The UK Bible Students Website
Christian Biblical Studies
By W. Resume
The first part of this series outlined the role and status of the woman in Britain from the late eighteenth century to the early twentieth. The transformation of social, industrial and economic conditions during that dramatic period – largely as a result of the Industrial Revolution – also reconfigured her place in the scheme of things as both a member of society and a significant participant in the workforce. In this instalment, Britain approaches the dark portal of the Great War, an event which would set in motion profound economic, social and political changes far beyond the nation’s boundaries. The battle for female suffrage in the years preceding the Great War is the immediate focus of this instalment. Future instalments will provide an overview of events and trends that affected the role of women during the inter-war years; the frenetic decades which followed the Second World War; and, lastly, woman’s role in the Church, in the light of biblical teaching. As nothing happens in this world which does not spring from the Plan of God – however tangential the events might appear to be – a study of historic trends is necessary to discern the signs of Christ’s Epiphany and the necessary adjustment of affairs in the irresistible march to the Kingdom of God.
THE PROGRESS OF the nineteenth century had brought prosperity to Britain, but the contrast between the middle class and the poor was stark. The Industrial Revolution had forced a shift from an agrarian order to one run by and in the service of the machine, on a scale unlike anything seen before. The resulting competition for housing and employment led to crowded slums and the diseases associated with such conditions.
The humane response to these distresses spurred religious and secular movements into action. Women of all classes spearheaded many of these movements, risking their health to nurse the sick, and exposing themselves to physical and sexual assault by street thugs. Ironically, the average woman was obliged to seek a male physician for her general and intimate medical care. Despite the pioneering work of Florence Nightingale years earlier, women who sought to pursue a career as a doctor were rudely discouraged by the medical fraternity.
On the hindrance to equalising rights between the sexes, the historian
J.M. Roberts writes:
Female liberation, indeed, has taken a long time to come as far as it has done even in western countries. Christianity had from the start a fundamental (even if at first sight barely visible) bias towards the improvement of the lot of women, because it took for granted that they, like men, had souls of infinite value in the eyes of God. On this was to be built the modern freedom of women in societies in the Christian tradition. However theologians might chip away at the idea in the interests of male prejudice they could not in the end gainsay the principle. Yet it still took some seventeen centuries to produce the first advocates of feminism and another two to arrive at the substantial legal equality of men and women in the West today. It needed, too, the reinforcement provided by industrialization, and its economically liberating effects upon women, before this could be achieved. The difference made to western women’s lives by technical change in a huge diversity of forms, from the coming of running hot water, to the perfection of detergents, synthetic fibres, prepared foods (to name only a few), has been as greater or greater than that brought by the franchise.[fn1]
Despite setbacks, there was widespread improvement in the health and wealth of the nation. By the opening of the 1900s there was a general expectation that a utopia was at hand, in which the peoples of the world would live in harmony, their daily routines simplified by the new labour-saving devices and the thousand-and-one innovations in science, engineering, chemistry, medicine and overall hygiene. The innovations of indoor plumbing, coal gas and electricity and – for the better off – washing machines and mechanical carpet sweepers, liberated the housewife from some of the drudgery involved in maintaining a home. Wider access to contraception allowed her greater control over the frequency of pregnancy. Although the overwhelming majority of females, both single and married, were employed in domestic service, some chose work as typists, secretaries or as sales clerks in the department stores.[fn2]
In such a heady atmosphere of advancement, it seemed natural for the woman to believe that the time had come at last for a formal adjustment in her social status. The Franchise Bill of 1884, passed under Gladstone’s government, had secured an extension of the vote only for adult males. Even so, it excluded men in domestic service, bachelors living with their families, and vagrants. Nothing for her. She chafed at the legislative snub.
Even by the late-Victorian period and up to the beginning of the First World War, most (not all) males were largely unsympathetic to the demand for the political emancipation of the female. There were prominent exceptions, such as John Stuart Mill, the nineteenth-century philosopher. A polymath, who had been taught Greek by his father at the age of three, Mill was a fervent advocate of women’s rights and of contraception, some decades before the white heat of the suffrage campaign.
