Politics and the working woman in Great-Britain 1928-1939

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"Politics and the working woman in Great-Britain 1928-1939"

Women, history and the business environment, The Women's Library/London Metropolitan University, Londres, 26 février 2004.


Combining motherhood with full-time work in Britain today is still a major problem for many women; Equal Opportunity Commission research has revealed that at least 100 000 women lose their jobs through pregnancy each year, and one-third give up their full-time activity at the birth of their first child – by far the highest rate in Europe. Still one of the key factors today is the high cost of child-care and its lack of availability, often combined with a general feeling that a mother's place is at home with the children.

This situation might seem strange as Britain was one of the first European countries to give women the right to vote and to sit in Parliament. Therefore this paper will attempt to see how historical developments in Britain, particularly in political life, could have led to the current state of affairs. The focus will be on what happened after women gained the right to vote on the same terms as men in 1928 and how this influenced government policy; the role of women and mothers as reflected in parliamentary debates of the time right up to Britain's entry into the war on September 3rd 1939 is of particular interest.
During these years of growing external pressure and high unemployment, what was the perceived role of women and how did this impact on their working conditions? To what extent and in which direction did the slowly growing body of women MPs influence the discourse on women and mothers and ultimately, work legislation?
The paper will concentrate on commons debates in connection with women's work, its place and its value: Widows, Orphans and Old Age Contributory Pensions (Voluntary Contributors) Act, 1937; Employment of Women and Young Persons Act, 1936; Civil Estimates and Estimates for Revenue Departments (equal pay in common classes of the civil service), 1936. References to discriminatory regulations, such as the marriage bar, which crop up periodically in debates are also taken into account. The overall intention of the paper being to put together a picture of political attitudes of the time towards working women, their right to work and the value attributed to their effective contribution to society both as workers and as mothers.

Politics and the Working Woman in Great Britain, 1928-1939

Today in Britain, combining motherhood with full-time work is still a major problem. Equal Opportunity Commission research revealed three years ago that at least 100,000 women lose their jobs through pregnancy each year, and one-third give up their full-time activity on the birth of their first child.

By analysing parliamentary debates from 1928 - when women were given the right to vote on the same terms as men – through to 1939 and the outbreak of World War Two, I have tried to look into the origins of this situation and put together a picture of political attitudes of the time towards working women and the value given to their real contribution to society both as workers and mothers.
Women and Employment: An Overview
In 1931, over six million women worked outside their homes, about 34% of the total labour force1. This led Viscountess Astor, the first conservative MP to take a seat in the House, to remark that employment was now the norm for women and that marriage was no longer their sole option.2 However, despite the fact that there were more professional outlets for women, the majority were in low-status, low-paid jobs, as domestics or unqualified workers in factories where they accounted for around 29% of the workforce3. For many young girls, employment was indeed a transitory stage to supplement the family budget, between the end of schooling at 14 or 15 and marriage. Despite the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 19194, women in higher grades or the professions remained few and far between; at the beginning of the thirties, there were only 2810 women doctors and 195 women lawyers5.

Although many more women were employed in the clerical field6, women accounted for 7.5% only of higher professionals and were still barred from being high court judges or from entering the diplomatic or foreign service. The home service of the Civil Service, though newly opened to women7 excluded them from most senior management positions8 and forced them to resign upon marriage. They were also subject to more stringent conditions for unemployment and sickness benefits and pensions and when they were eligible, received lower benefits than men.9On average only 1 in 8 married women worked outside the home.

Political Attitudes towards working women
Leafing through parliamentary debates, one is struck by the way in which the majority of MPs deal with what is often pejoratively termed as “women’s questions”, particularly when they relate to equal rights with men; Viscountess Astor, again, remarked wryly: “Members seem to regard any question affecting women as a good joke, just as mothers-in-law used to be regarded as a joke.”10 This point of view was echoed by Florence Horsbrugh, conservative MP for Dundee, who reacted angrily to male counterparts’ dismissive attitude about women’s subjects11. The fact is, women MPs influence was limited simply by the numbers' imbalance: the highest number of women MPs recorded in the eleven years between 1928 and 1939 was 15 – i.e. 2.4% of the total number of MPs. Four Women Members held ministerial office in that time; however, the only woman Cabinet Minister, Margaret Bondfield, did little to forward the cause of working women: her infamous 1931 Anomalies Act excluded from unemployment benefit 181,000 women who had paid their contributions12.
This lack of representation, together with the social norms of the time whereby a woman was seen as dependent on a man, explains why women’s demands were usually marginalised by MPs and associated with feminist claims and frustrated spinsters. One example is equal pay for women, sarcastically described by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in 1936 as “one of those questions which arouse and attract sectional interests and which appeal to Honourable Members who have always been identified with the feminist movement”13. He also warned that the position of feminist MPs was "not always a true indication of the opinion of the country or the House.”14 During debates, women MPs were variously labelled “a happy band of sisters”, “the female section” or “the old guard of the suffragette movement” in an attempt to ridicule their claims. Male MPs derided “the agitation of the spinsters” and “the propaganda they carried on”.

