WWI Centennial: Britain Grants Women’s Suffrage
Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 300th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.
The First World War triggered a wave of political reform, as country after country gave women the vote in recognition of their many contributions to the war effort, including working in war industries, serving as nurses and ambulance drivers, and running businesses and public services. There were other arguments besides: some pundits said that women, naturally inclined to pacifism, would exert a moderating influence over male politics. Others worried women would refuse to bear a new generation of children, needed to make good the loss of millions of lives in the war, unless they got the vote.
One month after the U.S. House of Representatives approved the 18th Amendment giving women the vote (later rejected by the Senate until 1920), on February 6, 1918, Britain’s Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, also known as the Fourth Reform Act, granting women householders and university graduates ages 30 and over the right to vote, as well as universal male suffrage. The law added 8.4 million women and 5.6 million men to the franchise nationally, although women would remain outnumbered in the British electorate until full female suffrage was granted in 1928.
Although activists had been pursuing women’s suffrage for decades in Britain, there were no huge public celebrations following Parliament’s historic vote, due partly to the grim wartime context—but also because many had long taken the outcome for granted. The arrival of women’s suffrage was something of an anticlimax, following the revolution in gender relations brought about by the war.
WOMEN'S WAR, WOMEN'S WORLDS
Across Europe and much of the world, war brought women new freedoms in other spheres, but also new pressures and concerns. In addition to war work, women were expected to continue serving in their traditional roles as homemakers and caregivers, leaving them torn between work and family, a still-familiar dilemma. For women working in the war zone, this meant the constant threat of being forced to abandon their patriotic duties. The diarist Vera Brittain, who served as a volunteer nurses' aid for three years in France and Malta, recalled:
"Because we were women we feared perpetually that, just as our work was reaching its climax, our families would need our youth and vitality for their own support. One of my cousins, the daughter of an aunt, had already been summoned home from her canteen work in Boulogne; she was only one of many, for as the war continued to wear out strength and spirits, the middle-aged generation, having irrevocably yielded up its sons, began to lean with increasing weight upon its daughters. Thus the desperate choice between incompatible claims—by which the women of my generation, with their carefully trained consciences, have always been tormented."
For women working factory jobs “on the home front,” in addition to the tedium and dangers of such work, every day was a balancing and juggling act—especially for married women with young children. To help with the burden many factories started providing nurseries and daycare, while older children went to school. However, millions of women still had to rely on relatives, friends, religious or charitable establishments, or paid arrangements (as in the early industrial revolution, some women supported themselves running informal daycares for the children of factory workers). Female workers were also still responsible for feeding their families, which often meant waiting in long lines for basics like meat and bread. One British factory worker, Elsie McIntyre, remembered scrambling for groceries to feed her mother and siblings:
"The most awful thing was food. It was very scarce. And as we were coming off shift someone would say 'There is a bit of steak at the butchers.' And I would get off the train and then go on a tram. And can get off at Burley Road and run to the shop only to find a long queue. And by [the time] it got to my turn there would be no more meat, only half a pound of sausage, you see. And that’s coming off the night shifts. You went straight into a queue before you could go to bed."
As this account hints, just getting to and from work was often a struggle for women relying on overtaxed public transportation. One worker, Peggy Hamilton, recalled that it took 90 minutes to get to her job at a Royal Arsenal factory in London’s Woolwich Square:
“The buses were always full and when we arrived in the square it would be teeming with people fighting for a place on the bus. No one ever paid because the conductor had no chance of collecting the fares. Each bus was crowded to the suffocation point … We had to fight and push to get on board and were often ejected from several buses.”
Many factory workers came from the countryside or provincial towns, leaving low-paid domestic, agricultural, or textile work for well-paid munitions and heavy industrial work in the bigger cities, making it impractical to commute. So across Britain and Europe, factory owners and private individuals established hostels and boarding houses for young women, usually offering primitive accommodations with shared bedrooms and communal washrooms, and typically leaving girls and young women little if any privacy (and, along with factories and army barracks, providing a perfect breeding ground for communicable diseases including the flu).
Reflecting the Victorian sensibilities of the older generations, parents, politicians, and clergy anxious about “loose morals” among young female factory workers demanded that towns, factories, and hostels hire female police officers, matrons, and other older women to keep an eye on female factory workers both at work and off duty. Concerns for morality and propriety covered a wide range of activity including everything from swearing and horseplay to drinking and smoking, and, of course, relations with men; members of the opposite sex were strictly forbidden in hostels and factory dormitories.
