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Women in the Edwardian and Interwar Era

Suffragettes and Other Scandalous Women

The Edwardian era began with the death of Queen Victoria on January 21st, 1901 and the accession of her son, Edward VII in 1902. Victoria reigned for 64 years, most of the nineteenth century which was a period of great social reform. Industrialization had created vast wealth, which was in the hands of a small minority of the population. Though the middle class was growing in industrialized countries, a significant portion of the population, those who worked in the factories which made the rich wealthy and gave the middle class the comforts they enjoyed, lived in extreme poverty. Poverty leads to many other social problems. The reform movements which sought to solve these problems often had women playing large roles. These reform movements paved the way for the social change of the twentieth century, which allowed for the emergence of some of the most remarkable, and notorious, women in history.

The nineteenth-century woman had a complex position in society. She was idealized and later stereotyped, as modest, gentle, meek, biddable, and domestic. Women were expected to be the moral center of the home and to care for her husband and children. Charity and social work, and therefore reform, were considered acceptable activities for them and respectable ways for them to enter public life. Female reformers such as Dorothea Dix worked to build adequate hospitals and asylums for the mentally ill. Women like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah, and Angelina Grimke, and Sojourner Truth were actively involved with the American abolitionist movement. Most controversially, Josephine Butler campaigned for the rights of sex workers and age of consent laws. The temperance movement was notably a female reform movement and became one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the United States by the end of the nineteenth century. It encapsulated many of the reasons why women wanted reform. They wanted to be able to divorce drunken and abusive husbands (marital rape and other forms of domestic abuse were not uncommon or illegal) and to be able to gain custody of their children if those marriages fell apart. Married women also wanted access to their own property and money to keep it from being wasted at the saloon by their husbands. Women were also involved in trade unions and helped to improve the terrible conditions faced by workers such as long hours, low pay, appalling conditions, and child labor. Upperclass hostesses campaigned for political parties.

Women were seen as unsuited to politics, nor was the world of politics seen as an appropriate place for them. Their entrance into public life was met fierce resistance, criticism, and mockery. An argument for letting women being actively involved in politics was that they would be more useful in reform movements if they could vote for or against legislation. But many male reformers were hesitant, or outright refused, to support women’s rights for fear that it would distract from other, seemingly more important, reforms. But nonetheless, women’s rights was coming to the forefront of politics and progressive reform, the full potential of women was beginning to be seen, and traditional gender roles were beginning to be challenged. 

By the turn of the century, women had gained the rights to their own property once married and to the custody of their children if they divorced, but this was only the start of the radical changes which the new century would bring. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Social and Political Union or WSPU. This saw the beginning of the suffragette movement in earnest. Many of these suffragettes like Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter, and Alice Paul were college educated, something which would have been unthinkable a generation before. They picked fights with police and the opposition and engaged in outrageous acts of protest and vandalism, some might say terrorism, in order to provoke arrest and thus gain attention for the cause. The movement became increasingly violent as it grew frustrated with lack of progress. Militant suffragettes faced violence and imprisonment and abuses, such as force feeding, once in prison; hunger strikes were common among imprisoned suffragettes. In one of the movement’s most iconic movements, a woman named Emily Davison was run over by a racehorse at the 1913 Epsom Derby and thus became a martyr for the cause of women’s rights. Davison’s motives have disputed ever since. What seemed like a suicide mission could have simply been a stunt in which she attached a suffragette banner to the horse’s bridle. The women’s suffrage movement came to its climax among the tense and changing atmosphere of the early twentieth century. Those in power, the wealthy and male, felt the ground beginning to shake under their feet. It fought back by characterizing the liberated modern woman as an ugly, man-hating harpy who was hysterical, insane, and sexually depraved, everything the Edwardian woman was not supposed to be.