Women were also frequently excluded from employment or benefits' statistics, either lumped in with their husbands or the family as a whole. As Dr Helen Jones remarked in her study of women during the Depression years, “only occasionally did studies of unemployment consider women’s position in the labour market, and then only as side issue to male unemployment.”15 This lack of interest was obvious in the 1937 debate on Widows, Orphans and Old Age Contributory Pensions Bill, during which neither the Minister of Health (Sir Kingsley Wood) nor the Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Lieutenant-Colonel Colville) were able to provide figures about the impact of the Bill on women other than wives who would benefit through their husbands’ contributions.

The general economic and international situation also played against women’s rights during inter-war years. With unemployment never falling below the million mark and peaking at three million in 1933, many employers, politicians, trade unionists and married women saw women workers as a threat to men’s employment prospects and blamed them for down-grading working conditions and pay; at the same time, women’s contribution was welcomed in sectors such as textiles, “special trades…in which women’s fingers prove more deft than those of the men” as one MP described it16.

The rise of fascism overseas and the build-up for war later in the decade drew the attention of most women MPs away from women’s issues. However, other elements played their part, such as the drop in the birth-rate which had started in the twenties coupled with a European record for high maternal and infant mortality rate. The feeling of the “degeneracy of modern England”17 which had shocked George Orwell was a source of concern for many MPs who felt that middle-class women were not contributing their share to the renewal of the population and should be encouraged to stay at home and have more children.

At the same time, the quality of women's work had long been recognised, even if this did not translate in legal terms. A report on Women’s Employment commissioned by the Ministry of Reconstruction at the end of the First World War had emphasized the efficiency of women workers in all fields, including labouring work. However, the report also stressed that the new employment opportunities, in repetitive process work of all grades and clerical posts, would be affected by the volume of trade and general state of employment, and the attitude of men and their organizations towards large scale peace-time employment of women; married women in particular should not be encouraged to work away from their homes and more information was required on the relations between infant mortality and mothers’ occupations. Indeed, this ambivalent attitude towards women’s employment was to constitute the underlay of key debates and legislation in inter-war years, starting with the Employment of Women and young Persons Act 1936.
Employment of Women and Young Persons Act 1936
Since the 1920s, so-called "protective" legislation already imposed a number of restrictions on women’s employment; they were excluded from dangerous or unhealthy occupations such as mining and from night-shifts. The new bill questioned in particular the “double-day shift working”, implemented to increase productivity in factories. The early shift started around six am, whereas the late shift finished around 10 pm. The need for shift-work was particularly felt in textiles and the rapidly-booming electronics and consumer goods sector, which employed a large proportion of women. The committee appointed for the enquiry into shift work included only two women, the liberal MP Megan Lloyd George and the trade unionist Julia Varley. Both supported shift-work, which involved fewer hours per week (41 instead of 48) and paid a little more. Generally speaking, labour MPs were opposed to this system, fearing that it would contribute to erode hard-fought for working standards while conservatives were anxious to boost productivity against increasing foreign competition in a generally depressed economic context. However and like many women’s issues debated in Parliament, there was no clear-cut demarcation along party lines as MPs' personal feelings about a woman’s role tended to cloud the issue.

Indeed, arguments throughout the debate were more about whether shift-work was compatible with married life and domestic duties than with women’s rights as workers. Indeed a recurring theme in support of shift-work was that it would enable women to come home early and cook a proper meal for their husband and children, while those who started later could get the housework done.

