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Christian Biblical Studies
WOMAN IN SOCIETY AND CHURCH
By W. Resume
This instalment covers the interwar years, principally in Britain – from the close of the First World War (the ‘Great War’) in 1918 to the start of the Second World War in 1939. Subsequent instalments will review events affecting the status of woman during the post-war years – the so-called Atomic Age to the present. The series will close with a study of her role in the religious field, in the light of biblical teaching.
A German war scare makes some fearful and some belligerent. The claim is, that a strong German navy would compete with the British, take away her trade and starve her people by blockading her ports. The argument advanced is that war should be declared against Germany speedily, while the British navy is so much the stronger of the two, and that with her navy destroyed, Germany should never be allowed to rebuild one which would in any degree be a menace to that of Great Britain. . . . [I]t would not at all surprise us if there should be a cruel and dreadful war between the two great ‘Christian’ nations, Great Britain and Germany, within two years. – C.T. Russell, The Watch Tower, 1 January 1, 1910, p. 3.
ALTHOUGH THE ORIGINS of the war of 1914-18 may have confounded any single explanation at the time, it has since become clear that the conflict set in motion a train of events which shaped the social and economic structure of our present world. More than a straightforward rivalry between Britain and Germany, that four-year long exercise in continental suicide turned Europe and other parts of the world upside down. Its effects have rumbled on for almost a century.
The number of men deployed across the battlefields was astonishing.
This war democratized suffering. In most combatant countries, roughly 50 per cent of the male population between the ages of eighteen and forty-nine were in uniform. Nothing like this had ever happened before. France and Germany mobilized the highest proportion: about 80 percent of men of military age were conscripted. Austria-Hungary mobilized 75 per cent of its adult male population; Britain, Serbia and Turkey called up between 50 and 60 per cent. In Russia, about 16 million men or 40 per cent of the male population . . . . In the United States, in the brief space of eighteen months about 4 million men, or roughly 16 per cent of the same age group, were in uniform.[fn1]
Of the years leading up to the war, the British economist John Maynard Keynes writes:
What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age was which came to an end in August 1914! The greater part of the population, it is true, worked hard and lived at low standard of comfort, yet were, to all appearances, reasonably contented with this lot. But escape was possible, for any man of capacity or character at all exceeding the average, into the middle and upper classes, for whom life offered, at a low cost and with the least trouble, conveniences, comforts, and amenities beyond the compass of the richest and most powerful monarchs of other ages.[fn2]
To the suffragists, the outbreak of a conflict on such a scale no doubt confirmed their belief that any system of governance which omitted female influence from the polity of the nation invited such a calamity. Writing in the August 1914 edition of The Suffragette, Christabel Pankhurst sets the blame squarely on the pugnacious male:
[A] dreadful war-cloud seems about to burst and deluge the peoples of Europe with fire, slaughter, ruin – this then is the World as men have made it, as men have ordered it. A man-made civilisation, hideous and cruel in time of peace is to be destroyed.
But if men could properly be said to have precipitated it, the war would demand the participation of the women if victory was to be had. Still largely conservative in their social views, the women who had engaged in the suffrage movement before the war, now suspended the cause and shifted their patriotic energies into national defence.
Women from both the working class and the well-off elite migrated into essential work in hospital, factory, farm, office and munitions plant. Serving as nurses overseas with the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the British Red Cross, many laboured close to the front lines and were maimed or killed.[fn3] Even wives and mothers on the home front, tending the household and sustaining their children on ever-tightening rations, ran the occasional risk of being bombed by the German Zeppelins and biplanes which targeted major cities:
The most spectacular episode in the air war against civilians was the German raid on England on the night 2-3 September 1916. This attack by Zeppelins, which dropped five hundred bombs, half of them incendiaries . . . . Amazingly, only four civilians were killed and twelve wounded. What made the event linger in the popular mind was rather the destruction of a German airship . . . 571 feet long and 81 feet high, and [which] carried a crew of sixteen. It was shot down over London by a British biplane . . . .[fn4]
The war ran far longer than the country’s statesmen and over-zealous generals had predicted. The four years that elapsed from the first rifle shot to the last might just as well have been four hundred, for the murderous conflict had blasted the old social order to smithereens. The new order which began in 1918 would be revolutionary.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘but have you nothing to do at home?’
I answered curtly that I didn't think that concerned any man except my husband.
‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I thought you might have children, perhaps.’
‘Yes,’ I said bitterly, ‘but fortunately not many.’
‘You mean unfortunately, I think,’ he said smugly.
‘I mean what I say,’ I answered sharply. ‘It isn’t a fortunate thing for children when their mothers are classed with infants, imbeciles and criminals.’