In 1913, Marie Scopes began researching her groundbreaking and controversial book on sexual pleasure and birth control, Married Love. Issues of a woman’s right to express her sexuality as freely as a man and to choose when she wanted to have children, how many children she would have, or whether or not she wanted to have children at all, would become central the women’s rights movement. Two of the most radical activists of the era, Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman, pushed for access to and education about birth control, specifically for poor, working class women who wished to prevent having more children than they could support. As radical and controversial as it had seemed, the birth control movement was consistent with the public health and welfare based reform movements women were engaged in during the early twentieth century, including more respectable ones such as temperance or education. Sexuality also played a role in the suffrage movement as suffragettes spoke out against double standards, the sexual immorality of men, and its negative effects on women. Christabel Pankhurst went as far as to suggest a female sex strike with the slogan “votes for women, chastity for men.” 

The Edwardian era abruptly ended in 1914 with the start of World War I in August of that year. With it began the era of “total wars” where civilians were often just as vulnerable as the troops at the front. Cities were bombed during air-raids which used the startlingly new technology of flight and the populations of these cities were unprepared for this threat. Enemy blockades lead to food shortages and malnutrition. With the men away fighting, women took the vacant jobs in areas such as manufacturing and agriculture. Jobs in the wartime factories were dangerous and unhealthy and the pay was half that of a man’s but these women, known as Munitionettes, found new freedoms such as freedom from Edwardian fashions and social customs. Many of these war workers had been recruited from the ranks of the suffragettes and other reform minded women. It has often been claimed that this contribution to the war effort was what gained women the right to vote. A more cynical mind might argue that giving women the right to vote was simply a way to fill up electorates decimated by the war. Property owning women over thirty were granted the right to vote in England in 1918 but full female suffrage was not granted for another ten years. 1919 saw the election of Britain’s first female member of parliament, Lady Nancy Astor, who had been encouraged to run for a seat in the House of Commons which had been left vacant by her husband after he moved to the House of Lords. Women had been voting in the United States in some western states since the late nineteenth century; these states allowed women to vote in order to meet voter requirements for statehood. Montana Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin became the first woman to sit in Congress in 1917, three years before the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 which granted all American women the right to vote and would vote against America’s entry into World Wars I and II.

World War I was seen as a futile tragedy and its end brought about a more cynical and disappointed worldview. The unprecedented trauma of the war ushered in a popular mood of recklessness and hedonism. Everything which had come before had shattered and now seemed irrelevant. The young people who came of age following the war showed a contemptuous disregard for the past and for tradition and embraced everything new and exciting. They got their kicks by dancing at nightclubs and parties to wild jazz music, drinking cocktails, taking drugs, and engaging in promiscuous sex. Following so much death and destruction, people wanted to live life to the fullest and not be stifled by the restrictions of the past.

Intellectuals and artists of the 1920s championed an uninhibited sexuality and frankness between men and women.  Those who were not brave enough could also experience this sexual liberation vicariously through racy novels such as The Sheik by E.M Hull and Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H Lawrence and the films of glamorous Hollywood starlets such as Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, Gloria Swanson, Colleen Moore, and Joan Crawford. The new technologies of film and radio spread popular culture to the masses and allowed them to experience, to some extent, what writer F. Scott Fitzgerald named “the jazz age.” The behavior of the fast young set elicited strong disapproval from their elders, specifically the antics of their dancing daughters. The free spirited young woman of the 1920s was characterized as stupid, frivolous, and immoral, something like an unruly puppy in need of strict discipline. 

The insouciant freedom of the era extended to the world of business and finance. A lack of government regulation in these eras leads to a brief economic and industrial boom with increased productivity and employment. The popularity of credit and borrowing grew with the need for modern amenities and amusements. But this prosperity was not equally distributed with the working class rarely feeling the benefits of the boom of the 1920s. Small business and agriculture went into decline. For farmers, the Great Depression began early. The economy was bloated but fragile and the precarious state of affairs would spell disaster if anything went wrong. In October of 1929, the American stock market crashed which caused financial panic and bank failures and the economy, which had been teetering throughout the twenties to go under. An intricate system of trade and war reparations made this a global problem. The 1930s are characterized by economic depression and widespread unemployment. Men would often abandon their families to look for work, leaving women to be the providers for the family.

