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History of women in the United Kingdom covers the social, cultural and political roles of women in Britain over the last two millennia. Medieval England was a patriarchal society and the lives of women were heavily influenced by contemporary beliefs about gender and authority.
She identifies a deterioration the status of women in the Middle Ages, although they retained strong roles in culture and spirituality. Significant gender inequities persisted throughout the period, as women typically had more limited life-choices, access to employment and trade, and legal rights than men. After the Norman invasion, the position of women in society changed.
The rights and roles of women became more sharply defined, in part as a result of the development of the feudal system and the expansion of the English legal system; some women benefited from this, while others lost out. The rights of widows were formally laid down in law by the end of the twelfth century, clarifying the right of free women to own property, but this did not necessarily prevent women from being forcibly remarried against their wishes.
The growth of governmental institutions under a succession of bishops reduced the role of queens and their households in formal government.
Married or widowed noblewomen remained significant cultural and religious patrons and played an important part in political and military events, even if chroniclers were uncertain if this was appropriate behaviour. As in earlier centuries, most women worked in agriculture, but here roles became more clearly gendered, with ploughing and managing the fields defined as men's work, for example, and dairy production becoming dominated by women.
In medieval times, women had responsibility for brewing and selling the ale that men all drank. By , men had taken over that role. The reasons include commercial growth, gild formation, changing technologies, new regulations, and widespread prejudices that associated female brewsters with drunkenness and disorder.
The taverns still use women to serve it, a low-status, low-skilled, and poorly remunerated tasks. While the Tudor era presents an abundance of material on the women of the nobility—especially royal wives and queens—historians have recovered scant documentation about the average lives of women. There has, however, been extensive statistical analysis of demographic and population data which includes women, especially in their childbearing roles.
The role of women in society was, for the historical era, relatively unconstrained; Spanish and Italian visitors to England commented regularly, and sometimes caustically, on the freedom that women enjoyed in England, in contrast to their home cultures.
England had more well-educated upper class women than was common anywhere in Europe. The Queen's marital status was a major political and diplomatic topic. It also entered into the popular culture. Elizabeth's unmarried status inspired a cult of virginity.
In poetry and portraiture, she was depicted as a virgin or a goddess or both, not as a normal woman. In contrast to her father's emphasis on masculinity and physical prowess, Elizabeth emphasized the maternalism theme, saying often that she was married to her kingdom and subjects. She explained "I keep the good will of all my husbands — my good people — for if they did not rest assured of some special love towards them, they would not readily yield me such good obedience,"  and promised in they would never have a more natural mother than she.
Although medical men did not approve, women healers played a significant role in the medical care of Londoners from cradle to grave during the Elizabethan era. They were hired by parishes and hospitals, as well as by private families.
They played central roles in the delivery of nursing care as well as medical, pharmaceutical, and surgical services throughout the city as part of organized systems of health care. They operated nursing homes for the homeless and sick poor, and also looked after abandoned and orphaned children, pregnant women, and lunatics. After , the workhouse movement undermined many of these roles and the parish nurse became restricted largely to the rearing and nursing of children and infants.
Over ninety percent of English women and adults, in general entered marriage in this era at an average age of about 25—26 years for the bride and 27—28 years for the groom. They governed witchcraft and providing penalties for its practice, or—in —rather for pretending to practise it. In Wales, fear of witchcraft mounted around the year There was a growing alarm of women's magic as a weapon aimed against the state and church. The Church made greater efforts to enforce the canon law of marriage, especially in Wales where tradition allowed a wider range of sexual partnerships.
There was a political dimension as well, as accusations of witchcraft were levied against the enemies of Henry VII, who was exerting more and more control over Wales. The records of the Courts of Great Sessions for Wales, show that Welsh custom was more important than English law. Custom provided a framework of responding to witches and witchcraft in such a way that interpersonal and communal harmony was maintained, Showing to regard to the importance of honour, social place and cultural status.
Even when found guilty, execution did not occur. Becoming king in , James I brought to England and Scotland continental explanations of witchcraft. He set out the much stiffer Witchcraft Act of , which made it a felony under common law. One goal was to divert suspicion away from male homosociality among the elite, and focus fear on female communities and large gatherings of women.
He thought they threatened his political power so he laid the foundation for witchcraft and occultism policies, especially in Scotland.