On the other hand, there were fears that this would encourage women and young girls to be on the streets at undesirable hours or that young women working on late shifts would have less time for dating and for finding a husband. Questions were also raised about shift-work preventing women from doing their shopping on Saturdays. Most of all, it was felt that it might disrupt couples and the family circle, as wives might not be at home at the same time as their husbands and would be less available for their children.

One point which was never raised in the debates was the double work-load of women who, besides working 41 hours a week, had to find time for the many household chores such as washing, cooking, cleaning, ironing and sewing without the benefit of modern technology. Measures such as higher pay for shift-work, reduced working hours, canteens or nurseries, which might all have alleviated the working woman’s burden, were not mentioned once.

The name of the Bill, which did not differentiate between women and young people, also hinted at the temporary and non-essential nature of such work. Sir John Withers, MP for Cambridge University, had in fact objected to this classification which he said hinted at the days when being a woman was a sex disqualification from the vote. However he also objected to shift-work for young women “from the national and physical point of view” on the grounds that it was too demanding and might affect the reproductive capacity of “the future mothers of our race”.18

Debate on Equal Pay in the Civil Service 1936
Another major debate in the inter-war years which was to have a lasting impact on working women was the motion for equal pay in the Civil Service tabled by Ellen Wilkinson, labour MP for Jarrow. The motion aimed to put in practice a resolution adopted in the Commons on May 19, 1920 , the implementation of which had been delayed on several occasions19 for budgetary reasons. On April 1st 1936 the question was back on the political agenda, a year after an enquiry on private sector pay and the man/woman differential. The debate was an important one, as employment conditions in the public sector often influenced those of the private sector both in terms of workers’ demands and employers’ attitudes.

On average, in the mid-thirties, women in all sectors worked four hours a week less than men but earned less than half.20 In the Civil Service, the difference was 1/-6 d per week for the lowest paid grades or common classes, and rose to £104 per month for the higher grades.21Ellen Wilkinson stressed the unfairness of the Treasury’s attitude, which she accused of being the “villain of the piece”, using as it did the “theory of lesser value” to justify women’s lower wages. Much capital had in fact been made of the average four days’ extra leave taken each year by women; other arguments against equal pay focussed on the long-term unreliability of women workers because of marriage and maternity; Lady Astor amused the House by quoting the Secretary of State for War, Alfred Duff Cooper, as having said that in the long run female work was not as valuable to the State as male work; she added that if anyone had reason to be grateful for female work, he had22. His comment was all the more unfair however, as women were in a double-bind position: they were refused equal pay on the grounds that they would not stay in their jobs after marriage, but even excellent employees who might have stayed on were prevented from doing so by Civil Service regulations which forced them to resign upon marriage. One well-known example is that of Janet Campbell, the Board of Education’s first full-time woman Medical Officer, a widely-respected authority on maternal and child welfare, who was nevertheless forced to resign upon marriage in 1934. Wedlock, widely praised and described as a cherished institution during debates pertaining to family issues, suddenly became imbued with pejorative connotations when linked to working women, with oft-used expressions like “the marriage risk”, the “difficulty at the time of marriage” or “marriage wastage”. As Ellen Wilkinson put it:

“Is it not hard lines to use this expression against [women]? After all, retirement on marriage has been made compulsory by the Treasury itself, and therefore to blame the women for it is just going on the usual principle of blaming the women for anything anyhow.”23

In the same way, wives were invariably referred to by male MPs as “dependents”, or “a burden”. These comments were all the more shocking since many women at the time supported their family on a meagre income once their husbands became unemployed, while managing the domestic chores single-handedly.

Another key argument raised by William Morrison, Financial Secretary to the Treasury and a staunch opponent of the motion, was that equal pay would increase the number of women in the civil service “at the expense of the more heavily burdened married man”. The cost of the reform, estimated at about £1 million per year, seemed a reasonable sum given that that was what the state was spending each week on unemployment benefit at the height of the recession. The cost, however, was not at stake, but the principle; lower pay for women, said Morrison, was justified by traditional British values, founded “upon the family, the family in turn founded upon marriage, and marriage in turn casting the greater burden on the man”24. Employed spinsters were blamed for demanding more “handbag money” and enjoying world cruises and a high standard of living, whereas the family man had to be content with an annual trip to Margate.

