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“Killing the Angel in the House”: from female suffrage to sex discrimination

It took such an effort to open the door, and now we walk through it without a backward glance – or don’t walk through it at all. That’s the tragedy, that some of us don’t use the voice others struggled so hard to give us  (Jane Robinson, Social Historian).

This week sees 100 years since the Representation of the People Act passed in Parliament on 6th February 1918. The Act added 8.5 million women to the electoral roll: those over 30 who owned or occupied property worth more than £5, or were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register, and, importantly for the cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, 0xford and Cambridge in particular, or who were graduates voting in a University Constituency.  

For many it was an essential step to destroying the still popular Victorian image of the ideal wife - or indeed woman - devoted and submissive to her husband, passive, meek, charming, graceful, sympathetic, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all, pure. The poem "The Angel in the House” reflected this persona, written by Coventry Patmore in 1854 as an ode to his wife. ”Man must be pleased; but him to please is woman’s pleasure ….”  A vision which gained growing resonance throughout the late 19th century and into the 20th Century.

Against such an image of perfect powerlessness what eventually led to women’s enfranchisement?  Was it the years of campaigning by the Suffragettes? Was it the impact of the Great War?  While the War made women’s work both visible and essential, and dramatically increased the skills and confidence of women in every working area from the professions to the factories, the idea that some women were enfranchised as a reward for their services in wartime has been rejected by many, especially as much of the work undertaken was by women too young or too poor to benefit from the new legislation. Furthermore, the electorate tripled in size between 1912 and 1918 as a result of the Representation of the People Act, and even with the age and property restrictions, women made up 43% of the potential voters. There was clear awareness that owing to the tremendous loss of male life due to the War, full enfranchisement would have (unacceptably) given women the majority vote.

In recent days we have heard much about how the world has changed for British women.  Women were unable to serve on a jury or as a magistrate until 1919, with the first 6 women sworn in as jurors in 1920 in Bristol, though juries remained overwhelmingly male until reform in the 1970s. The same year Oxford admitted women to degrees, but stipulated that the ratio was to remain 1 women to every 6 men. Cambridge did not give University degrees to women until 1948, and when I went up to Cambridge in the 1970’s the actual ratio was still 1 women to every 8 men. It was not until 1922 that women could  inherit property on the same terms as men.  1939 saw the first female Professor at Cambridge, and it was only in  1944 that the Education Act removed the marriage bar from female teachers. For far longer, however, women faced financial and employment discrimination.  In 1975 the Sex Discrimination Act became law and for the first time women could not be dismissed from employment on grounds of pregnancy.  It was only now, half a century from suffrage that it was illegal to discriminate against women in work, education, and training.

It was thus not until 1975 that a woman could open a bank account in her own name (I opened my first bank account in 1976).  And even high earning single women couldn't apply for a loan or credit card without a signature from their father. Working women were also refused mortgages in their own right in the Seventies, without a male guarantor. In the 1970s women could still be legally refused the right to buy a drink in a public house or hotel unaccompanied (as the author of this blog well remembers having been refused bar service as a student when with other women only….) – the law changing only in 1982. The 1976 Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act provided legal protection to female victims of domestic violence – but it was not until 1991 that the House of Lords made rape in marriage a criminal offence in the UK.

While few believe that “Demography is Destiny”, many of us working in the field do hold that the demographic regime within which individuals are born and grow up has an influence over one’s life course, experiences, and chances. Yet the changing demography of women’s lives in the half century between 1918 and 1975 seems to have had limited impact on British women’s role in public life.  Indeed if health and well-being was reflected in empowerment, then it was women not men who should have made tremendous gains in public life and responsibilities, as their child bearing commitments fell, their maternal welfare and well-being rose and their health status was considerably better than men’s.

Source: Office for National Statistics

The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) fell consistently from 3.5 in 1911 to 2.5 in 1921 reaching an all-time low of 1.8 in 1931. This was a direct result not of choice, however, but of the huge loss of male partners through the devastation of men the First World War, and to a certain extent higher male deaths in the 1918 influenza epidemic. The age-standardised mortality rate in 1918 for men aged between 15 and 44 was more than twice that for women of the same age (730 and 343 per 100,000 respectively) and far exceeded that for men aged 65 and over (438 per 100,000). The TFR was not to reach such low levels again until the mid-1970; this time due to the widespread use of modern family planning methods and the availability of abortion.