The point was that a widespread belief in the conspiracy of witches and a witches' Sabbath with the devil deprived women of political influence. Occult power was supposedly a womanly trait because women were weaker and more susceptible to the devil.
Enlightenment attitudes after made a mockery of beliefs in witches. The Witchcraft Act of marked a complete reversal in attitudes. Penalties for the practice of witchcraft as traditionally constituted, which by that time was considered by many influential figures to be an impossible crime, were replaced by penalties for the pretence of witchcraft. A person who claimed to have the power to call up spirits, or foretell the future, or cast spells, or discover the whereabouts of stolen goods, was to be punished as a vagrant and a con artist, subject to fines and imprisonment.
Historians Keith Thomas and his student Alan Macfarlane revolutionized the study of witchcraft by combining historical research with concepts drawn from anthropology. Older women were the favorite targets because they were marginal, dependent members of the community and therefore more likely to arouse feelings of both hostility and guilt, and less likely to have defenders of importance inside the community.
Witchcraft accusations were the village's reaction to the breakdown of its internal community, coupled with the emergence of a newer set of values that was generating psychic stress. The Reformation closed the convents and monasteries, and called on former monks and nuns to marry. Lay women shared in the religiosity of the Reformation. Historian Alasdair Raffe finds that, "Men and women were thought equally likely to be among the elect Godly men valued the prayers and conversation of their female co-religionists, and this reciprocity made for loving marriages and close friendships between men and women.
For the first time, laywomen gained numerous new religious roles, and took a prominent place in prayer societies. Women's historians have debated the impact of the Industrial Revolution and capitalism generally on the status of women. Clark argues that in 16th century England, women were engaged in many aspects of industry and agriculture. The home was a central unit of production and women played a vital role in running farms, and in operating some trades and landed estates.
For example, they brewed beer, handled the milk and butter, raised chickens and pigs, grew vegetables and fruit, spun flax and wool into thread, sewed and patched clothing, and nursed the sick. Their useful economic roles gave them a sort of equality with their husbands. However, Clark argues, as capitalism expanded in the 17th century, there was more and more division of labor with the husband taking paid labor jobs outside the home, and the wife reduced to unpaid household work.
Middle-class women were confined to an idle domestic existence, supervising servants; lower-class women were forced to take poorly paid jobs. Capitalism, therefore, had a negative effect on more powerful women. In the preindustrial era, production was mostly for home use and women produce much of the needs of the households. The second stage was the "family wage economy" of early industrialization, the entire family depended on the collective wages of its members, including husband, wife and older children.
The third or modern stage is the "family consumer economy," in which the family is the site of consumption, and women are employed in large numbers in retail and clerical jobs to support rising standards of consumption.
In the Victorian era, fertility rates increased in every decade until , when the rates started evening out. Another possible explanation is social.
In the 19th century, the marriage rate increased, and people were getting married at a very young age until the end of the century, when the average age of marriage started to increase again slowly. The reasons why people got married younger and more frequently are uncertain.
One theory is that greater prosperity allowed people to finance marriage and new households earlier than previously possible. With more births within marriage, it seems inevitable that marriage rates and birth rates would rise together. The evening out of fertility rates at the beginning of the 20th century was mainly the result of a few big changes: The Victorian era is famous for the Victorian standards of personal morality. Historians generally agree that the middle classes held high personal moral standards and usually followed them , but have debated whether the working classes followed suit.
Moralists in the late 19th century such as Henry Mayhew decried the slums for their supposed high levels of cohabitation without marriage and illegitimate births. By contrast in 21st century Britain, nearly half of all children are born outside marriage, and nine in ten newlyweds have been cohabitating. Historians have begun to analyze the agency of women in overseas missions. At first, missionary societies officially enrolled only men, but women increasingly insisted on playing a variety of roles.
Single women typically worked as educators. Wives assisted their missionary husbands in most of his roles. Advocates stopped short of calling for the end of specified gender roles, but they stressed the interconnectedness of the public and private spheres and spoke out against perceptions of women as weak and house-bound.
The middle class typically had one or more servants to handle cooking, cleaning and child care, Industrialisation brought with it a rapidly growing middle class whose increase in numbers had a significant effect on the social strata itself: Identifiable characteristics came to define the middle class home and lifestyle.
Previously, in town and city, residential space was adjacent to or incorporated into the work site, virtually occupying the same geographical space.
