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The Role of Women at the Beginning of the 20th Century
The role of women is, perhaps, one of the essential subjects in the study of the history of human civilization. In different societies at different times, the gender roles were dictated by a set of historical and cultural traditions and stereotypes, which left men and women in their designated positions with little opportunity of change or diversity. Unsurprisingly, such was the situation in Europe throughout the centuries. As it was, for many centuries in the past, the view on the role of women in the society remained for the most part unchanged. In fact, two whole millennia of recorder culture in Europe provide indisputable evidence of the inferior position of a woman in the European society as opposed to that of a man. Nowadays, the perception of the role of women is dramatically different from that which was commonly used even a decade ago, as the female empowerment continues to take the world in stride. However, such changes evidently did not occur suddenly and overnight. Women’s struggle for freedom and equality has been going on for many centuries, with countless sacrifices and compromises made in the process in order to achieve the ultimate goal of recognition of women as full-fledged members of society with equal rights and opportunities to that of men (Lambert). Looking back at modern history, the 20th century has marked a range of significant changes in the cause for women’s equality, and can be considered as, perhaps, the most important century in terms of the improvement of women’s position in society and gaining rights to participate in social, cultural and political life of the society. Therefore, it is necessary to take a look at the beginning of the 20th century in Europe and assess the way women were perceived in the European society of that period.
The battle for equal rights has always been an essential part of the European society, with notions of equality, diversity, and freedom at the forefront of social and political workings of the European community. However, the reality rarely corresponded to the ideal image of an egalitarian society, and apparently, it was women’s role to take the brunt of social injustice and be regarded as inferior human beings in a men-ruled world. The deeply-ingrained concepts about gender roles in the patriarchal European society have kept the image of a woman mostly the same throughout the centuries. The society attributed to a woman a set of tasks which she was required to undergo in order to perform her social functions. Namely, these functions typically included marrying into a wealthy family, giving birth to children and bringing them up. Finally, a woman had to be a faithful companion to her husband and take care of domestic affairs, housekeeping, as well as reception and entertainment of guests.
Despite the fact that the awakening and the first waves of feminism occurred in the 19th century, the changes would prove to be slow to come. At the beginning of the 20th century, women still belong to an inferior category of the population in the European society (Lambert). Starting with childhood, in the house and under control of their fathers, to adulthood, being passed over into the hands of their husbands, the life of women are under the complete power of men. Like this, women hold absolutely no political or legal power: they do not have the right to vote, they can not sign any contracts or pursue any sort of political career. In fact, it is impossible for a woman to work without the permission of her husband. Such regulations are a reflection the bourgeois patriarchal society which had a particularly strong hold on the European society in the previous 19th century.
In terms of education, at the beginning of the 20th century, education of young girls from respectable and wealthy households consists of such matters as domestic affairs, arts, and crafts, rules of etiquette, etc. The image of a woman of that time presents a stereotypical perception, nurtured and maintained in the men-ruled society for many centuries prior. To start with, women’s mental and physical capacities are considered to be inferior to those of men. In terms of traits and qualities, typical for those times, women are usually viewed as prone to weakness and overly emotional and impulsive behavior. As a result, women’s education is left in the hands of their governesses special institutions for young ladies, all with the same ultimate goal of making out of them good mothers, keepers of the home and loyal partners to their husbands. There are, however, exception even to that rule. Only those women who remain single after passing the age of 21, widows and divorced women are emancipated. However, in the lingering mentality of the 19th-century European society, for a woman to be unmarried at such age is inconceivable, and thus these women are viewed as abnormal.
The beginning of changes occurred in the 19th century, with the rapid development of feminist ideas across the whole European continent. Among the first women pioneering for gender equality and women’s emancipation were such activists as Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Wheeler who valiantly led the fight for women’s rights in each and every aspect of life in the European society, social, political and cultural alike (Cavedon). According to Cavedon, at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights stood female leader from more industrially developed countries such as Britain and France. Toward the 1900s, these women have been actively promoting women’s equality and the chance for women to be able to vote and benefit from the same work and life opportunities as men. As such, the emancipation of women progressed at a slow pace. The first wave of women’s liberation, which had an effect toward the beginning of the 20th century was reflected in the women’s labor. While women coming from wealthy families did not have the necessity to work, women from less privileged families do not have the choice other than to start working, seeing as the salaries of their husbands are very often not sufficient in order to provide for the family.
