Who could have predicted that the competing demands of industry, trade unions and the indefatigable feminist Eleanor Rathbone would end up saving Britain and its empire from war in 1939?
As Britain industrialised during the 19th century, work increasingly happened outside the home. This in turn split the roles of men and women. Whereas a pre-industrial England household might combine subsistence farming with artisan trades, with both men and women working, industrialisation made it much more difficult to combine out-of-home work with the care of dependent children. Thus what had once been the situation for only the wealthiest women became a new aspirational standard: a “cult of domesticity” in which women did not work but rather were responsible for “higher” moral and emotional values.
The evangelical writer Thomas Gisborne’s 1797 An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex sums up this moral framework. The duty of women, he wrote, is “to give delight in the affectionate intercourse of domestic society;…to smooth the bed of sickness…and to promote useful institutions…for the instruction of children”. And the place of women is in the home.
As Gisborne puts it:
“Home is the centre round which the influence of every married woman is accumulated. It is there that she will naturally be known and respected the most; it is there, at least, that she may be more known and more respected than she can be in any other place.”
Wives who “had to go out to work” were a source of shame in this new society of “separate spheres”. But as the 19th century wore on, this moral framework faced a new, double threat. On the one hand groups such as the Langham Place Circle began to campaign for women’s entry into academia and professional life. On the other, industrialists — whose factories had been instrumental in creating the split between home and work in the first place — began to see the advantage of hiring women.
By the beginning of the 20th century British industry was increasingly worried by manufacturing competition from overseas, and this was exacerbated by another downward pressure on manufacturing profits: the emerging trade union movement. In a manufacturing world where many jobs were highly skilled, striking workers couldn’t easily be replaced. Those workers began to use their power.
Privately, leaders of industry identified women as a solution to both problems. Because for the most part women only worked until they got married, you could pay them less, as unmarried women did not have families to support.
Women were less physically strong than men, but they would tolerate repetitive and dull work for the shorter duration of their working lives. So manufacturing jobs could be broken down into less demanding tasks — “diluted” — for female employees, making processes more efficient and lowering costs. This change also weakened male labour unions, by sharpening wage competition as well as reducing the bargaining power of skilled workers.
Here the economic interests of the industrialists aligned with those of a growing chorus of women. Being “Angel of the House” was all very well if your husband was both well-paid and inclined to pass his earnings on to his wife and children. But it was less idyllic for those women married to men whose work was sporadic, or to men who gambled or drank their salaries and left their families to go hungry. Such women joined the more middle-class feminist campaigns for women’s education and voting rights, calling for equal pay for equal work.
When war broke out in 1914, the twin drive by feminists and industrialists for women’s greater access to the workplace was accelerated by the disappearance of much of the male workforce into military service. In July 1914, 3.3 million women worked in paid employment in Britain; by 1917, 4.7 million women worked, a jump from 24% of the total workforce to 37%.
It was in this context that feminist Eleanor Rathbone wrote her 1917 essay On the Remuneration of Women. Rathbone foresaw the rise in women working during the war as a potential threat to the wellbeing of women and children throughout the country.
The main beneficiaries of women’s employment in manufacturing, she argued, would be industrialists. These individuals could boost their profits by hiring young women on a rapid-turnover basis, rather than highly skilled men on a long-term permanent basis. But this change ran counter to the interests of both men (most of whom had families to support) and also the non-working women — which in practice usually meant married mothers — who relied on these men’s salaries. Rathbone foresaw a looming post-war conflict between employers keen to save money by hiring unmarried women, and the trade unions keen to protect their male members’ careers.
A second wartime phenomenon was the “separation allowance” paid by the Government to non-working wives of serving soldiers to ensure dependent women and children were not left to starve in their husbands’ absence. Rathbone identified the separation allowance as a model for solving these impending conflicts.
She argued that the work of rearing and caring for the next generation was of such profound national importance that women should be supported by the government for doing it. The separation allowance was in effect a government payment to women for motherhood, and Rathbone suggested that such an allowance should be extended beyond wartime, for all married mothers. This, she argued, would not only acknowledge the value of motherhood but also provide women with an incentive to focus on family life instead of on a wage competition with men that degraded employment conditions for everyone.