The difference between private life and commerce was a fluid one distinguished by an informal demarcation of function. In the Victorian era, English family life increasingly became compartmentalised, the home a self-contained structure housing a nuclear family extended according to need and circumstance to include blood relations. The concept of "privacy" became a hallmark of the middle class life. The English home closed up and darkened over the decade s , the cult of domesticity matched by a cult of privacy.
Bourgeois existence was a world of interior space, heavily curtained off and wary of intrusion, and opened only by invitation for viewing on occasions such as parties or teas. Domestic life for a working-class family meant the housewife had to handle the chores servants did in wealthier families. A working-class wife was responsible for keeping her family as clean, warm, and dry as possible in housing stock that was often literally rotting around them.
In London, overcrowding was endemic in the slums; a family living in one room was common. Domestic chores for women without servants meant a great deal of washing and cleaning.
Coal-dust from home stoves and factories filled the city air, coating windows, clothing, furniture and rugs. Washing clothing and linens meant scrubbing by hand in a large zinc or copper tub. Some water would be heated and added to the wash tub, and perhaps a handful of soda to soften the water.
Curtains were taken down and washed every fortnight; they were often so blackened by coal smoke that they had to be soaked in salted water before being washed./p>
Women were often limited in what they could inherit. Males were more likely to receive real property land , while females with brothers were sometimes limited to inherited personal property, which included clothing, jewellery, household furniture, food, and all moveable goods. The law of intestate primogeniture remained on the statute books in Britain until the property legislation simplified and updated England's archaic law of real property.
In contrast to wives, women who never married or who were widowed maintained control over their property and inheritance, owned land and controlled property disposal, since by law any unmarried adult female was considered to be a feme sole.
Once married, the only way that women could reclaim property was through widowhood. The dissolution of a marriage, whether initiated by the husband or wife, usually left the divorced females impoverished, as the law offered them no rights to marital property. Any damages a wife might pay would be her own responsibility, instead of that of her husband. Married women were then also liable for their own debts, and any outside trade they owned was subject to bankruptcy laws.
Further, married women were able to hold stock in their own names. As of , most of the Act has been repealed.
Of these, one of the more important was s. Also, the Contracts Rights of Third Parties Act enables both men and women to enforce contracts drawn up by others for their benefit. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Blackwell, , The loftier their ambition, the greater the challenge. Physicians kept tightly shut the door to medicine; there were a few places for woman as lawyers, but none as clerics.
In the s a new employment role opened for women in libraries; it was said that the tasks were "Eminently Suited to Girls and Women. Teaching was not quite as easy to break into, but the low salaries were less of the barrier to the single woman then to the married man.
By the late s a number of schools were preparing women for careers as governesses or teachers. The census reported in that 70, women in England and Wales were teachers, compared to the , who comprised three-fourths of all teachers in It demanded equal pay with male teachers, and eventually broke away.
However the new redbrick universities and the other major cities were open to women. Florence Nightingale demonstrated the necessity of professional nursing in modern warfare, and set up an educational system that tracked women into that field in the second half of the nineteenth century. Nursing by was a highly attractive field for middle-class women.
Medicine was very well organized by men, and posed an almost insurmountable challenge for women, with the most systematic resistance by the physicians, and the fewest women breaking through. One route to entry was to go to the United States where there were suitable schools for women as early as Edinburgh University admitted a few women in , then reversed itself in , leaving a strong negative reaction among British medical educators.
The first separate school for women physicians opened in London in to a handful of students. In , the King and Queen's College of Physicians in Ireland became the first institution to take advantage of the Enabling Act of and admit women to take its medical licences. In all cases, coeducation had to wait until the World War. The Poor Law defined who could receive monetary relief. The act reflected and perpetuated prevailing gender conditions. In Edwardian society, men were the source of wealth.
The law restricted relief for unemployed, able-bodied male workers, due to the prevailing view that they would find work in the absence of financial assistance. However, women were treated differently. After the Poor Law was passed, women and children received most of the aid. The law did not recognise single independent women, and lumped women and children into the same category.
At the time, single mothers were the poorest sector in society, disadvantaged for at least four reasons. First, women had longer lifespans, often leaving them widowed with children.
Second, women's work opportunities were few, and when they did find work, their wages were lower than male workers' wages. Third, women were often less likely to marry or remarry after being widowed, leaving them as the main providers for the remaining family members.
