uproar at the time... Discounting fears for her safety she declared her preference at the polling booth and the crowd broke into ringing cheers.' [1] Mr Bright was elected.

Heartened by this, Miss Becker collected the names of thousands of female householders in Manchester and Salford. Other women all over Britain did the same. Read more

As soon as Miss Becker heard the result of Chorlton v. Lings she organised her Manchester Women's Suffrage committee to despatch 800 letters, one to each MP, asking him to support a Bill for votes for women. Dozens of towns sent petitions to their MPs. The London committee alone collected 21,783 signatures on a petition headed by Mary Somerville and Florence Nightingale.

In 1869 and 1870, three publications saw the light of day that were very important to the women's movement. The first was J.S. Mill's book The Subjection of Women, a radical-feminist treatise. The second was a collection of essays edited by Josephine Butler and called Women's Work and Women's Culture. These were followed in March 1870 by Miss Becker's first issue of the Journal of the Manchester National Society for Women's Suffrage (a title later shortened to the Women's Suffrage Journal).

HIGHER EDUCATION The whole time the suffrage debate was taking place, Emily Davies and Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon were hatching another plan, this time for university education for women. After the refusal of London and Cambridge universities to admit or examine women, they spent three years discussing, corresponding, planning and securing funds and building a committee resulted in the opening of a ladies' college at Benslow House, Hitchin, halfway between London and Cambridge, in 1869. In 1872 it moved to a site two miles from Cambridge and was renamed Girton. It took nine years to obtain permission for Girton's students to take degree examinations at Cambridge University, and even then they received certificates instead of proper degrees. It was to take 68 years for Girton to receive the status of a college of the university and the first women were awarded Cambridge degrees in 1947.

In 1871 Professor Henry Sidgwick founded Newnham College as a residence for five women attending the recently-inaugurated 'Lectures for Ladies' at Cambridge University. By 1879 it had become a college with its own tutors. It differed from Girton, where students studied the same subjects as men, by having special ladies' courses which excluded Greek and Latin.


The legislation had been introduced in 1864 and extended in 1866 and 1869 in order to tackle the problem of VD in the army and navy. Any woman living in certain garrison towns could, if she were suspected of being a common prostitute, be forced to undergo an intimate medical examination by a male doctor. If found to be suffering, she was locked up in a special hospital wing until cured. If she refused to be examined she could be sent to prison and even be forced to perform hard labour. Read more ...


Late 1800s

Women's suffrage in Parliament

The 1869 Municipal Franchise Act gave the vote to some women rate-payers in local elections and also enabled women to serve as Poor Law Guardians. The 1888 County Council Act also gave women the vote at county and borough council elections. However, they could not serve as members. This right was not granted until 1907.

Bills for parliamentary suffrage were debated in 1870, 1871, 1872, 1878, 1883 and 1892. Read excerpts ...

In 1897 Millicent Fawcett formed the moderate National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) to co-ordinate the work of seventeen local suffrage groups.

In 1903 Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst formed the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).


During this period important rights for women were fought for, with some won and others not. Campaigners were generally the middle-class women who benefited from various acts improving the legal status of women, such as the Married Women's Property Acts of 1870, 1874 and 1882.



From the late 1880s there was increased activity in trade union matters. Apart from occasional large disputes in the 1850s and 1860s, it was not until the late 1880s and early 1890s (and again between 1910 and 1914) that trade unionism experienced any kind of upturn. From the 1840s the increase in 'new model' unions had concentrated on the organisation of skilled workers whereas the 'new unionism' of the late 1880s extended union organisations to unskilled workers.


One of the demands of the trades unions was pensions for the elderly, as opposed to poor relief. In 1908 Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced the Old Age Pensions Act which provided a small weekly pension to some people over seventy.

At the beginning of the 19th century only a minority of children, mostly from the wealthy ruling class, had any kind of formal schooling. Positive steps were made in education through the Education Acts of 1870 and 1902. The 1870 Education Act (Forster's Education Act) established the principle of an elementary (primary) school place costing under 9d weekly for every working class child. Elected school boards oversaw the system. From 1891 there was universal free elementary schooling. The 1902 Education Act (the Balfour Act) abolished the local school boards and attendance committees and replaced them with county-wide local education authorities who were allowed to 'supply or aid the supply of education other than elementary'. This resulted in two types of state-aided secondary school: endowed grammar schools and municipal or county secondary schools maintained by LEAs. The majority of children continued to receive only elementary education. Those showing 'promise of exceptional capacity' might receive a scholarship to a secondary school but annual fees put secondary education beyond the reach of most working class children.


In 1911, a girl could be married at 12; a boy at 14. Under the lnfants' Settlement Act 1855, a valid settlement could be made by a woman at 17 with the approval of the court, while the age for a man was 20; by the Married Women's Property Act 1907, any settlement by a husband of his wife's property was not valid unless executed by her if she was of full age, or confirmed by her after she attained full age.

In common law, the father not the mother was entitled to the custody of a legitimate child up to the age of 16, and could only forfeit such right by misconduct. But the Court of Chancery, wherever there was trust property and the infant could be made a ward of court, took a less rigid view of the paternal rights and looked more to the interest of the child, and consequently in some cases to the extension of the mother's rights in common law.

Legislation tended in the same direction. By the Custody of Infants Act 1873, the Court of Chancery was empowered to enforce a provision in a separation deed, giving up the custody or control of a child to the mother. The Judicature Act 1873 enacted that, in questions relating to the custody and education of infants, the rules of equity should prevail.

Female heirs were still excluded from succession to property except in the absence of a male heir.