Rathbone’s arguments initially fell on deaf ears; returning soldiers got their jobs back, by and large, and most women left manufacturing. But the stigma on factory work had been broken. In 1923, a government enquiry investigated the now acute shortage of domestic servants. The committee reported that it was driven by the growing availability and “respectability” of manufacturing work: girls no longer sought work as housemaids but on assembly lines. This revelation, combined with a wave of strikes across the North-West over “female blacklegs”, prompted action by newly-elected Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.
Baldwin was under pressure on many fronts. With cheaper imported goods driving down prices and profits, manufacturers were laying off workers, and Baldwin faced calls for a return to protectionist tariffs to defend British industry. After meeting Rathbone through her key role negotiating women’s partial inclusion in the 1918 Representation of the People Act, he took a different approach. Baldwin’s 1923 Mothers’ Allowance Bill used the separation allowance as a model for a universal payment to married or widowed mothers with dependent children.
In private letters, Baldwin acknowledged his calculation that the Mothers’ Allowance would serve in part as a subsidy on the wages of married men, thus enabling manufacturers to keep wages lower. His gamble worked. Wages dropped, male employment rose, prices remained low and foreign imports lost competitiveness. Baldwin evaded a fight within the Conservative Party on tariffs that he feared he would not win.
The policy was wildly popular across the electorate, playing well with both conservative sensibilities on the proper roles of men and women, but also with newly-enfranchised women voters. Feminists argued that this remuneration for motherhood represented recognition for the first time of women’s “different but equal” contribution to the national interest.
This was reinforced when Baldwin rapidly followed the Mothers’ Allowance legislation with a second Bill enfranchising women on an equal basis with men. In his speech welcoming the Representation of Women Act (1924), Baldwin stated that “The work of women in the family and household, while different to that of men, carries equal weight and is of equal national value. We have now corrected a longstanding injustice that weighed women as lesser in the scales to men.”
Not all feminists were supportive. Millicent Fawcett criticised the 1924 Act as a sop thrown to women to offset “the permanent thwarting of women’s aspirations to higher employment or public life”, ensuring that instead women would be “locked forever in a gilded domestic cage, bought and paid by Mr Baldwin’s forty pieces of silver”. She was mocked at the time for decrying the very franchise she had long campaigned for, with what the Spectator called “the gracelessness we’ve come to expect from that most graceless of creatures, the Feminist”.
But Fawcett was in a minority. The entitlement was taken up near-universally, and by the mid-1930s less than 2% of married British women were in paid employment; one consequence was that voluntary work blossomed and charitable and educational endeavours of every kind filled all strata of society.
The change also drove a backlash against the “loose” morals perceived to have flourished during the war years: taboos rapidly emerged against behaviour by mothers that could be understood as abusing Mothers’ Allowance. The 1930s saw a tightening in public morals, with growing social stigma against child neglect, idleness, pre-marital sex and unmarried “fraternising” in general. The culture of “anything goes” America, with its jazz clubs and rising hemlines, became a watchword for degeneracy, as did what one commentator called the “inhuman sex egalitarianism” of the Soviet Union.
The Mothers’ Union became immensely influential, with representatives in some areas of Britain gaining the power almost of parallel MPs. The Mothers’ Movement founded in America by Elizabeth Dilling was heavily shaped by its work. As the clouds of conflict gathered across Europe, the Mothers’ Union in Britain and Mothers’ Movement in the United States campaigned successfully against joining the war, arguing that the principal enemy was communism. Eventually a treaty was brokered with German leader Adolf Hitler — perhaps ironically, with fierce opposition from Eleanor Rathbone, now an MP for the Combined English Universities — that evaded the need for subsequent conflict.
Some historians have argued that the British women’s pacifist campaign of the 1930s was motivated less by opposition to the horrors of war as such than a fear that the immense cost of war would threaten the Mothers’ Allowance. Certainly it is likely that had Britain entered the war when Germany annexed Poland in 1939, the situation could have escalated, risking a global conflict whose costs might well have compromised the wealth and stability of the British Empire.
Some again have argued that joining the conflict would have been the right thing to do, especially considering information that came to light about the horrors committed in Greater Germany under Mr Hitler, following his assassination in 1951. But that is not how history unfolded. Instead, Britain watched while Germany and Russia wore out their territorial ambitions against one another, in a horrific conflict that cost millions of lives and which saw the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union — decades before the much-delayed fall of the British Empire.