Many women were malnourished and had limited access to health care. The Edwardian era , from the s to the First World War saw middle-class women breaking out of the Victorian limitations. Women had more employment opportunities and were more active. Many served worldwide in the British Empire or in Protestant missionary societies. For housewives, sewing machines enabled the production of ready made clothing and made it easier for women to sew their own clothes; more generally, argues Barbara Burman, "home dressmaking was sustained as an important aid for women negotiating wider social shifts and tensions in their lives.
Numerous new magazines appealed to her tastes and help define femininity. The inventions of the typewriter, telephone, and new filing systems offered middle class women increased employment opportunities. Education and status led to demands for female roles in the rapidly expanding world of sports. As middle class women rose in status they increasingly supported demands for a political voice. In Wales the suffragists women were attacked as outsiders and were usually treated with rudeness and often violence when they demonstrated or spoke publicly.
The idea of Welshness was by then highly masculine because of its identification with labouring in heavy industry and mining and with militant union action. The radical protests steadily became more violent, and included heckling, banging on doors, smashing shop windows, burning mailboxes, and arson of unoccupied buildings.
These tactics produced mixed results of sympathy and alienation. As many protesters were imprisoned and went on hunger-strike , the Liberal government was left with an embarrassing situation. From these political actions, the suffragists successfully created publicity around their institutional discrimination and sexism.
Historians generally argue that the first stage of the militant suffragette movement under the Pankhursts in had a dramatic mobilizing effect on the suffrage movement. However a system of publicity, historian Robert Ensor argues, had to continue to escalate to maintain its high visibility in the media. The hunger strikes and force-feeding did that. They turned to systematic disruption of Liberal Party meetings as well as physical violence in terms of damaging public buildings and arson.
This went too far, as the overwhelming majority of moderate suffragists pulled back and refused to follow because they could no longer defend the tactics.
They increasingly repudiated the extremists as an obstacle to achieving suffrage, saying the militant suffragettes were now aiding the antis, and many historians agree. Searle says the methods of the suffragettes did succeed in damaging the Liberal party but failed to advance the cause of woman suffrage.
When the Pankhursts decided to stop the militancy at the start of the war, and enthusiastically support the war effort, the movement split and their leadership role ended. Suffrage did come four years later, but the feminist movement in Britain permanently abandoned the militant tactics that had made the suffragettes famous. In Wales, women's participation in politics grew steadily from the start of the suffrage movement in By , half the members elected to the National Assembly were women.
Although abortion was illegal, it was nevertheless the most widespread form of birth control in use. Those who transported contraceptives could be legally punished. Newspaper advertisements were used to promote and sell abortifacients indirectly.
Edwardian Britain had large numbers of male and female domestic servants , in both urban and rural areas. The upper classes embraced leisure sports, which resulted in rapid developments in fashion, as more mobile and flexible clothing styles were needed. The Edwardian era was the last time women wore corsets in everyday life. According to Arthur Marwick , the most striking change of all the developments that occurred during the Great War was the modification in women's dress, "for, however far politicians were to put the clocks back in other steeples in the years after the war, no one ever put the lost inches back on the hems of women's skirts".
The Edwardians developed new styles in clothing design. A new concept of tight fitting skirts and dresses made of lightweight fabrics were introduced for a more active lifestyle. The First World War advanced the feminist cause, as women's sacrifices and paid employment were much appreciated.
Prime Minister David Lloyd George was clear about how important the women were:. It would have been utterly impossible for us to have waged a successful war had it not been for the skill and ardour, enthusiasm and industry which the women of this country have thrown into the war. The militant suffragette movement was suspended during the war and never resumed.
British society credited the new patriotic roles women played as earning them the vote in Pugh argues that enfranchising soldiers primarily and women secondarily was decided by senior politicians in In the absence of major women's groups demanding for equal suffrage, the government's conference recommended limited, age-restricted women's suffrage. The suffragettes had been weakened, Pugh argues, by repeated failures before and by the disorganising effects of war mobilization; therefore they quietly accepted these restrictions, which were approved in by a majority of the War Ministry and each political party in Parliament.
Women in Britain finally achieved suffrage on the same terms as men in There was a relaxing of clothing restrictions; by there was negative talk about young women called " flappers " flaunting their sexuality. The vote did not immediately change social circumstances. With the economic recession, women were the most vulnerable sector of the workforce. Some women who held jobs prior to the war were obliged to forfeit them to returning soldiers, and others were excessed. Legislative reform was sought for discriminatory laws e.
