FC114: The Rising Status of Women in the Late 1800's


One of the most dramatic and unexpected consequences of the Industrial Revolution was the rising status of women by the end of the nineteenth century. Two aspects of industrialization in particular moved society in this direction. First of all, there was the separation of home and the workplace, which led to men often competing with women for factory jobs. Men disliked this, especially since women were often preferred by factory owners who could more easily overwork and underpay them. Therefore, working class men did what they could to push women out of what they saw as "male" occupations in order to keep their jobs.

This, along with the growth of new technologies and the emerging consumer society, had two effects. For one thing, more affluent middle class women especially tended to stay home in what became associated with the "housewife" role. This gave many women more leisure time, which they often used to get involved in political and social issues. Oftentimes, this would start through participation in church activities that typically were concerned with such causes. At the same time, since many middle class women were spending time at home and doing the shopping, they were seen as important aspects of the emerging consumer society. Therefore, the advertising industry targeted many of its campaigns specifically toward women. As a result, women's status in society started rising in the last half of the nineteenth century.

By the same token this rising status opened up new avenues of activity and expression for women. More women pursued secondary and university educations. Many of them also found their way into the workplace in what would eventually come to be seen as "female" occupations as nurses, teachers, and secretaries. In their leisure time, women took part in casual social dancing and sports. At first these were "feminine" sports such as croquet, bicycling, and horseback riding using the more "feminine" (and dangerous) sidesaddle. Even women's fashions in the early twentieth century reflected their social mobility by becoming increasingly less confining. More adventurous women were also taking part in mixed swimming and tennis. Only six years after the inauguration of men's singles at Wimbledon, women had their own singles tournament. Not only did women's rising status allow them to take part in these activities, but these activities gave women more visibility in society and increased their status, thus opening them more doors, and so on.

All this encouraged many women to work for suffrage (the right to vote). Serious discussion of this topic largely started with the French Revolution. Mary Wollstonecraft's book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, argued that women were neither mentally or physically inferior to men and that different standards for women were stifling to both sexes. This gained further support, including from such men as the political philosopher, John Stuart Mill. In Britain, demonstrations to gain the vote occasionally met with harsh reactions from men. When several women were jailed after a demonstration in 1905, newspapers finally broke their silence on the suffrage issue. This gave more publicity and support for women's suffrage, which sparked more demonstrations, reactions, publicity and sympathy, and so on. Although some women, frustrated at their treatment, turned to more destructive and even violent actions (vandalism, bombs in mailboxes, and one woman even throwing herself in front of a racehorse), most kept to more moderate tactics and continued to gain support.

Two things accelerated this process. First of all, women became especially vital to the workplace during World War I when so many men were gone and women were needed to fill their jobs. Secondly, there was the philosophy of Liberalism, which was originally intended to apply just to men. However, it could just as easily apply to women and became the philosophical basis for the women's suffrage movement. In 1918, women over 30 won the vote (thus keeping male voters in the majority until 1927 when women over 21 could also vote). Women in other industrial countries soon gained suffrage: Finland (1906), Norway (1913), Russia (1917), and the United States (1919), along with Germany, Sweden, Austria, and the Netherlands. France, Italy, Switzerland and eventually most other countries around the globe would grant the vote later in the century. However, many barriers to equality remained and the struggle to attain equal status continues today.