Today the UK TFR stands at 1.88 but it should be noted that the ethnic composition of British mothers has changed significantly. In 2014, births to non-UK mothers accounted for 27% of all live births in 2014. Mothers born in the Middle East and Asia contributed 9.5% of all live births, EU born mothers 8.7%   mothers born in Africa  5.2%.

One of the reasons for the continual fall in childbearing across the century has been the significant improvement in infant mortality rates. 

Infant mortality rate by sex, England and Wales, 1901-2001

Source:  Focus on People and Migration, Chapter 5

As a result of lower child bearing and improved reproductive and maternal care, women’s health has also improved dramatically.  Female life expectancy rates have continued to increase with a steady decline in mortality since the early 20th century. In 1911 female life expectancy was 55.35, 59.88 in 1921  62.88 in 1931 reaching 82.8 by 2011.  Women have consistently had a higher life expectancy than men but the gap over the past 150 years has now increased twofold.

Source: Office for National Statistics

Ratio of male to female deaths 1901-2003

Source: Focus on People and Migration, Chapter 5

Women’s overall health has seen better improvement than men’s, and we are overall healthier by all measures. It is recognised that smoking is a contributor to all major causes of death in after the First World War. Since 1900 a larger proportion of men than women have smoked increasing  men’s risk of death and contributing to the sex differential in mortality. However smoking patterns do not account for the whole gender gap, since non-smoking males still have lower life expectancies than non-smoking females. Other lifestyle differences between men and women, such as alcohol consumption and dietary diet appear responsible, as well as biological differences affecting the immune system, hormonal contributions, and even we now understand male/female genetic differences.

Age-standardised annual mortality rate, all causes of death combined by sex, 1901-2000

Age standardised heart disease and stroke mortality 1950-2000

Age standardised cancer mortality 1940-2000

Source: Twentieth Century Mortality Trends in England and Wales Statistics Health Statistics Quarterly 18 Summer 2003

So demographically we are healthier than men, have lower mortality rates at all ages, and for most of the 20th century, have not been held back by excessive childbearing. But in this particular case, demography has clearly not framed women’s destiny. For while childbearing fell, and life expectancy and health rose, full emancipation and empowerment stalled for most British women. Less than 10% of married women were in the labour market in 1911, crawling its way to still under half (47%) by 1981. It was the Sex Discrimination Act which was the spur – and by the first decade of the 21st century 75% of married women, and 74% of mothers with dependent children, were in the labour market.  The same pattern can be seen for educational advancement. Until their abolishment grammar school places were still rationed for girls, and as late as the 1970’s only one third of A’level students were female.  Now 63.4% of girls and 53.8 percent of boys achieve 5+ A*-C GCSEs or equivalent, and (until the law changed), girls were more likely to stay on in full time education at age 16 (82%  of girls and 72% of boys). Over half of A ‘level entries are girls (54%) and women are now more likely to apply to universities than men. In England, the difference is 35 per cent.  In 2017 Cambridge made more offers to women for the first time, and Oxford has finally offered to  more girls than boys for its 2018 entry!

Yet women still remain predominantly in lower level positions in most professions and business organisations, and as currently reported there is a gender pay gap penalising female workers which cannot be completely explained by variation in promotion (Harper, 2017 Royal Society of Chemistry Lecture to celebrate 150 years since Marie Curie )

UK Higher Education data, for example, reveals equality in gender in early level academic positions, but a clear skew toward men in all senior level positions.

Source: HESA

A strikingly similar set of data has recently been produced for UK solicitors.

 Average percentage of female solicitors by level and type of firm

Source: 2014 Gender in the Law Survey  

In 1931 Virginia Woolf wrote that  the repressive ideal of women represented by the Angel in the House was still so potent that it needed to be killed by women writers.  Demographically, she should have passed away many decades ago. But just as the Representation of the Peoples Act did not end the female struggle for emancipation, so the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, with all its hard won medals of achievement, has not yet, 40 years on, killed this particular Angel.


About the Author

Sarah Harper is Professor of Gerontology at the University of Oxford, Founding Director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing and Senior Research Fellow at Nuffield College.

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