— Hanna Mitchell, The Hard Way Up (London: Virago Press Ltd, 1977: reprint)
THE WAR MAY have ended, but the passion for female suffrage had not. Still, there was no widespread return to the demonstrations of the suffragette years. Beginning in 1917, Parliament discussed the possibility of extending a limited franchise to women. In February 1918, the Government introduced the Representation of the People Act,
deemed necessary as millions of returning soldiers were not entitled to the vote because of property and residential qualifications. This Act widened suffrage by abolishing almost all property qualifications for men and by enfranchising women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. The Act also instituted the present system of holding general elections on one day, and brought in the annual electoral register. These changes saw the size of the electorate triple from 7.7 million to 21.4 million. Women now accounted for about 43% of the electorate. However, women were still not politically equal to men, as men could vote from the age of 21. The age 30 requirement was to ensure women did not become the majority of the electorate. If women had been enfranchised based upon the same requirements as men, they would have been in the majority, due to the loss of men in the war.[fn5]
Many of the women who had toiled in the factories during the war were under 30, and did not benefit directly from the Act. Even so, the trend was in their favour.
In November that same year, a separate piece of legislation became law, the Qualification of Women Act. In twenty-seven words it allowed for a woman over the age of 21 to stand for election as a Member of Parliament:
Ironically, this meant that a woman between the ages of 21 and 30 could be voted for but that she herself could not vote.
All human relations have shifted – those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.
– Virginia Woolf, in Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (1924)
MILLIONS OF SERVICEMEN demobilised at war’s end had returned to their previous spheres of employment, displacing women, most of whom resumed their status as housewives or servants. But, to borrow the title of a Bob Dylan song from a later revolutionary period (1963), The Times They Are a-Changin’. In fashion, entertainment and travel, society was on the move. And regardless of the mediocre electoral rewards offered by legislators, the fact remained that women in unprecedented numbers had already tasted independence, having formed the backbone of the workforce during the war. The psychological effect of this achievement – along with the new liberalising trends then coming in – made the goal of full female franchise inevitable. But the women were not going to stand idly by, cooling their heels.
In order to preserve the skills they had learned during wartime work, many women entered fields hitherto the preserve of males. In 1918 the National Council of Women of Great Britain formed a committee to study the problems of women taking up engineering as a post-war career. This led to the founding of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), open to women from all branches of professional engineering, metallurgy, physics, chemistry and mathematics. Its stated aims were “To enable technical women to meet and to facilitate the exchange of ideas respecting the interests, training and employment of technical women and the publication and communication of information on such subjects.”[fn7]
The so-called feminism of the pre-war and interwar decades – esteemed radical by the standards of the day – was at root a call for rebalancing the relationship between woman and man. It is true, that although its principal aim was to win a specific legal right implicit in democracy – the grievance sprang from a long-standing subjugation of women in a number of areas. Evangelical Christianity had at least raised the social stature of the woman in significant ways. Nonetheless, other restrictions pertinent to the female role in, say, a church setting, were not relevant in secular politics. Indeed, one might argue from the biblical standpoint that since – according to Genesis 2: 18 – woman was intended to be man’s ‘helper’ in earthly matters, she ought to have been accorded more responsibility in shaping society. Perhaps the maxim that ‘two heads are better than one’ is apropos.
The New Woman
There were many spokeswomen for the feminist cause during the interwar years. The protean writer, Irishwoman Cecily Isabel Fairfield – better known as Rebecca West – was active as a suffragette prior to the Great War. Possessing one of the finest literary minds of the twentieth century, she produced a vast body of work ranging from novels, biographies and a wide array of journalistic pieces. In later life she produced a well-regarded analysis of the causative factors leading to the Second World War (Black Lamb and Grey Falcon). As a socialist, her ideas meshed with many of the women in the suffrage movement. Virginia Woolf, another voice for women’s rights, observed that ‘Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice its natural size.’
Some brave women began to spread their wings, metaphorically and literally. Early on, regardless of individual competence, they were routinely denied a pilot’s licence by civil aviation authorities, apparently for no other reason than they were not men. But some persisted.
Mary Bertha de Bunsen, a pioneer in aviation, opined in ‘Practical Flying for Women’, that when
Sophie C. Elliott-Lynn, became the first woman to fly solo from Cape Town, South Africa to London in 1928. She made celebrity tours of England and the United States, being received by President Coolidge. And the remarkable Amy Johnson, pilot and a ground engineer, flew from England to Australia in 1930.
But for the woman who had no interest in flying an aeroplane, a range of possibilities was opening up. Exciting new trends in recreation and fashion instigated and also reflected changing attitudes, especially those of younger, single women, for whom family life had become less strict.
Growing affluence meant that the consumer had more to spend on entertainment. The gramophone and records industries thrived and, allied with the new technology of radio (‘the wireless’), tastes in music began to shift from the classic and staid to the new bouncy offerings, especially the styles imported from the United States. Recordings of the new crooners, such as Al Bowlly, from South Africa, and America’s Bing Crosby, sold by the hundreds of thousands.
