The Women’s Movement: Opportunities

Inspired by the centenary of some women gaining the vote, this three-part series has been focused on the various ways that the Women’s Movements campaigned and fought for equality and women’s rights.  The movement was incredibly broad in its reach and influence.  While the first part focused on the legislative ways suffragists worked for women’s rights, and the second part concentrated on the changes that the movement brought to society’s attitudes and perceptions, this final part will be centred on the movement’s attentions on improving the opportunities available to women in society.

Part 3: Opportunities

An important area which many people within the Women’s Movement worked in was to build more opportunities for women outside of the family home.  One area of particular importance was to improve women’s and girl’s education.  It was generally agreed by many mid-Victorian feminists “that educational deprivation was an essential feature of women’s oppression,”[1] yet different groups and individuals had very different ideas as to how it should be reformed.  Feminist Emily Davies quickly understood that it would be impossible to see much improvement in other areas of women’s lives until this had been tackled.  Unlike some of the non-feminist campaigners in this area, Davies believed that the only way women could expect to gain the respect of men as necessary members of society was if they were taught and examined with the same syllabus and same standards as men, despite the commonly-acknowledged flaws of that system.

Proving the value of and achieving such a target was a struggle; it was not only the many male educators and officials that did not see such a necessity, other feminists also did not agree with Davies’s premise that women needed to be educated in the same way as men.  Josephine Butler, mentioned in part 1 and part 2 with regards to her campaign for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, did not agree that women should receive the same education as men.  Butler believed that there was a difference between men and women and that women had a distinct role as care givers and mothers and, thus, required a very different upbringing to ensure that they did not lose their essential femininity.[2]

One of Davies’s earliest experiences which gave her the push to campaign so arduously and for so long was when her friend and fellow feminist, Elizabeth Gaskell, was refused by the University of London, despite already achieving her MD in Paris in 1870, to sit for her examination to become a doctor in Britain.  The refusal took place despite recommendations from prominent and influential men within society of that time.  Davies had to continuously struggle against much resistance as many tried to prevent women from having access to the more difficult subjects such as Greek and Maths.  Thankfully, through the support of a few others she continued to fight for better education for women and to ensure that they were tested and provided the same access to education with the same standards and requirements as men.[3]

After education, the other important field in which the Women’s Movement strove to make improvements in was employment.  Working in conjunction with advancements in education, feminists pushed to open up more professions to women that were suitably qualified.[4]  Previously, most of the few jobs open to women in the Victorian were mostly connected to the private sphere such as domestic servants and governesses or, alternatively, connected to dressmaking and selling flowers; the majority of the positions, furthermore, were largely only suitable for the working-classes.  With the exception of governesses, all were unskilled occupations and all were much lower paid than careers available to men; with such low wages it was extremely difficult for women to live independently and usually had to work long arduous hours in order to support herself and her family.[5]  For middle-class women the only options available were as governesses if they were unmarried and within the voluntary sector through philanthropic organisations and, as such, there was a surge in these philanthropic societies as women sought outlets within the public sphere.  With so few opportunities available to women it then meant that the job market for women was over-satiated and, thus, a problem of female unemployment.  By early 20th Century, however, it was possible to see some improvements with more fields of occupations available to women, even for women in the middle-classes; there was an increase in women becoming teachers, shop assistants, nurses and clerical positions.[6]

Achievements in the job market for women were made possible by a few factors.  Firstly, much of the earlier work in changing society’s attitudes and perceptions allowed for women to gain a foothold within the work environment.  By demonstrating the necessity for their presence and influence outside of the family home, discussed in part 2, it became possible to see new positions that women could fill.  Furthermore, the philanthropic work that many women carried out helped to prove their ability in a more professional environment than their caring roles at home.  Feminists used this new necessity to highlight that there were already jobs in the current market, such as teaching and nursing, that would not only take advantage of their feminine attributes but would make them well suited to them as well.[7]  A further factor to consider as well, within certain working-class jobs such as factories, as technology improved and eventually replaced skilled positions, there were more unskilled positions available that could be seen as more accessible and possible for working class women to do.[8]  Finally, another important component was that, with the advancements made within education for women, there eventually developed a new generation of women with better qualifications than before who had the additional appeal of receiving lower wages than their male counterparts.

As the 20th Century progressed the Women’s Movement went further with employment: campaigning for firstly better wages and, later, equal pay; support from the trade unions; employment for married women as just a few examples.[9]

As this series has demonstrated, the Women’s Movement was incredibly broad and multifaceted in its range of campaigns.  As historian Barbara Caine has argued, although suffrage was a part of the movement, it was only one part and its eventual success happened, at least in part, due to the success and achievements of other areas before it.[10]  Improving women’s marital rights to ensure their positions as valid members of society; improving their education to ensure that women had the knowledge with which to make valid contributions to society through their careers and, eventually, in their involvement within the political system as both voters and politicians alike.  As stated in parts 1 and 2, this is not an exhaustive list of the ways and areas that the Women’s Movement transformed women’s rights in Britain, but it can at least demonstrate how broad and varied not only the work was but also the incredible people within the movement were.

[1] Caine, B., English Feminism 1780-1980, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) 107.

[2] Caine, 116.

[3] Royce, M., “Emily Davies and English Higher Education of Women,” Improving College and University Teaching 20, 1 (1972): 63.

[4] Strachey, R., The Cause: A Short History of the Women’s Movement in Great Britain, (London: Virago Press Limited, 1978) 91.

[5] Johnson, E., The Women’s Movement and Women’s Employment in Nineteenth-Century Britain, (London: Routledge, 1999) 3.

[6] Johnson, 5.

[7] Johnson, 6.

[8] “History: British History: Women’s Work,” BBC,

[9] Johnson, 5.

[10] Caine, 111.

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History Gal

A history lover whose main areas of interest are with gender, sexuality and sex in the Victorian times. I am a PhD student from the UK who focuses on fallen women and masculinity within the Victorian period.

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