The changing position of women and the suffrage question

Authors Avatar by thomasrobinson01hotmailcouk (student)

The ‘angel in the house’

Women’s role in society was domestic, they were seen as intrinsically weak, passive and ‘delicate’ creatures who must be protected from the outside world. Women were altruistic ‘guardians’ of the home.

Separate spheres

The ‘angel in the house’ reflected and perpetuated the notion of separate spheres. Public man, and private woman. Although initially the preserve of the middle class, it began to permeate the working class.

Unmarried women did not fit into the ‘angel of the house’ concept.

1851 – 29% of women over 20 were unmarried.

Changes in women’s personal lives


The male dominated, public sphere of education. With education, women could go on to challenge in the masculine world of professional work.

Previously, women who worked in the factory attended factory school (whatever that is?), whilst pauper children went to the workhouse. Apart from a small minority of women who attended small fee-paying schools run by older women or charity schools set up by religious groups. However, these tended to reinforce the ‘angel in the house concept’.

What was the situation?

Working class

1870- State schools started to be created. But girls were still taught ‘angel in the house’.

HOWEVER – Narrow curriculum and rigid teaching style, educated children based on a institutionalised sexist system. State schools, emphasised domestication, not education. 

Middle Class

Educated to be wives and mothers of men from the same social class rather than to go out and work for a living.

1918 – Education made compulsory for ALL children up to age 13

By end of 19th century, 97% of kids could read and write.


Two labour markets – the working class and the middle class.

Working class - Despite, ongoing technological changes and apart from a brief interlude in WW1, domestic service was the most common for working-class women. Textile factory work second.


Growth of banking and commerce, combined with the subsequent inventions of the typewriter and telephone, new opportunities were created for the ‘white blouse’ worker.

Yet, despite trade union/government attempts to improve wages and working conditions, working class women remained at the bottom of the economic scale.

Middle class – single or married, women should remain at home, look after children and engage in charitable work. IF they were forced to work, then they worked as a governess.

Opening up the world of work to women: 1901-1930

Domestic service was looked upon favourably for working class women as it prepared them to lead lives as wives/mothers. It provided the security of food and shelter, but women were viewed as sex objects by the males and expected to remain single and childless.

1881 one in three girls aged 15-20 were employed in domestic service.

Technological innovation had a profound impact on job opportunities for women. Whilst the telephone and telegraph brought women into office work. – by 1914 the Post Office.

Whilst the rapid increase in shops provided new work opportunities for lower middle class women. The work was clean and required well presented, respectable women.

Government legislation

1867 Agricultural Gangs Act

Improved working conditions for women – all woman gangs under a female gang master.

1867 Workshops’ Regulation Act

Restricted working hours for children and child employees were to attend school for ten hours a week.

1874 Factory Act

Working age raised, and working day reduced for women and young people in textiles.

1866 Shop Hours Regulation Act

Hours of girls and boys working regulated.

1896 Factory Act

Banned employment of girls/boys under 11. Employers couldn’t hire women within 4 weeks of childbirth

1901 Factory Act

Raised working age to 12

1906-14 Shops Hours regulation Act

Max of 64 hours a week for shop work.

This legislation, indirectly improved the working conditions for women, whilst ensuring they achieved some education increased the possibilities to gain work in the top tiers of society. It challenged the perception of ‘angel in the house’ to some extent.

Working women and the Trade Unions

Women being paid less were seen as a threat to male employment as they could ‘undercut’ them. Trade Unions fought to achieve wage parity.

Women’s War Work and the Vote

The war brought women from all social classes into work – it was not still the preserve of those who were forced into it. Dispelling the ‘angel in the house’ ideology, men saw women at work – and they performed their roles as well, or better than the men before them. Women from all social backgrounds joined the Land Army, (WAACS), WRENS or WRAFS. These women were considered as part of the British Army and many others worked as nurses.

Women worked hard, long hours, many were killed in accidents and their experience in war work went a long way to dispel pre-conceived notions of the female sex. Additionally, middle/upper class women had their first taste of work. The public/private divide had been breached and the population was grateful of women’s war work role. Sympathy for their cries to have the vote increased.

Join now!

Educating women and girls focuses on two key questions – how far did the education of women and girls improve between 1860 and 1930? And to what extent did education overturn the ideology of domesticity and ‘separate spheres’ philosophy.

Key Legislation…

1870 Elementary Education Act

More school places were provided – state schools were built. The Mundella’s Act 1890 made school attendance compulsory between 5-10 and in 1891 education in elemantry school was made free.

1902 Education Act

1,000 new grammar schools built by 1913

By 1914 ½ the places in grammar schools were filled with ...

This is a preview of the whole essay