Again this was an unfair argument, as many spinsters took care of ageing or sick relatives, while earning lower wages than single men or men under their supervision. However, The Duchess of Atholl, conservative MP for Perth and Kinross supported the status quo, claiming that wives would “feel strongly” about their husbands earning the same as single women, while Eleanor Rathbone felt that equal pay for women would not be accepted by married men unless it went together with an allowance for wives and children.

The amendment narrowly passed the House with 156 votes to 148, despite strong opposition from the Cabinet (Stanley Baldwin, then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir John Simon, Home Secretary and Alfred Duff Cooper, Secretary of State for War but was defeated in the Commons five days later when it was put again to the House as a vote of confidence25.

The Marriage Bar
One of the most frequent forms of discrimination against women and which was mentioned earlier was the marriage bar. On December 13, 1919, in an article published in the Rhondda Leader (South Wales) a local councillor proposed that women teachers who got married be dismissed. The idea quickly caught on and by the mid-1920s, the marriage bar was widespread in teaching, administration and the Civil Service. The BBC itself, despite a reasonable record in terms of equal opportunities, introduced a marriage bar in 1932 “in order to protect single women’s employment”26. Hard-pressed local authorities sometimes added insult to injury, re-employing married women on a day-to-day basis, thus saving on benefits and pay rates. This practice caused some indignation in the national press and Mary Stopes herself called it “a national piece of folly”.27 Several women unsuccessfully took court action but Lord Justice Romer, in charge of the overall case simply decided that councils had to inform women beforehand of this disposition to prevent any further unpleasantness. Oddly enough, a number of married women supported this regulation, seeing it as a way to guarantee work for new female entrants or defend male employment.

The problem was never the subject of a general debate in the Commons as the Government, when questioned on that topic, claimed that it was a departmental regulation and should as such be dealt with by the relevant authorities. This was a convenient way of evading the issue as the Government had, in fact, opposed a Private member's Bill by Sir Robert Newman challenging the exclusion of married women from government employment in 1927. The Marriage Bar was responsible for the dismissal of around 6000 women between 1921 and 1931; for Scotland alone, it was the first cause of resignation for women teachers, accounting for half the departures between 1934 and 193628. However, as late as 1938, the Secretary of State for Scotland pretended he was “not aware of any dismissals of women teachers during that period” and added that “the question of terminating teaching services on marriage” was left to “the discretion of the Education Authorities and Managing Bodies”. The marriage bar was finally abolished in 1944 in teaching and in 1946 in the Civil Service, but not before a generation of married women had had to give up jobs they had trained for and were good at, sometimes with long-lasting resentment.

Widows, Orphans and Old Age Contributory Pensions Bill 1937
In April 1937, debates on the Widows, Orphans and Old Age Contributory Pensions Bill centred round a state-funded pension based on voluntary contributions for those categories of workers excluded from the main social insurance scheme. The idea was seen as a real improvement on the existing legislation, as it enabled men on lower incomes to provide for their wives and children in the case of premature death29. The novelty was that married women would benefit through their husbands’ contributions (common-law wives of course were not included) whereas previously, a woman had to pay contributions in her own name if she wanted to benefit. Particularly attractive to subscribers was the state funding of the scheme which more than doubled the actual value of workers’ payments. However, the scheme introduced two new restrictions on women; first, married women could no longer subscribe in their own name; second, the annual income limit to qualify was set much lower for a single woman than for a single man (£250 instead of £400). This meant that many single women, some of them with dependents, were excluded from the scheme. This did not prevent Sir Kenneth Wood from describing the scheme as “largely for the benefit of women”30, as the state’s contribution was in fact higher for women than for men.

Not everyone was convinced, however; there was strong opposition from women MPs of all parties. Conservative MP Mavis Tate labelled the bill “an extraordinary injustice to women”, which gave “great benefits to women – married women and widows,”31 while Eleanor Rathbone, independent MP for British Universities, labelled the discrimination “a thunderclap” based on “a complete confusion of thought”32; she stressed that the Bill would increase women’s dependency, while excluding some of the categories of society most in need of help: “Under this Bill there will be thousands of women who are widows of uninsured men with dependent children to provide for, married women with husbands who have deserted them, or who are unable to work, with children to provide for, women with invalid husbands to provide for, spinsters who, with family claims on their salaries, are asked to keep an aged father or mother and have the greater part of the burden placed on them because brothers they may have have families of their own”.33 Such arguments did not stop the Bill from making it speedily through Parliament, with the thought that those categories which were to be excluded were of little importance. Mr. Logan, MP for Liverpool, summed up the prevailing attitude: "The question of the equality of the sexes is of very small importance. To me, that is a matter of minor importance in contrast with the magnitude of the Bill which is before us. In my humble opinion, no such thing is possible as equality of the sexes. Equality means equality in all the burdens of life. It cannot be done, especially by one particular portion. The male portion in the battle of life bears the brunt”.34

