Changing Attitudes to Women in WW1

Today we have another of Carol Mayo’s blogs about women’s history and women’s suffrage in Warrington:

This month’s subject is closely linked to the August blog which looked at Women’s Occupations in WW1 and how this impacted on women’s social, political and economic life.

If we examine the local newspaper articles in the early years of the 1900s we find that there was a tendency to focus upon women as wives and mothers. There are several articles on etiquette and courtship, and to veer from this sphere was described as “The Difficult Sex” by the comic journalist John Strange Winter. (Warrington Guardian 19th August 1905).  John Strange Winter was in fact a pseudonym for the female writer Henrietta Stannard who defended women’s independence.

Women’s paid employment appears to be restricted to low paid factory work and domestic service, nursing and teaching. Through the nursing and teaching vocations they were able to dedicate themselves to a caring role and a devotion to their profession. Here there were disparities with the male employees as once married women were expected to resign and fulfil their maternal role within the family. Secondly there was the issue of lower pay which continues today. For example a male Graduate Secondary Assistant School Master’s starting salary in 1905 was £120 per annum whereas a woman graduate in the same role had a starting salary of £110. If she stayed in the profession she would continue to earn less than the male teacher.

Taking inequalities to extremes in “Science Notes and Gleanings” an investigation by Mabel S. Nelson on “Sex and Perception” (Warrington Examiner 17/02/1906 p2) published in the Psychological Review concluded that men are superior in the recognition of blue and they also hear better than women. How could these findings be considered scientific and how did they relate to reality? Inequalities and views such as these would be tested to the full in the war years.

With the outbreak of war and women entering the war economy there were shifts in reporting but there was still an undercurrent of focussing upon women’s traditional role. At the Warrington Labour Party meeting in December 1917 they welcomed ladies to the Party “ now they had entered the arena” and the Warrington Trades Union Council (W.T.U.C.) in January 1917 encouraged women workers to stand for election to W.T.U.C. In a further development in August 1918 they called for protests against low allowances for the childless wife – they had been ignored by the Ministry of Pensions and in some cases lost their family home. Could this be a strategy to win women’s votes at the December General Election or was it a genuine attempt to change women’s lives?

There are further instances of social issues being discussed. The Matrimonial Causes Bill is a suitable case as it aimed to extend the grounds for divorce. At a meeting at the Co-operative Hall in Cairo Street in April 1918 the opinion of the local Churches and Sir Harold Smith M.P. for Warrington was to oppose the bill. Smith described it as “hideousness”. (Warrington Guardian 27th April 1918 p 4) We can see that there were differences in opinion as a letter by E. England of Fearnhead in April 1918 pointed out that the marriage laws need to be humane, equal and Christian.

At the local level there were considerations from Warrington Council to open crèches as women “are working for the nation” and children needed to be protected from neglect. (Warrington Guardian 1st May 1918 p8) Such a move was seen as a way of improving health and well-being. Here we can see that there had been some change to how people viewed a woman’s role.

There were reports of women munition workers sending a deputation to the Mayor Alderman Peacock as they were trying to cope with shopping difficulties i.e. rationing and they were unable to shop as they were at work. This was detrimental to them and their children’s health. Here was a report of women acting independently and assertively. Beneath this story however, was the fact that women were expected to play the dual role of economic provider in war time and maintain the function of homemaker.

Away from the domestic sphere there were reports of women who were nursing with the Red Cross on the Russian Front. Miss Lucy Broadbent experienced the aftermath of the early stages of the Russian Revolution and referred to the formation of a women’s Russian Regiment. During 1917 and the latter part of 1918 there were notices of women’s political meetings, parties and organisations. These organisations some new and old included Suffragists, Warrington Women’s Liberal Association, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (W.I.L.F.P.F), The Women’s Party, Women’s Citizens Association, Win the War League and the Women’s Co-operative Guild. Through these organisations women were participating in the political processes and in some cases they were new experiences. The Women’s Liberal Association resumed their activities in late 1918 whilst The Women’s Party was a new entity. The Women’s Party was highly influenced by Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst – hence the radical dimensions to their policies e.g. equal pay and the abolition of trades unions. Although we do not know the full details of the local meetings for these organisations it is clear that WW1 had a profound impact upon women.

Bearing in mind the Suffragists campaigns, the Suffragettes activities and their direct actions, the hardships of women war workers, the war experiences of Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) and Red Cross women, and the formation of women’s organizations it can be said they through their experiences they were the antithesis of Edwardian womanhood. In the words of John Strange Winter they were “The Difficult Sex”. WW1 did challenge attitudes and they were altered to a degree but post war women had to try and cope with the pressures of the men returning home and the expectation that women would revert to domesticity.