Dancing and Fashion
The new ‘dance-bands’ enticed couples to slide, shimmy and slither across the ball-room floor in a manner that a pre-war generation would have judged as depraved. The Charleston – with its origins in American Jazz, and the Tango – from Argentina, required a lack of inhibition to perform well. Women’s dress changed, too, sporting higher hemlines and brighter colours. (Men’s styles remained more traditional.)
Thanks to the assembly techniques of Ford in America, and Morris (Lord Nuffield) in Britain, motor cars became more affordable. In Britain, most commuters still travelled by train or bus, but those lucky enough to have a car set off for weekend jaunts or summer holidays in the countryside. As the road network began to penetrate areas where the trains did not go, tourist facilities sprang up.
In France, the Lumiere Brothers, Auguste and Louis, had invented the motion picture camera (cinematographe) in 1895. Over the next five years they produced an astonishing two thousand silent films.
Most early films with accompanying music or speech used the sound-on-disc system, in which the recorded source – such as a gramophone – and the film projector were mechanically synchronized. Integration of the sound into the film strip allowed for a more reliable and realistic presentation, and by the mid-30s this technique became standard. Colour soon followed. Patrons filed into cinemas by the millions to watch British and American films – but mostly the latter, which were regarded as being exotic.
Still, in a relatively conservative Britain, not everyone was pleased with what appeared on the screen. Joseph Arthur Rank, a staunch Methodist, objected to what he considered degrading content in many American films which, falling under the category of ‘foreign’, escaped the censors’ cuts.[fn9] He set about to propagate Christian ethics through the medium, establishing Pinewood studios, to compete with Hollywood.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) began the world’s first television service in November 1936, showing sport, drama and cartoons. Further development of the service was interrupted by the onset of war in 1939. When transmission ceased, Londoners were in the middle of watching ‘Steamboat Willie’, an animated feature by Walt Disney.
I married beneath me, all women do.
– Nancy Astor (quoted in Dictionary of National Biography, 1961-1970)
THE GOAL WAS at last reached in July 1928, when the Equal Franchise Act became law, granting any woman over the age of 21 the vote. In the eyes of the law, she was now on equal electoral footing as the man. This Act added fifteen million women to the voting register, putting them in the majority.[fn10]
In addition to the long, simmering strife over the question of female suffrage, the busy interwar years had other preoccupations: the outbreak of ‘Spanish’ Flu in 1918-19, which killed more than had the war, the disease spread in part by soldiers returning home; unrest in Serbia, civil war in Spain, the spreading influence of Communism, the rise of Fascism in Italy, and worldwide Depression, among other things. At home the country faced the Irish question, labour unrest and the General Strike of 1926, pro-Fascist and anti-Jewish demonstrations led by Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts, and worries over the ambitions and growing military strength of Hitler’s Germany.
The Great War was not denoted as the First World War, until the outbreak of a second:
[U]neasily, and without the excitement of 1914, the only two constitutional great powers of Europe [Britain and France] found themselves facing a totalitarian regime. Neither their peoples nor governments had much enthusiasm for this role, and the decline of liberal and democratic forces since 1918 put them in a position much inferior to that of 1914, but exasperation with Hitler’s long series of aggressions and broken promises made it hard to see what sort of peace could be made which would reassure them. The basic cause of the war was, as in 1914, German nationalism. But whereas then Germany had gone to war because she felt threatened, now Great Britain and France were responding to the danger presented by her expansion. They felt threatened this time.[fn11]
On 3 September, 1939, France and Britain declared war on Germany – the Second World War had begun. Women by the millions would again go back to work to help Britain fight for its life.
As of January 29, 2013 all URL citations were working
[fn1] Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett, The Great War (London: Penguin Studio; 1996), p. 362.
[fn2] John Maynard Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (London:
Macmillan and Co.; 1920), p. 9.
[fn3] Voluntary Aid Detachment/British Red Cross
[fn4] Jay Winter and Blaine Baggett, The Great War (London: Penguin Studio; 1996), p. 132.
[fn7] WES (Caroline Haslett)
WES Home Page <http://www.wes.org.uk/>
[fn10] Equal Franchise Act
<http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/parliamentary-collections/equal-franchise-act-1928/> (Link Broken)
[fn11] J.M. Roberts, History of the World (New York: Oxford University Press; 1993), pp. 766, 767.
Resources for Further Study
History Learning Site
The Pankhursts and the War: suffrage magazines and First World War propaganda, article by Angela K. Smith (University of Plymouth, Exmouth, U.K.). A pdf of Smith’s article can be read or downloaded at
Landmark Dates in British Suffrage
Lucy Stone League
Named after early campaigner for the right of a woman to retain her maiden name after marriage <http://www.lucystoneleague.org/>
U.K. Parliament Site
Timeline of key legislation in British female suffrage
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