These are just some of the many aspects of discrimination against working women in inter-war years, which attempted to widen the gap between women’s employment, on the one hand and marriage and motherhood, on the other and push women back into the role of carers and dependents. Despite the extension of the franchise to all women over 21, the slowly-growing number of women MPs was either unable or unwilling to exert much influence on this trend, often concentrating more on welfare issues in the face of widespread poverty. Despite the inroads women were making in all public walks of life, women were to remain a reproductive rather than a productive force in politicians’ eyes; their employment options had to be constrained and regulated as part of a process which narrowed their prospects outside motherhood. Between 1931 and 1939 the overall number of employed women dropped by over a million. The working woman was backed neither by society, nor politicians, nor the unions who saw them as a threat to male employment. Nazi ideology about the woman’s place being at home also filtered across the continent to Britain and strengthened existing prejudices among some conservative MPs, while a majority of labour party politicians, who privately had firm ideas about gender roles and a woman’s place, publicly attributed any difficulties they might experience to class rather than gender.

1 1931: 14,790 000 men and 6,265 000 women. Source: Department of Employment Gazette; Annual abstract of statistics and A.H. Hasley, British Social Trends since 1900, p. 106.

2 HC, Volume 310, 1 April 1936, col. 2048

3 Martin Pugh, Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain, p. 92

4 Abolished all existing restrictions upon the admission of women into professions, occupations or civic positions including appointment as jurors and magistrates.

5 Martin Pugh, Women and the Women's Movement in Britain, quotes similar figures for doctors in 1931 and lawyers in 1935, p. 94.

6 An average 44% of all clerical staff in inter-war years. Source: Martin Pugh, Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain, p. 92.

7 1931 (Source : Fawcett Society)

8 the first woman head of department in the civil service was appointed in 1955 (Fawcett Society)

9 On average 2 shillings less than men per week in inter-war years; source: Dept of Employment Gazette, Annual Abstract of Statistics, Rates of Unemployment Benefit, men and women over 18.

10 HC, Volume 310, Supply : Civil Estimates, col. 2048

11 Op. Cit. col. 2053

12 Sheila Rowbotham, A Century of Women, p. 174

13 William Shepherd Morrison, under Stanley Baldwin's Government. HC, Volume 310, 1 April 1936, col. 2061

14 Ibid

15 Helen Jones, Women in British Public Life, p. 93

16 Sir John Withers, HC, Volume 314, 14 July 1936, col. 1626

17 George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, pp. 87-88."If the English physique has declined, this is no doubt due to the fact that the Great War carefully selected the million best men in England and slaughtered them, largely before they had had time to breed."

18 HC, Volume 314, 14 July 1936, col. 1626

19 in 1924, 1926 and 1929

20 Earnings and hours worked, Ministry of Labour Gazette, British Labour Statistics: Historical Abstract 1886-1968. (Weekly average in shillings) 1935: women 1.6, men 3.2 (hours not indicated); 1938: women 1.6, men 3.5.

21 Source: Eleanor Rathbone, HC, Volume 310, col. 2031.

22 HC, Volume 310, 1 April 1936, col. 2047

23 HC, Volume 310, 1 April 1936, col. 2030

24 HC, op. cit., col. 2062.

25 HC, Volume 310, 6 April 1936, cols. 2472-2562.

26 Helen Jones, Women in British Public Life, 1914-1950

27 Mary Stopes, Marriage in our Time, p. 188

28 HC, Volume 331, Written Answers, Married Women Teachers, Scotland, February 1938, cols. 1716-1718.

29 Contributions for a man were 2/-11d per week and for a woman 11d (ages 21 to 40). Contributions for under-21s were lower (1/-3d for a man and 6d for a woman)

30 HC, Volume 322, 8 April 1937, col. 391

31 HC, op. cit. col. 429

32 HC, Volume 322, 8 April 1937, cols. 432-433

33 HC, op. cit., col. 433

34 HC, op. cit. Col. 425

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