The political situation in the 1930s was just as precarious as that financial situation with the hard times of the Depression made people lose faith in democracy and capitalism. Sharp divisions in political ideology became more pronounced, specifically between communists and fascists. A story which epitomizes this is a description of the bedroom of Jessica and Unity Mitford, two teenage girls from an aristocratic English family, which was divided along the middle with fascist imagery on one side, and communist propaganda on the other hand. Unity would later become close friends with Adolf Hitler and would attempt suicide at the outbreak of World War II. Jessica would run away at age twenty to fight in the Spanish Civil War and become an investigative journalist and liberal political campaigner. Their older sister Diana would marry Sir. Oswald Mosley, the leader of the Union of British Fascists or Black Shirts and their wedding was attended by Hitler himself.

The 1930s was perhaps the decade which proved the saying that well-behaved women seldom make history. Two of the most notorious women of the twentieth century and members of two its most scandalous love affairs emerged during this decade. The Great Depression saw a serious crime wave in America and the press elevated gangsters such as John Dillinger and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd to celebrity and later legendary status. Among this rogues gallery was a former Texas waitress named Bonnie Parker. Starting in 1932, Parker accompanied her lover Clyde Barrow on a crime spree which enthralled the public with its aura of danger and romance. Parker herself, as a rare female criminal, was a figure of fascination. The definitive image of her is that of a brazen gun-moll with her foot up on the front of a car, a pistol in one hand, and a cigar dangling from her mouth, the very opposite of a demure, lady-like and law-abiding woman. Stories of Bonnie and Clyde added some color to the dreary days of the Depression, and they were the first of this era’s great gangsters to meet their spectacular ends. After their deaths at the hands of law enforcement in May of 1934, the funerals of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were attended by crowds of thousands.

In 1936, Britain was shocked by the abdication of its popular new king, Edward VIII. The reason was supposedly a twice divorced American socialite named Wallis Simpson whom Edward wanted to marry and who was considered an unsuitable choice for his queen. Edward was beloved by his people for his informal charm, good looks, common touch, and love of all things modern, and Simpson, who was blamed for his abdication, received vehement backlash. Her movie star glamour, wit, and pushy and bossy charm had won Edward’s heart and their scandalous five-year love affair had been kept hidden from the British public until the abdication became public and their marriage was challenged by the royal family and the government through the public supported the King. Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson finally married in 1937 after his abdication from the throne in favor his young brother George VI. They would go down in history as either a glamorous and romantic couple, one of the twentieth century’s greatest love stories, or a pair of selfish and Nazi sympathizing hedonists. The abdication and its after effects are one of the most controversial moments in modern British history. Some historians claim that it was a take down of a popular and progressive king by the British establish while others believe that Wallis Simpson saved the country by keeping the immature, incompetent, and possibly Nazi sympathizing Edward off of the throne.

Historical figures, be they heroes and heroines or villains and villainesses, fascinate us because they are products of their times. Role models such as Emmeline Pankhurst and Jeannette Rankin, troublemakers like Josephine Butler and Margaret Sanger, and bad girls like Wallis Simpson and Bonnie Parker were all the way they were because of the eras they lived through. The reform movements of the late nineteenth century, the social change of the early twentieth century, the trauma of the First World War, the hedonism of the 1920s, and economic depression of the 1930s changed things for everyone, specifically for women. Social change and times of hardship and poverty allowed them to do things and behave in ways which were unthinkable to previous generations. Thus the moralizing reformers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras lead the way for feisty suffragettes, fun-loving flappers, and cigar chewing gun-molls.

Annotated Bibliography

AngelDocs. “Abdication: A Very British Coup.” Perf and Writ. Denys Blakeway. Video. YouTube. BBC. 10 Jan. 2013. Web. 27 April. 2016.

