Gender in the mid-1900s

In 1918, the Great War was over. There were an estimated 40 million casualties, a little less than half of whom died, the rest were injured, many very seriously. 40 million. How could such an incomprehensibly vast sum of people die in the space of just a few years? Is it any wonder that people, especially the young, were a little bit crazy, a little bit over-exuberant in the 20s? Yet even in the early 30s, there were already the rumblings and murmurings that would lead to a repeat of the disaster.

While their menfolk went to war, thousands of women left their homes to take on their jobs. For many, working outside the home was a new and liberating experience. But when the war was over, the men came back and they wanted their jobs back. The newly emancipated women were in many cases reluctant to go back home to cook, clean and have babies.

And let’s not forget that millions of men simply never did come back, and their wives, sweethearts, mothers, daughters and sisters had to become their own breadwinners. It has often been said ‘working class women have always worked’ but even they tended to be mainly working in a domestic or a factory setting.

Factories, so often decried as a nightmare of modern life, in fact brought new freedoms to many women. They had their own money for the first time, they mixed with other women and learned new skills, often embracing possibilities that had never been available before. How could they give all that up? On both sides of the gender divide, there was social tension over the conflict between a desire to maintain the status quo, and a desire for freedom, equality and progress. This continued to grow and as we know, gender equality is still an issue today.

For the majority of the middle classes it was all new. Many of them had never done anything like that before, having been daughters at home, then married women who were by default homemakers. But they had to have a living, so they went out and got jobs, and undertook training and they learned how to function in the job market.

It’s not very surprising that they also wanted the same advantages as men in terms of pay, sick pay, working conditions, opportunities for advancement and education, and pensions. Women had won the right to vote in 1918, following many years of campaigning by both men and women. But the right to vote was only for women over 30 who were married. (Or who were voted representatives, an almost, but not quite, impossible task) Was it presumed, as was often said, ‘Your husband will tell you how to vote’? It wasn’t until 1928 that everyone, regardless of gender or marital status, was allowed to vote, but it wasn’t until 1967 that this came down to everyone over 18.

Jewellery and other accessories in the colours green, white and mauve were a sign of solidarity and support for the women’s suffrage movement.

In the 1930s there was still the sense of something new, something experimental, and many women either didn’t want the responsibility of political decision-making, or lacked the information they needed. Women began to move into political life, but still very much in a supporting role. Nancy Astor was the first British MP to take her seat in Parliament in 1919, with Margaret Bondfield, a Labour politician becoming a cabinet minister in 1924. By the 1930s things hadn’t changed all that much but there was a sense that it could change. Looking back at that time, an MP named Edith Summerskill said, ‘Parliament, with its conventions and protocol, seemed a little like a boys’ school which had decided to take a few girls.’ Only 2% of MPs were female, and they were—of course—white and wealthy. But in 1931 there was an election where female candidates took seats from other females, a first for Britain in that there were more women entering the political arena and even more being voted into office.

As far as gender went, though, until very recently there were only two acknowledged genders, and only one acceptable sexual orientation. Crossdressing, as it was called, was viewed as laughable, ridiculous or of dangerous and perverse tendencies equated with mental derangement.

Homosexuality was not decriminalised until 1967. Before that, there was a risk of imprisonment if you were caught in the act. But the changing of the law did not change attitudes overnight and for many, their experiences didn’t change a great deal. Homosexual relationships were still condemned as sinful, shallow, transient and perverted. Even if there were merely suspicions that you were anything other than heterosexual, career prospects could be ruined: gay people could not serve in the police force or the armed forces, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers, as recently as the 70s, the scandal surrounding the exposure of gay MPs who then were forced by public opinion to step down, their careers over. Homosexuals who kept their orientation a secret and enlisted in the armed forces could face prison or at the very least a dishonourable discharge from military service, which would cause scandal and disgrace not just to those immediately involved but to family members and known associates.

I’m so glad things are changing. Although let’s not forget that in many nations, it seems as though attitudes are going backwards rather than forwards with societies becoming less tolerant and less accepting as homosexuality is outlawed and discriminated against, and even actively, often violently, oppressed. I wonder if, within my lifetime, we will ever see true equality in terms of gender, sexual preference, skin colour, age, or any other perceived difference between person number 1 and person number 2. It’s been said that it takes 100 years to change an attitude. I think that, sadly, it’s a lot longer than that.

Admittedly this is from the late 1800s rather than the 1900s, but I’m using it anyway! 🙂

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