Women’s Roles in Edwardian Era
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Women’s Roles in Edwardian Era

Life for women during the 19th century followed a well worn track. The poorest women in society had little choice in the pattern their lives would take. It was struggle enough to feed and clothe oneself but maintaining a family was an all consuming process and so it continued as the century turned the corner. By the turn of the 19th century though, there were many changes in the lives of middle class women.

The statistics tell us that one in ten married women in Edwardian England were in paid employment. Most of these women were from the poorest backgrounds. It was not considered suitable for a woman from the middle or upper classes to be in paid employment. Women were seen as a family’s possession, to be groomed for marriage, the richer the better, have and raise children, run a household, not much changed from the Medieval perception of women. All of these assumptions of what a woman could or would do were based on the principle that a woman would marry.

What if a woman did not marry? In 1901, 14% of women under the age of 45 years, did not marry. The ‘suitability’ of husbands was a key issue, not able to marry beneath them left some women to life on the margins, either living within the confines of their immediate family or possibly becoming companion to an older woman.

women in the edwardian era
The newly prosperous working middle class. All brothers and sisters in this family worked as telegraphists

Change in the family

Couples were having fewer children, for the middle classes it was becoming increasingly expensive to buy the things that made them ‘middle class’ and so having fewer children meant money could be stretched further. The need to buy things was fueled during the later Industrial Revolution. The Great Exhibition of 1851 brought goods to the attention of over six million visitors. Goods that most people never thought they needed, now became must have items for the growing middle classes. By 1900 suburbia had grown. Husbands commuted and wives stayed at home separated from their husbands lives. It became obvious that some sort of occupation was needed to fill the long days and volunteering served that purpose.

Women in the Edwardian Era
Shopping had become a chief occupation amongst those who could afford. Lots of goods at reasonable prices.

Women and volunteering

In the main, churches supplied the social services in early 20th century society. The churches and related charities were, by and large, headed by men who oversaw an immense army of female volunteers. With the responsibility of volunteering, women found a new confidence. They began to mix with a wider spectrum of people and they began to take an interest in political work. Women’s political work was kept separate from the politics of men, largely involving organising money raising events and campaigning but for some women this was never going to be enough.

Women and Politics

Some women wanted to work on causes they felt very close to involving the rights and issues of women. In the mid 19th century new acts of parliament concerning divorce and women’s property laws, gave women the opportunity to create lives separate from their husbands. But it was the individual women who, in the mid 19th century started the ball rolling.

  • Emily Davis working on women’s education founded Girton College Cambridge 1869
  • Francis Cobbe demanding that women could study for a university degree 1862
  • Josephine Butler and the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, so humiliating in its treatment of women
  • The campaigning that led to Elizabeth Anderson becoming the first British licensed female doctor and the setting up of the London School of Medicine for women.

Women’s work in the Edwardian era

The ball was rolling but very slowly. An increasing awareness amongst women that there was a different way of doing things really arose amongst women of the lower middle classes who needed to work. Thousands of women were employed as teachers and this number continued to grow. The invention of things like the sewing machine gave women an opportunity to work from home but the invention of the bicycle gave them freedom. Women could move about unchaperoned and get to work. Further inventions of the typewriter and the phone opened up completely new work opportunities in offices and shops.  By 1901 25% of all office workers were women. With money in their pocket and a new freedom on their bicycles, women changed the way they thought and dressed. The cumbersome skirts and crinolines that restricted movement were cast aside in favour of more unrestricted garments and even cycling trousers.

Working women in the Edwardian era
Women working in the Hall St factory of the Wireless, Telegraph and Signal Company

Women faced an uphill battle for any sort of recognition in the workplace. Their role was a subservient one, to serve the needs of the men who employed them. Few had managerial roles outside of their own businesses. Those that ran their own businesses were often very successful and had to be robust to operate in a male driven workplace. The trade unions wanted to keep women out. They did not want competition for well paid jobs to be given to women and so legislation was created to keep certain jobs closed to women. There was no equal pay, women were often segregated from men at work and there was little chance for women to advance in the workplace.

Women in the Edwardian era
Furnival College women’s eight.

Women at play

Edwardian women were finding fresh fields to conquer, not just in work but in sports as well. To scandalized reports of women rowing clubs, bicycling and gymnastic clubs, women’s football clubs and even British women playing and winning at Wimbledon, women were pushing at the boundaries of society.

But life was going to change beyond all recognition at the end of the Edwardian era and the lives of women with it. Women’s suffrage and World War One, would mean that women took new roles in society, undreamed of in Queen Victoria’s Britain.