In a small concession to human nature, young women were allowed to establish “girls clubs” attached to factories and hostels where they could entertain male visitors for dances and parties in a chaste, supervised setting. But morality police had less control over young women out on the town, using their newfound spending power to visit bars, tearooms, movie theaters, and dancehalls, where it was much easier to meet members of the opposite sex including fellow factory workers and soldiers on leave. Although it is hard to generalize about the behavior of young women—most seemed determined to remain “respectable” or at least maintain that appearance—many clearly exercised their new freedom to meet, socialize, and have romantic encounters with men. Ray Strachey, a British feminist, remembered two decades later:
"It was during the war, and after it, that the changing moral standard of women became definitely noticeable. Thousands of women had seen their actual or potential mates swallowed up in that ever-increasing wave of death which was the Great War. Life was less than cheap; it was thrown away … All moral standards have been submerged … Little wonder that the old ideals of chastity and self-control in sex were, for many, also lost."
By the same token not every assignation ended in sexual intercourse. A.B. Baker, a volunteer in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps serving in France, remembered one comparatively tame—but intense—kiss with a young soldier bound for Passchendaele:
"He said that he was afraid—more afraid than he had ever been in his life. He was sure that this time he was going to 'collect something worse than a packet.' He wanted to know what I believed about death. I forget what I told him. He made me promise to write to his mother if anything happened to him. When I promised he said that I was a “dear kid.” I was very near to crying. He asked me if he could kiss me. I said, “Yes.” He kissed me many times, and held me very tight. He held me so tight that he hurt me and frightened me. His whole body was shaking. I felt for him as I had never felt for any man before. I know now that it wasn’t love. It was just the need to comfort him a little."
Sexual morality was just one of the areas policed, rather ineffectively, by paragons from the older generations. The war also saw large numbers of women take up smoking, as tobacco was made more convenient and “feminine” with mass-produced cigarettes. Daniel Poling, an American YMCA lecturer and temperance advocate, was scandalized by the scene that greeted him in his London hotel in 1917:
"In the dining room of my hotel I found literally scores of women, perhaps as many as 300, smoking. The young, the middle-aged, and the old, were all at it. I saw a young mother calmly blow smoke over the head of her 8-year old soon, who displayed only a mild interest … For a man who is old-fashioned enough to prefer womanhood à la his wife and mother, the 'woman of the cigarette' is very disquieting, to say the least."
But for young women cigarettes came to symbolize elegance, sophistication, and worldliness, according to Brittain, who recalled her first visit home after picking up the habit:
"After supper I settled down luxuriously to smoke—a new habit originally acquired as a means of defense against the insect life of Malta—and to talk to my father about the hazards and adventures of my journey home. My parents took a gratifying pleasure in my assumption of worldly wisdom and the sophistication of the lighted cigarette; after 20 continuous months of Army service I was almost a stranger to them."
SEPARATION AND ALIENATION
War was broadly disruptive to couples, both married and unmarried, as women and men contended with long separations and uncertainty. In Britain and most other combatant nations, the marriage rate surged in the first year of the war and then plunged. Similarly, birth rates across Europe plummeted during the war, as couples put off childbearing for happier times.
In addition to the ordinary obstacles presented by romantic relationships, during the war women and men also contended with a profound experiential barrier, as men tried to shield women back home from the grim reality of the trenches. Mildred Aldrich, an American retiree living in the French countryside, noted:
"One of the striking features about this war is that the active soldiers almost never talk with the civilians about the war. In a sense, it is forbidden, but the reason goes deeper than that. The soldier and the civilian seem today to speak a different language. It almost seems as if a dark curtain hung between the realities of life 'out there,' and the life into which the soldier enters en repos [on leave]."
Similar, Brittain worried that the war was creating a barrier between her and her fiancé, Roland Leighton:
"To this constant anxiety for Roland’s life was added, as the end of the fighting moved ever further into an incalculable future, a new fear that the war would come between us—as indeed, with time, the war always did, putting a barrier of indescribable experience between men and the women whom they loved, thrusting horror deeper and deeper inward … Quite early I realized this possibility of a permanent impediment to understanding."
Of course the dynamic sometimes worked the other way as well, as women who served at or near the front experienced physical danger on a regular basis, alienating them from older adults of both genders who never saw the war zone. A.B. Baker, the volunteer W.A.A.C., remembered scoffing at “spiritual advice” about the war received from a male clergy member who’d remained safely at home:
"A few days later I had a letter from our curate. In it he talked about war as a noble discipline. He said it purged men of selfishness, and by its pity and terror brought men nearer to God. I felt sick for a second time. He put with his letter a printed Prayer for Victory, and told me to say it every night. I remembered that my prayer in the dug-out had been just this, said over and over again: “O God, stop this war; stop it, and let me go home.” At home the curate had been rather a hero of mine. He wasn’t my hero any more."
