Exactly one hundred years ago the Representation of the People Act received the Royal Assent from George V. The historic day, 6 February 1918, gave approximately 8.4 million women the vote. They did however have to be aged thirty or over, and meet certain requirements regarding property ownership. It was to be another ten years before the age difference with men (who could vote at the age of 21) was removed.
It was of course a watershed enactment – leading in turn to women being given the right to stand for Parliament (November 1918) and to become lawyers and civil servants (The Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919). Slowly but surely, further legislation brought in equal property and inheritance rights – but one hundred years later we are still seeing heated discussions about equal pay for equal work. It really is extraordinary how long it has all taken…
I will leave it to others to debate how far we have come since 1918 – my interest is in why it took so long for women – and particularly married women – to make the breakthrough from being treated as chattels to becoming fully enfranchised and equal. That is why I wrote my forthcoming book, due out with Pen & Sword in early April, entitled “Trailblazing Women of the Georgian Era” – it seems extraordinary that we had a female financial adviser, dealing in stocks and shares, and happily gleaning information about the markets from the male-dominated Coffee Houses in London in the early years of the 18th Century (Hester Pinney) – and yet it would be 1973 before women were finally admitted to the Stock Exchange.
The Georgian era saw women run manufacturing businesses (Eleanor Coade) and become accomplished silversmiths (Hester Bateman) – yet these industries are still dominated by men. I think I am right in saying that only 7 out of the 100 companies in the Footsie 100 have a female CEO. Yet in the 1700s Elizabeth Raffald was opening employment exchanges, operating a delicatessen, co-owning a newspaper, and publishing a best-selling cookery book. So what happened to the female Captains of Industry and entrepreneurs for the next two centuries?
Why were nearly all the inventors male? Sarah Guppy was the only (minor) exception I came across. Why was it, nearly a century after trail-blazing playwright and novelist Aphra Behn, her successor Fanny Burney was regarded as a paradigm shifter because she had the temerity to publish novels and plays under her own name? Indeed, after yet another one hundred years, female novelists were still hiding their lights under a bushel (the three Bronte sisters all used male pseudonyms up until the middle of the nineteenth century – namely Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell). Mary Anne Evans was still using a male persona (George Eliot) in 1876.
How come the Royal Academy had two female founder members (Angelica Kauffman and Mary Moser) – and yet it wasn’t until 1936 that Dame Laura Knight became the next woman to be elected as a full Academician?
I suspect that if education was what held women back (as much as male intransigence and bigotry) then it will be interesting to see what happens in the next 25 years. After all, if a majority of graduates from University courses for medicine and the law are female, it is hard to imagine that hospital consultants will continue to be predominately male, or that most law firms will continue to justify offering more partnerships to men than women.
But as much as anything else, I suspect that women still regard certain jobs as inherently ‘male’ – often without any justification. Why are pilots generally assumed to be male – and also most electricians, plumbers, plasterers and HGV drivers? Sure, driving a lorry used to involve a fair amount of muscle, but modern technology has removed much of the need for pure strength. Time and time again we hear the same excuses popping up (it was used when women first applied to become stockbrokers): “We don’t have separate toilet facilities”.
But I suppose pre-conceptions work both ways: when I was a lawyer I recall one male applied for a job as a secretary. It wasn’t a great success as far as I remember – for a start, none of the other secretaries felt comfortable with ‘their’ territory being encroached upon…
Anyway, for anyone interested in my book it is available on pre-order from this link. Enjoy!