This BBC documentary deals with the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936, his affair with twice divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson and the scandal it caused. Denys Blakeway claims that Edward’s abdication was rather a coup by the British establishment to get rid of a popular and progressive king whom they saw as a threat to their power. Wallis Simpson was simply the excuse for getting rid of him.

Classicsports22. “American Experience-Bonnie & Clyde.” Perf. Video. YouTube. PBS. 24 Jan. 2016. Web. 28 April. 2016.

This episode of American Experience talks about the notorious and legendary outlaw couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. This talks about the time period they lived in, how it shaped them, and what lead them to do what they did. It also talked about the cultural context and how people were frustrated with the poverty of the Depression that they admired gangsters who were beating the system.

Crash Course World History. “#36 Archdukes, Cynicism, and World War I.” Perf. and Writ. John Green. Video. YouTube. Crash Course. 27 Sept. 2012. Web. 21 April 2016.

In episode 36 of Crash Course World History, author John Green talks about World War I and its effects on the popular consciousness in that it normalized a cynical and hopeless world view because of its unprecedented tragedy.

Crash Course US History. “#33 The Great Depression.” Perf. and Writ. John Green. Video YouTube. Crash Course. 10 Oct. 2013. Web. 28 April. 2016.

In episode 33 of Crash Course US History, author John Green talks about the causes and effects of the Great Depression in the fragility of the American banking system, an intricate system of reparations and trade, and the financial panic caused by the crashing of the stock market.

Crash Course US History. “#32 The Roaring 20s” Perf. and Writ. John Green. Video. YouTube. Crash Course. 4 Oct. 2013. Web. 27 April. 2016.

In Episode 32 of Crash Course US History, author John Green describes how the excesses of the 1920s paved the way for the Great Depression. It was a period of financial speculation and irresponsibility and shallow economic boom. The financial situation was delicate and precarious and it would have been disastrous if anything went wrong.

Crash Course US History. “#16 Women in the 19th Century.” Perf. and Writ. John Green. Video. YouTube. Crash Course. 23 May 2013. Web. 12 April 2016.

In episode 16 of the Crash Course series, US History, author John Green discusses the role of women in the reform movements of the 19th century and how these reforms awakened their political conscience. Middle and upper-class women engaged in charity and social work, as they were seen as acceptable activities for respectable women, and became involved in reforms in education, prisons, hospitals and asylums, slavery, and temperance. An argument for giving them the right to vote was that they would be more useful to reform movements, but women’s suffrage met with a lot of resistance.

Crash Course US History. “#27 Women’s Suffrage.” Perf. and Writ. John Green. Video. Youtube. Crash Course. 26 Sept. 2013. Web. 18 April. 2016.

Author John Green talks about the radical reform movements headed by women during the progressive era. The reform movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries awakened the social and political consciousnesses of women and they began to see their own lack of rights. A new generation of college educated and radicalized suffragettes came about and fought tooth and nail to get the vote. There was also the radical campaign for birth control.

Kay Bee. “The Making of Modern Britain.” Perf. Andrew Marr. Video. Youtube. BBC. 31. Oct. 2014. Web. 12 April. 2016.

In this six part BBC series, historian Andrew Marr discusses the first four centuries of the twentieth century, from the turn of the twentieth century to the Second World War, and all of the social and political changes that happened and how they shape the world we live in today. He talks about the suffrage movement, the Great War, the roaring twenties, and the Great Depression along with the way.

Pikil Mumu. “Suffragettes Forever: The Story of Women and Power”. Perf. Amanda Vickery. Video. YouTube. BBC. 9 Sept. 2015. Web. 12 April 2016.

In this six part series from the BBC, Professor Amanda Vickery chronicles the story of women and power in Britain, and the movements and legislation for rights for women, specifically the right to vote, and the outrage and resistance the fight for equality between the sexes provoke. It culminates in the suffragette movement of the early 20th century and then describes how the fight for sexual equality still has far to go. 

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