A husband could obtain a divorce for the adultery of his wife, but a wife had also to prove some other cause, such as cruelty or desertion.

In 1913 the Law Society refused to allow four women to sit its examinations to become solicitors. The women took the case (Bebb v. Law Society) to the Court of Appeal, which upheld the decision. Mr Justice Joyce said that women were 'not persons' within the meaning of the 1843 Solicitors Act.


In the First World War women entered the labour market in unprecedented numbers, often in new sectors. They discovered that their work outside the home was now valued, but also left large numbers of women bereaved and with a net loss of household income. Meanwhile the large numbers of men killed and wounded created a major shift in demographic composition. War also split the feminist groups, with many opposed to the war, while other women became involved in the White Feather campaign.

Between the Wars: 1918-1939

Women's demand for the vote could no longer be ignored, and the Representation of the People Act 1918 enacted in February of that year gave men almost universal suffrage, and the vote to women over 30 years of age till the Representation of the People Act 1928 provided equal suffrage for men and women. It also shifted the socioeconomic make up of the electorate towards the working class, favouring the Labour Party who were more sympathetic to women's issues. The first election was held in December, and gave Labour the most seats in the house to date. The electoral reforms also allowed women to run for parliament. Although Christabel Pankhurst narrowly failed to win a seat in 1918, in 1919 and 1920 both Lady Astor and Margaret Wintringham won seats for the Conservatives and Liberals respectively, by succeeding to their husband's seats. Labour swept to power in 1924, including Ellen Wilkinson. Constance Markiewicz (Sinn Fein) was the first woman to be elected, in Ireland in 1918, but as an Irish nationalist, refused to take her seat. Astor's proposal to form a women's party in 1929 was unsuccessful, which some historians feel was a missed opportunity, and there were still only 12 women in parliament by 1940. Women gained considerable electoral experience over the next few years as a series of minority governments ensured almost annual elections. Close affiliation with Labour also proved to be a problem for NUSEC, which had little support in the Conservative party. However, their persistence with Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was rewarded by the passage of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928.

The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 opened the professions to (middle class) women. However, many women (mainly working class) were made redundant by the end of hostilities, having been forced to surrender their jobs to men, both returning soldiers and those who had never fought.

Eleanor Rathbone, who was to become an MP in 1929, succeeded Millicent Garrett Fawcett as NUWSS president in 1919. The NUWSS then became the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC) and continued to campaign for women's equality. NUSEC became the Townswomen's Guild.

In 1922 four women passed the Law Society's examinations, which qualified them to be solicitors.

In 1921, Margaret Mackworth (later to be Viscountess Rhondda) founded the Six Point Group. She also founded Time and Tide, which became the group's journal. It was a political lobby group, whose six aims were political, occupational, moral, social, economic and legal equality. It continued its work till 1983. Although women were admitted to the House of Commons from 1918, Viscountess Rhondda spent a lifetime fighting to take her seat in the House of Lords.

Reproductive rights

Marie Stopes was never prosecuted but was regularly denounced for her work in promoting birth control. Even more controversial was the establishment of the Abortion Law Reform Association in 1936. The penalty for abortion was life imprisonment, although some exceptions were allowed in the Infant Life Preservation Act 1929. Following the prosecution of Dr. Aleck Bourne in 1938, the 1939 Birkett Committee made recommendations for reform, that like many other women's issues, were set aside at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Second World War

The Second World War was extraordinarily liberating and empowering for women, since most working-age men were away from their homes and jobs. Much more so than in the previous war, large numbers of women contributed to life outside the home - especially in skills and professional expertise - as a result of the educational and employment opportunities that opened to them in the absence of the male workforce.

The 1950s and 1960s

At the end of the war women again found that many of their apparent gains again disappeared or were taken away. During the 1950s women were depicted in the media as primarily home-makers, not workers, although there were still many women beavering away in the background making professional careers for themselves in former male areas. Women who had been born during the war and grew up in the mid to late 50s began a new movement in the mid-1960s, called the women's liberation movement, (and latterly known as second-wave feminism to distinguish it from the so-called 'first-wave' of the Edwardian era.

Women's lib grew out of the social, cultural, and political climate of the 60s, which included free love, increasing numbers of women in higher education, the rise of sociology, and the general questioning of accepted standards and authority.

Feminist writers

From the mid-1960s there was a plethora of groundbreaking feminist books, including Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, Sheila Rowbotham's Women's Liberation and the New Politics and Juliet Mitchell's Woman's Estate.

Sexual liberation and birth control

Since it was often considered more acceptable for men to have multiple sexual partners, many feminists encouraged women into "sexual liberation" and having sex for pleasure with multiple partners. At exactly the right time, the contraceptive pill was invented, and the coil and the cap became more freely available, though at first it was difficult to gain access to these items unless one was married. Access to abortion was also demanded, and in 1967 abortion was at long last legalised. Some feminists believed that giving women control of their reproductive functions was more personally liberating than the vote or indeed any other reform, because their foremothers were terribly encumbered by multiple pregnancies and in many cases being forced to bear children they did not want.

Free love meant women could throw off their coyness about sex and start enjoying it, just like men did. But this 'liberation' has since been criticised by some feminists, who see the sexual revolution as a tool used by men to gain easy access to sex without the obligations entailed by marriage. They see the huge rise in the acceptability of pornography as leading towards greater sexual objectification of women by men.


[1] Sarah Lonsdale, The Observer February 7 1993

[2] The Times 16 September 1868

[3] From 'March of the Women' by Martin Pugh and 'Emmeline Pankhurst' by Paula Bartley

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