Feminism 1913-2013 and why there’s still more work to be done


One of the more extraordinary discoveries in my research for the Downton Abbey books and subsequent talks that hang their hat on the TV show, was that of the ‘Surplus Women’. After the First World War it was widely acknowledged that Britain had lost an entire generation of men and so it was quickly realised that the logical consequence was a shortage of men for women to marry.

Newspaper reports in 1919 wrote of the misery of the ‘one million women’ who would never know love or marriage. Then, after the 1921 Census, it was realised that there were in fact almost two million more women than men in the UK. If you added in the 1.7 million men who returned from war injured in some way, whether physically or mentally, many of whom were unfit for work, marriage or fathering children, then you were dealing with a lot of women who were destined for spinsterhood. Given that a woman’s education pre-war consisted of the little more than the three Rs (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic) so she could at least write her shopping list and manage her home finances but not, you know, go to university (a very few did even though they were not allowed to actually earn a degree), this meant that a great number of these women simply didn’t know what to do instead. They had been trained for marriage and now marriage wasn’t an option.

Downton Abbey reflects this particularly well with the daughters, Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil. Julian said of them that upper class women pre-war could find independence and power only through their marriages; if they married well, they might run a house to which people of influence would come and stay. But so long as they were unmarried they had to live at home and under the rules of their parents. (Middle class women had little power and influence in the wider sphere, and working class women none at all except within their own communities.)

The war changes this, although not for everybody. Mary was prepared to find power the old-fashioned way, with a suitable husband, said Julian. Sybil wanted it the new way – via progressive politics and the Suffragette movement. And Edith? She just wants ‘anything she can get’. Poor Edith. But she is the one who best demonstrates the complete turnaround in expectation for women of the time.

[As an aside, it was this excess of women that meant they didn’t get full suffrage in 1919. Only women over the age of 30, who were householders, could vote. Not until 1928 could both men and women over the age of 21 vote. There was a concern that women voters would outnumber male voters after the war – and it would have been far too risky to let women decide who should run the country. Really, they were better off thinking about kittens than politics.]

Editorials referred to ‘the problem of the Surplus Women’ and there were even articles suggesting that they be shipped off the Colonies to find husbands there. But while there were women who had lost fiancés or husbands during the war – as well as brothers, fathers, cousins and friends – and had been left broken-hearted, alongside the many women who pined with the genuine, acute frustration of never knowing marriage or motherhood, there were others still who saw that they had been freed.

Unmarried, they could not be kept behind the front door of their home, chained to a lifetime of domesticity, but instead could go out to work. (It wasn’t viable for all those women to stay with their parents and the advent of motor cars, fast growth of cities and new jobs made it easier for them to leave.) Singledom was no longer a sign of failure but circumstance. They became teachers all too frequently but also secretaries, researchers, scientists, doctors, shop proprietors and telephonists to name but a very few. They were often poorly paid as they were not judged to need equal pay to a man who would, after all, have dependents. They were frequently lonely, seeking their camaraderie from women in similar circumstances, living in blocks of tiny bedsits, all trooping off to work during the week. All the same, there were others who did it jubilantly and others who, by dint of their hard work and penury, inspired even men to alter things. But many men were terrified that women would rule the world and a propaganda campaign was run in which women were reminded that their place was in the home, looking after the men, not stealing their jobs. The fact that there were hardly any men to marry was conveniently left off the posters. Guilt and loneliness: a winning combination.

Nonetheless, these women created the change and push for equality that we enjoy today. It is sometimes argued that had it not been for the loss of the men between 1914 and 1918 and the bold steps the women left behind took in their place, the female position in society would have been slowed down by about 20 years.*

When I talk about this subject I like to highlight the fact that the world has changed enormously since then – less than a hundred years ago – and that we have those women, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers, to thank for many of those changes. But then, sometimes, now and again, or…alright, almost every bleeding day, I think… yes, there have been changes but not enough people. Not enough.

These are the reasons today that there’s still more to be done to change tomorrow.

1. Caroline Criado-Perez being issued with rape and death threats on Twitter – alongside her address – for having successfully campaigned for Jane Austen to be printed on ten pound notes.

2. Kate Middleton’s post-baby figure being discussed on the front cover of a magazine just one day after she has given birth. (Thanks, Katy Hill, for bringing this to attention.)

3. Any editor, whether for magazines or TV, who allows Katie Hopkins to say anything at all – they are providing rope for her to hang herself with.

4. Words like ‘betch’ becoming cultural flashpoints almost overnight. See also: ‘Bitchy Resting Face’.

5. Ongoing: Page 3, the absence of properly funded childcare, unequal pay, young girls obsessing about their weight, single/childless women being regarded with suspicion.

There’s more, but that’ll do for now. More work, people. More work.

*If you want to read more on this subject, I highly recommend Virginia Nicholson’s book ‘Singled Out’, available HERE.

Come, hear me talk!

This is just a little heads up to say that I’m talking this weekend on Saturday 10th November at 11.45am in St Edmund’s Hall, Southwold, as part of the Ways With Words festival. Tickets are £10.

See details here: Southwold Ways With Words

Then on November 20th at 7pm in the Cadogan Hall, Sloane Square, London, I’ll be on a panel with Julian Fellowes, Gareth Neame (executive producer) and Allen Leech (Branson), being interviewed by John Witherow, editor of the Sunday Times. Tickets are £15, or £10 for Times+ members.

See details here: Times+ event London