Taking a look at some of the European societies in the early 20th century, it becomes clear that even despite the progress made during the 19th century, the role of women remains for the most part stereotypical. As an example, in the British society, women were typically seen in the role of wives, staying at home and taking care of home affairs and children, while their husbands work to support the family financially (Trueman). As an alternative, if they are single, they usually had to perform such jobs that would provide some kind of service like cooking or serving as waitresses (Trueman). As a rule, the typical expectations of the British society for a woman was to marry and undertake the roles of mothers and keepers of home (Trueman). Alternatively, according to Trueman, being referred to as a spinster was not necessarily considered to be slander, but signified that a woman was carrying some kind of social stigma, seemingly unable to find a husband due to lack of this or that quality or skill (Trueman). Ultimately, the choices which lay before a young woman were either to marry and live a quiet life of conformity, or go against the society and become an outcast.
According to Trueman, even despite certain improvements in women’s lifestyles in the early 1900s, a staggering number of women had to endure a miserable life in an unhappy marriage. Conversely, those were unmarried or, even worse, divorced, had to bear the brunt of being the outcasts of the society (Trueman). To generalize the situation of women in the British society at the beginning of the 20th century, the image of the prosperous Victorian society, valuing the integrity and the comfort of a family and preaching about the romance and the amenities of home life, was just an idea integrated in the minds of the British people and baring almost no correspondence to the reality. One of the most notable historical phenomena which helped to advance women’s cause in the British society at the beginning of the 20th century was the emergence of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) (Lambert). On the back of the movement’s development, women started a campaign which would eventually result in their gaining the right to vote (Lambert). It was the women who took active part in advancing the goals of the movement have come to be known as suffragettes, whose contribution to the struggle of women to gain equality in the European world would make a difference and turn the tide (Murray). Led by Emmeline Pankhurst, the suffragettes chose far from peaceful means of making a statement, resorting to acts of vandalism such as throwing stones, breaking windows, and even willingly sacrificing their lives to make the men-ruled society finally take notice of the cause of women (Murray). As such, it is safe to conclude that in the 1900s, women’s position in the British society has seen major improvements.
In the course of the years during which Europe, just as the rest of the world, was caught in the First World War, women’s role in society was irreversibly changed. The whole male population was going to the battlefronts, and neither young nor old age could not prevent men from taking weapons in their hands and leaving their civilian life to support their country in the war (Grayzel). As a result, a multitude of functions in the society concerning the social, political, and economic matters, previously performed by men had to be relegated to women. Alternatively, women were involved in the military actions at subordinate positions such as nurses, ambulance drivers, factory and farm workers, demonstrating that their ability to occupy such perceived masculine positions (Grayzel). However, despite such monumental developments in the status of women in the society of the early 1900s’ Europe, the gender stereotypes certainly did not go away and would prove to be almost impossible to erase completely up until the end of the century. Evidently, women’s contribution during the wartime was awarded the legal acceptance of their right to vote and work alongside men, albeit in a limited number of professions and with significantly lower pay than that of men. And yet, as stated by Grayzel, the centuries-long cultivated mentality of women being the secondary members of the European society prevented the changes from taking root in the community’s mindset (Grayzel). As such, the society accepted some of the inevitable changes in women’s status, but still refused to accept their equal standing with men.
The importance of the changes in the women’s position in society that occurred at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century is impossible to overlook. While still under the oppression of the men-ruled society holding back every attempt to claim their rights, women had come a long way in the span of several decades, setting up the grounds for fundamental change in the way the European community perceived the social, cultural and political role of women in the society. Throughout the first few decades of the 1900s, movements for women empowerment are in full swing, designating the end of the women’s quiet acceptance to perform the roles of subordinacy and lamblike conformity to the standards set for them by the society which places the man on a pedestal while viewing women as inferior and lacking in too many qualities to be equal to their male counterparts. As it was, gender inequality still thrived even with the coming of the First World War, when social order had to be rebuilt and the typical roles performed by each gender had to be adjusted in order to get through the wartime. And yet, even though is difficult to compare it to the role of the modern-century woman and the place she occupies in the social hierarchy across the European in the current times, it is safe to say that the early 1900s mark, perhaps, what is the most important period in the history of women empowerment, with 20th-century women slowly but steadily gaining the power which will later transform the world community and give women an unprecedented level of influence in social, cultural, political, and economic aspects alike.
Cavedon, Jackie. “Nineteenth-Century European Feminism | Guided History.” Blogs.bu.edu. Web. 31 Jan. 2018.
Grayzel, Susan. “Changing Lives: Gender Expectations And Roles During And After World War One.” The British Library. N.p., 2014. Web. 31 Jan. 2018.
Lambert, Tim. “Women In The 20Th Century.” Localhistories.org. Web. 31 Jan. 2018.
Murray, Jenni. “20Th Century Britain: The Woman’s Hour.” Bbc.co.uk. N.p., 2011. Web. 31 Jan. 2018.
Trueman, C.N. “Women In 1900.” History Learning Site. N.p., 2015. Web. 31 Jan. 2018.