But the prevailing male view was that as daughter, wife or sister, the woman was naturally represented in political and civic life by the male head of the household. He would vote on her behalf; his best interest was therefore assumed to be hers. Even the Brooklyn-based C.T. Russell, an otherwise liberal and enlightened religious teacher of the day, observed as late as 1911, in response to a question on female suffrage,
the two sexes are so intimately related that it is unnecessary, for instance, that the whole family should go to the polls to vote, but the family is represented by the man and thus all have share in whatever shall be done in a city or town or country. . . . We believe that if women would get the proper focus on this matter there would be an end to woman-suffrage. They would feel that they had a duty at home.[fn3]
Such an attitude did not necessarily imply that men as a whole were ungentlemanly, un-Christian, or a domineering brute, and to reflect these characteristics back into that period would be an error. In Australia, the pragmatic contention was made that to grant the vote to a woman who was a wife would skew electoral results:
[O]ne of the objections raised to the prospect of women voting in elections would be that it would provide married men with double the vote as it was assumed their wives would simply vote for whomever their husbands told them to. The enfranchisement of women, it was argued, would give married men an unfair advantage over single men at the ballot box.[fn4]
Nonetheless, social convention preferred females to remain in the background until called upon. A wife was expected to be decorative, a pleasant hostess and a competent administrator of the family home, and to attend to her children. She may or may not – depending on the family income – have the services of a nanny or maid to assist her. But whether high or low, the female – like the male – population of imperial Britain was broadly conservative, and not inclined to overturn the status quo, and it took a brave woman to sally forth in the interests of the feminist cause.[fn5] Although the Industrial Revolution – with emphasis on the revolution – had already massively altered the social and economic landscape, the ship of state politics turned at a slower pace. Nor was this attitude towards women unique to Britain; it existed in other so-called ‘constitutional’ or democratic countries, such as Australia, Canada, France and the United States.
The suffrage movement of the early 1900s was a logical outgrowth of the broader and older feminist movement that ranged across a spectrum of social ills in need of reform: the abolition of slavery (in the United States); the regulation of drinking houses and alcohol (the fact that a drunken husband held the right to vote on behalf of his sober wife must surely have tested her patience!); the improvement of factory conditions for all, but especially for children; revision of the penal codes and an overhaul of atrocious prison conditions; the improvement of schools, and other pressing matters. However, the focus on suffrage became necessary, not least because unless and until women had some latitude in politics, they were limited in the influence they could exert to bring about effective legislation on such matters.
A supplication to Parliament for the woman’s right to vote was presented as early as 1830. The plea was a just one: if women contribute to the operation of society, share its burdens, raise its sons, maintain its traditions and pay its taxes, they ought to be entitled to have a say in how things are run. Few men today – unless they are foolhardy – would venture to disagree in public. The American, Samuel May, had this to say:
We [men] may with no more propriety assume to govern women than they might assume to govern us. And never will the nations of the earth be well-governed until both sexes, as well as all parties, are fairly represented and have an influence, a voice, and, if they wish, a hand in the enactment and administration of the laws.[fn6]
It would be an exaggeration to say that women of the day were completely invisible. Those who owned property were allowed to vote in local elections, and beyond politics clever females in a variety of professions outdid their male colleagues through initiative, intelligence and bravery. They were well represented in the fields of literature, theatre, secular and religious charities and organisations. A few examples from the many:
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was one of the first female physicians in the nation, having qualified in 1865, despite opposition from the medical establishment. In 1908 she was elected Mayor of Aldeburgh (Suffolk), the first woman to hold that office.
Agnes Baden-Powell, the sister of Robert Baden-Powell, who had founded the Boy Scouts. Public sentiment was against mixed activities for boys and girls, so at her brother’s suggestion Agnes started a parallel movement, the Girl Guides, in 1910. The organisation spread around the world.
Adelaide Hoodless, of Ontario. Though not an explicit campaigner for feminism, she nonetheless made significant contributions to the educational welfare of Canada and beyond. The death of her infant son in 1889 from contaminated milk prompted her to press the provincial authorities to introduce domestic science classes in schools. She founded the Women’s Institute in 1897, in her home province, from whence it spread to Britain and other countries. The organisation is active today.
In the sciences, Polish-born French scientist, Marie Curie, shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1903 for her work on radioactivity, and again in 1911 for Chemistry.
Alice Evans graduated with a Masters degree in microbiology in 1910, going on to discover the common bacterial cause of brucellosis.
In the annals of early flight – then a male preserve – Harriet Quimby became the first aviatrix in 1911, flying across the English Channel in 1912, only the second person to do so (after the Frenchman, Bleriot in 1909).