She expressed the critical need for consideration of difference in gender relationships as "what women need to fulfill the potentialities of their own natures". Other important social legislation of this period included the Sex Disqualification Removal Act which opened professions to women , and the Matrimonial Causes Act The council continued until the end of the Second World War.
Annie Besant had been prosecuted in for publishing Charles Knowlton 's Fruits of Philosophy , a work on family planning, under the Obscene Publications Act She and her colleague Charles Bradlaugh were convicted but acquitted on appeal, the subsequent publicity resulting in a decline in the birth rate. Britain's total mobilization during this period proved to be successful in winning the war, by maintaining strong support from public opinion.
The war was a "people's war" that enlarged democratic aspirations and produced promises of a postwar welfare state. Historians credit Britain with a highly successful record of mobilizing the home front for the war effort, in terms of mobilizing the greatest proportion of potential workers, maximizing output, assigning the right skills to the right task, and maintaining the morale and spirit of the people.
In some ways, the government over planned, evacuating too many children in the first days of the war, closing cinemas as frivolous then reopening them when the need for cheap entertainment was clear, sacrificing cats and dogs to save a little space on shipping pet food, only to discover an urgent need to keep the rats and mice under control. The success of the government in providing new services, such as hospitals, and school lunches, as well as the equalitarian spirit of the People's war, contributed to widespread support for an enlarged welfare state.
Munitions production rose dramatically, and the quality remained high. Food production was emphasized, in large part to open up shipping for munitions. Farmers increased the number of acres under cultivation from 12,, to 18,,, and the farm labor force was expanded by a fifth, thanks especially to the Women's Land Army. Parents had much less time for supervision of their children, and the fear of juvenile delinquency was upon the land, especially as older teenagers took jobs and emulated their older siblings in the service.
The government responded by requiring all youth over 16 to register, and expanded the number of clubs and organizations available to them. Food, clothing, petrol, leather and other such items were rationed. However, items such as sweets and fruits were not rationed, as they would spoil.
Access to luxuries was severely restricted, although there was also a significant black market. Families also grew victory gardens , and small home vegetable gardens, to supply themselves with food. Many things were conserved to turn into weapons later, such as fat for nitroglycerin production. People in the countryside were less affected by rationing as they had greater access to locally sourced unrationed products than people in metropolitan areas and were more able to grow their own.
The rationing system, which had been originally based on a specific basket of goods for each consumer, was much improved by switching to a points system which allowed the housewives to make choices based on their own priorities. Food rationing also permitted the upgrading of the quality of the food available, and housewives approved—except for the absence of white bread and the government's imposition of an unpalatable wheat meal " national loaf.
In the aftermath of World War II, a new emphasis was placed on companionate marriage and the nuclear family as a foundation of the new welfare state. Women's commitment to companionate marriage was echoed by the popular media: Feminist writers of that period, such as Alva Myrdal and Viola Klein , started to allow for the possibility that women should be able to combine home with outside employment. Feminism in s England was strongly connected to social responsibility and involved the well-being of society as a whole.
This often came at the cost of the liberation and personal fulfillment of self-declared feminists. The s saw dramatic shifts in attitudes and values led by youth. It was a worldwide phenomenon, in which British rock musicians especially The Beatles played an international role. One notable event was the publication of D. Although first printed in , the release in of an inexpensive mass-market paperback version prompted a court case. The prosecuting council's question, "Would you want your wife or servants to read this book?
The book was seen as one of the first events in a general relaxation of sexual attitudes. Other elements of the sexual revolution included the development of The Pill , Mary Quant 's miniskirt and the legalisation of homosexuality. There was a rise in the incidence of divorce and abortion, and a resurgence of the women's liberation movement , whose campaigning helped secure the Equal Pay Act and the Sex Discrimination Act in The Irish Catholics, traditionally the most puritanical of the ethno-religious groups, eased up a little, especially as the membership disregarded the bishops teaching that contraception was sinful.
However, Gordon Brown announced that he would not have a Deputy Prime Minister, much to the consternation of feminists,  particularly with suggestions that privately Brown considered Jack Straw to be de facto deputy prime minister  and thus bypassing Harman. Harman also held the post Minister for Women and Equality.
In April after being sexually harassed on London public transport English journalist Laura Bates founded the Everyday Sexism Project , a website which documents everyday examples of sexism experienced by contributors from around the world. The site quickly became successful and a book compilation of submissions from the project was published in From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
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