Womens Rights

Womens Rights

Now the issue of gender equality is openly discussed in Britain and laws have been passed which help to maintain equality. This has not always been the case.

During the whole of the nineteenth century, women had no political rights though there had been some movement in other areas to advance the rights of women.

In 1839, a law was passed which stated that if a marriage broke down and the parents separated, children under seven years of age should stay with their mother.

In 1857, women could divorce husbands who were cruel to them or husbands who had left them.

In 1870, women were allowed to keep money they had earned.

In 1891, women could not be forced to live with husbands unless they wished to.

These were very important laws which advanced the rights of women. However, they were good laws on paper. If a woman left her husband for whatever reason, it would have been very difficult for her to keep herself and children simply because the attitude of Victorian Britain was that women should stay at home and look after their husbands. The culture of the time meant that very few women were skilled in any obvious profession and, therefore, there were few jobs that paid well for women during the nineteenth century.

This view was supported by Queen Victoria - she hardly did anything to advance the cause of women. In 1870, Queen Victoria had written "let women be what God intended, a helpmate for man, but with totally different duties and vocations." 

As an example of the difficulties women faced, one lady called Elizabeth Garrett Anderson against all the odds qualified as a doctor. However, she got very few people on her books in London as men would not be treated by a woman and women tended to remain with their male GP's as that was the way it was done. It took a long time before Anderson got a decent reputation among Londoners - and she faced much hostility along the way.

A table of employment gives an example of where women worked in 1900

Type of employment Number of women employed
Domestic Servants 1,740,800
Teachers 124,000
Nurses 68,000
Doctors 212
Architects 2

In the later years of the nineteenth century, women wanted one very basic right  - the right to vote. This was strictly known as the right of suffrage (the right to vote) and the group that fought most for this right became known as the Suffragettes.

The original movement for women's political rights was a non-violent one lead by Millicent Fawcett. Her movement was called the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. Fawcett believed in the power of change through persuasion. She argued that those women who had money and employed men as gardeners, cooks etc., were in the absurd position of note being able to vote yet those men employed in their employment did !! Another of Fawcett's arguments was that those women that worked paid the same level of tax as men who were employed, but the men could vote and the women could not.

However, Fawcett's arguments were not listened to and some men were less than polite when giving reasons as to why women should not vote :

      "Political power in many large cities would chiefly be in the hands of young, ill-educated, giddy, and often ill-conducted (badly behaved) girls." Frederick Rylands (1896)

Such a reaction lead to some women taking a more hard-line attitude and in 1903, the Women's Social and Political Union was created by Emmeline Pankhurst. They became known as the Suffragettes.

 She believed that if men would not listen to reasonable ideas, then women should use force to push for what they wanted - the right to vote. Their polices included the burning of churches, attacks on politicians, disrupting the day-to-day work of Parliament and, if arrested, going on hunger strike. Their campaign took them into the twentieth century - a century that gave women over 30 years of age the right to vote in 1918 and allowed them to stand for Parliament as MP's in the same year. In 1928, women were given the same political rights as men.   


MLA Citation/Reference

"Womens Rights". HistoryLearningSite.co.uk. 2006. Web.






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