Although these examples from disparate fields could be multiplied, no women attained to national political office in Britain until the American-born Nancy Witcher Astor in 1919. She was elected to the House of Commons, and then only to replace her husband, Waldorf, on his elevation to the peerage.
When mild-mannered pleas for suffrage failed to bring satisfactory results, some women resorted to more militant methods. Principal among these ‘suffragettes’, as they became known, was Emmeline Pankhurst. In 1903, along with daughter Christabel, she created the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the most bellicose organisation engaged in the cause. Its banner, raised high above the heads of the marching women, demanded from the legislators ‘Deeds Not Words’.
Assisted by Christabel and her other daughters, Sylvia and Adela, Mrs. Pankhurst stepped up the pressure on successive British governments, distributing pamphlets, hoisting banners, and through a variety of disruptive techniques – hectoring male speakers at political rallies, mass marches, smashing shop windows, or dropping small bombs into pillar boxes. Although careful to avoid injury to the person, the WSPU sanctioned arson on churches, railway carriages, the cutting of telephone lines and spitting at policemen. Some women chained themselves to the railings outside Buckingham Palace and to statues inside the Houses of Parliament.
Clashes with the police became routine. To enable Mrs. Pankhurst to evade arrest, a double was hired as a decoy. A cadre of the women learned a type of Japanese jujitsu, known in England as ‘bartitsu’ or ‘baritsu’. This squad accompanied Pankhurst on her lecture tours to protect her from the police.[fn7] Other women carried small dog whips to fend off attackers.
In the Black Friday incident of 1910, three hundred smartly-dressed suffragette marchers were confronted by six thousand policemen. There was much pushing and shoving on both sides. Some minor injuries were inflicted and, according to one report, two hundred women were arrested. [fn8]One of the tactics employed by many of the women incarcerated was to refuse food. This obliged the prison authorities to feed them by force or watch them die. The spectacle of a woman dying while in custody was repugnant, as were the harsh methods involved in force-feeding. In 1913 the Asquith government rushed into law the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, so named because of its mimicking a cat toying with its prey. The legislation allowed the prison administrators to release a starving suffragette into the custody of her family. Once nourished back to health, she would be compelled to return to prison to complete her sentence.[fn9] To demonstrate that the suffragettes regarded their cause as a war, the WSPU authorised the striking of a medal, to be awarded to each one imprisoned.
The movement cultivated a clothes fashion all its own. Although there were variations on the theme, the typical suffragette might wear a broad-brim floppy straw hat, a ribbon around its crown, and an ankle-length white dress, adorned with a simple brooch, specially made. Looped around her shoulder she sported a wide, silk sash, striped with three colours: purple for the royal blood ‘that flows in the veins of every suffragette’ (Pankhurst); green for hope; and white for purity (virtue). Emblazoned in black capital letters along the white background ran the words, VOTES FOR WOMEN.
Overseas, legions of women also agitated for suffrage. In France, Hubertine Auclert, writer and feminist, founded Le droit des femmes (‘women’s rights’) in 1876. Italian campaigner, Anna Maria Mozzoni, from an upper-class family, called for equal employment, and political and educational rights for all women.
The Canadian reformer, Nellie McClung, lobbied the provincial legislature in Manitoba for the vote to be extended to women, which it did in 1916. The franchise was extended nationwide by the federal parliament in 1920 (except in Quebec and excluding ‘minorities’ and aboriginal persons). Yet as late as 1929, in the notorious ‘Persons Case’, the Supreme Court of Canada held that women were not ‘persons’ as defined in the Constitution, and therefore were barred from election as Senators. The Privy Council in Britain (then the highest court of appeal), overruled the decision, declaring it a ‘relic of days more barbarous than ours’.[fn10]
Between 1912 and 1920, two of the so-called ‘iron jawed angels’, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns (both of whom had experience working with the suffrage movement in Britain), organised rallies attended by thousands of women, under the banner of the National Woman’s Party (NWP). The organisation staged marches and picketed the White House. The women were met by jeering and spitting crowds, as police stood by. Many women were arrested, locked up and force-fed when they went on hunger strike.