The war saw a wide variety of new types of relationships forming, including casual, practical, and purely formal. Some women married men they didn’t really love out of a sense of desperation or patriotic duty, according to an American volunteer ambulance driver, William Yorke Stevenson, who heard about one situation from a French acquaintance in March 1916:
“She says a friend of hers who nursed a man, blind and without arms, is going to marry him because she thinks it is her duty, although she does not care for him. She is not pretty; but as the man is blind it will not matter, she says. Such cases are not rare.”
On the other hand, the disruptions of war weren’t always unwelcome to married women and widows, depending on their previous circumstances, which might have seen them trapped in unhappy marriages. Mildred Aldrich confided an awkward truth about the lives of French peasant women in her diary in April 1916:
"I often wonder if some of the women are not better off than in the days before the war. They do about the same work, only they are not bothered by their men … for nearly two years they have had no drinking man to come home at midnight either quarrelsome or sulky; no man’s big appetite to cook for; no man to wash for or to mend for. They have lived in absolute peace, gone to bed early to a long, unbroken sleep, and get 25 cents a day government aid, plus 10 cents for each child … under my breath, I can assure you that there is many a woman of that class a widow today who is better off for it, and so are her children."
GRIEF AND DEDICATION
Finally, women would also bear for decades the lasting burden of grief for family members killed during the war. Visitors described crowds of Parisian women dressed black in church and other public places, and some women continued to dress in mourning many years. Privately, the grieving process began with the returned possessions of the dead, as vividly described by Brittain in January 1916:
"All Roland’s things had just been sent back from the front through Cox’s; they had just opened them and they were all lying on the floor. I had no idea before of the after-results of an officer’s death, or what the returned kit, of which so much has been written in the papers, really meant. It was terrible … Everything was damp and worn and simply caked with mud … the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards and the dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies."
So much importance was attached to these items that soldiers and civilians sometimes sent the possessions of dead enemy soldiers to their families on the opposing side, typically via neutral countries. Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German aristocrat and living in Berlin, tried to identify the possessions of British soldiers killed in battle and send them home. In August 1917 she wrote in her diary of one such occasion:
"A feeling of hopeless sadness crept over me as I saw these trays of things, the only mementoes left of men who had such a short time ago been alive in the full flush of manhood. There was a whole stack of battered and bloodstained cigarette cases, some with inscriptions or monograms engraved on them, many containing small photos or a few written words … Then there were all the other various small articles generally to be found in a man’s pocket—fountain pens, handkerchiefs, torn letters, purses, coins, etc.; and I felt the tears come into my eyes when I thought of what value they would be to some in England now."
At the same time, many women cited their own grief, as well as awareness of the losses suffered by others, as motivation for their own continuing war work. After Roland’s death Brittain wrote in her diary:
“Well, one of the things this final part of Roland’s story has made me feel is that as long as the war lasts … I cannot lead any but an active life, even though it should last for five years … No, it must be some form of active service, and if it implies discomforts, so much the better. I am beginning to feel that to leave nursing now would be a defeat."
In the same vein, a French woman, Marguerite Lesage, wrote in March 1916:
“There are times when I wonder if I’m going to give in to le cafard [depression] … Yes … but having mentally run through this list for the thousandth time, it is enough to think of our soldiers—and in what conditions!—to think, once again, that as long as I can, I must be worthy of them and stay here.”
Unsurprisingly even the most dedicated women workers found their spirits flagging as the war went on, leading to a regime of self-criticism and emotional self-policing. In 1916, now stationed in Malta, Brittain admitted in a letter to her brother:
“One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time … After all it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby.”
And Julia Stimson, an American volunteer head nurse, wrote in a letter home in June 1917:
"It is so pathetic the way one can lose sight of one’s inspirations if one’s feet are tired, or the way one can forget one is on a crusade if there is no drinking water to be had for half a day, and can be just an ordinary uninspired human female and be fretful and discouraged because you don’t like the tone of voice of a supervisor. It is my job of course to keep before my people the why of our coming and to keep their spirits up."
Despite numerous hardships, the First World War marked an expansion of women’s horizons. Again, it’s worth noting this didn’t result from the granting of women’s suffrage, but rather the reverse, as male politicians and voters were forced to recognize women’s contributions to the war effort, which had already brought new freedoms and greater economic power in its train. Two decades after the war, Robert Roberts, a boy at the time, remembered that the right to vote was granted almost as an afterthought, as even children could see the huge changes in the adult world:
"Whatever war did to women in home, field, service, or factory, it undoubtedly snapped strings that had bound them in so many ways to the Victorian age. Even we, the young, noticed their new self-confidence. Wives in the shop no longer talked about ‘my boss,’ or ‘my master.’ Master had gone to war and Missis ruled the household, or he worked close to her in the factory … earning little more than she did herself. Housewives left their homes and immediate neighborhood more frequently, and with money in their purses went foraging for goods even into the city shops … She discovered her own rights."