For many of the middle-class and wealthy pickets, jail was a shock. Conditions at both the District [of Columbia] and Virginia facilities were uncomfortable at best. Sanitation was severely lacking. Bedding went unwashed and was reused by different prisoners for months. Food had little nutritional value or appeal, and worse, was often riddled with worms or insects. At one point, jailed suffragists sent a heap of worms removed from their soup to the warden on a spoon.[fn11]
With the onset of the First World War, in August of 1914, the British suffrage movement declared an informal truce with the government, shifting its energies to support the war effort. Destructive as the war was for the man on the battlefield and in the trenches, the period of 1914-18 nonetheless led to an almost immediate improvement in the status of women from a variety of backgrounds. For those previously tied to domestic service, employment in the munitions factories, on the buses, and on the farms offered a respite from the drudgery of household chores, and afforded a degree of independence, away from the prying eyes and strict hierarchy of the grand houses and estates. Unsurprisingly, the wage paid to the woman was less than that of the man she replaced.[fn13]
Perhaps most of the women who exchanged hearth and kitchen for the smokestacks and the plough did not see themselves as revolutionaries, and had probably not themselves marched with the suffragists – long hours of work and lack of time off would have prevented that. Indeed, many of them, traditionalists as they were, might have been hostile to the strident demands of the feminist cause. Nonetheless, they now became beneficiaries of an as-yet incomplete victory, and of a war which simultaneously snatched away their men and put them in the van of the women’s movement. Inadvertently, these newly-minted worker-women thus set the pattern for generations of women who would follow.
The truce would hold for the duration of the war, but the grievance would resurface when it was over. And as in Jesus’ parable of the hapless widow who badgered the judge with her cry for justice (Luke 18: 1-5),[fn14] the more vociferous the complaint, the more irritated the judge became, until he finally caved in – just to be rid of her . . .
To be continued
Notes and Sources
[fn1] J.M. Roberts, History of the World (New York: Oxford University Press; 1993), p. 918.
[fn2]The number of women in domestic employment – housemaids, cooks, and so on – in 1900 is estimated at almost 1,7500,000. Source
<http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/womensrights.htm?oo=ffx> retrieved 13 Jan. 2013 (Link broken)
[fn3] C.T. Russell, The Watch Tower, January 15, 1911, p. 27.
[fn4] Australia <http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-suffragettes> retrieved 13 Jan. 2013 (link broken)
[fn5] Historically, there has been an innate reluctance of the citizenry of Britain to stage a revolution. This reluctance, coupled with the persistent, gradual trend of successive parliaments to legislate in favour of greater civil liberties, is one reason Britain withstood, for example, the pressures engendered by the French Revolution and the Continental revolutions of 1848. Its constitutional monarchy, the actions of which were more or less constrained by the Bill of Rights of 1689, was another. Subsequent history has proved the rule.
[fn6] Samuel May <http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USASmayS.htm> retrieved 13
[fn7] Reference is made to this defensive technique in the Sherlock Holmes’ tale, The Adventure of the Empty House, published in 1903. Holmes relates to Watson his final, deadly confrontation with his nemesis, Moriarty, at the Reichenbach Falls: ‘We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me. I slipped through his grip . . .’.
[fn8] Black Friday
<https://practicalfeminism.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/remembering-black-friday-18th-november-1910/> retrieved 13 Jan. 2013
retrieved 13 Jan. 2013
retrieved 13 Jan. 2013
[fn11] Tactics and Techniques of the National Woman’s Party Suffrage Campaign [PDF]
retrieved 13 Jan. 2013
[fn12] Timeline of the franchise in the United States
retrieved 13 Jan. 2013
retrieved 13 Jan. 2013
[fn14] Luke 18: 1-5: Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said, ‘in a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, “Grant me justice against my adversary.” ‘For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually wear me out with her coming!”’ (New International Version, 1984 UK edition).
General Reference Sources:
The Canadian Encyclopedia (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart; 2000).
Chambers Biographical Dictionary of Women, ed. Melanie Perry
(Edinburgh: Chambers; 1996).
The New Columbia Encyclopedia (New York: Columbia University Press; 1975).
For further study
History of Women’s Suffrage in Selected Countries (alphabetical)
<http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-suffragettes> (link broken)
retrieved 13 Jan.
13 Jan. 2013
PDF <http://www.egelisesi.k12.tr/dosyalar/editor/file/makale%207.pdf> (link broken)
retrieved 13 Jan. 2013
retrieved 13 Jan. 2013 (Link
<http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAsuffrage.htm> (link broken)
retrieved 13 Jan. 2013
World chronology of women’s franchise
retrieved 13 Jan. 2013
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