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Language Change Over Time- Context
Women's Rights in the 20th Century
The rights and status of women greatly improved in the 20th century.
In 1897 local groups of women who demanded the vote joined to form the National Union of
Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). The organisation was moderate and its members
were called suffragists.
However in 1903 a more radical organisation was formed called the Women's Social and
Political Union (WSPU). Emmeline Pankhurst led it and its members were suffragettes.
Some suffragettes broke the law and were imprisoned. Some prisoners went on hunger
strike but in 1913 the government passed the Cat and Mouse Act which allowed them to
release hunger strikers then arrest them again when they recovered.
However the suffragettes halted their campaign when the war began in 1914. Finally in 1918
in Britain women over 30 were allowed to vote. In 1928 they were allowed to vote at the age of
21 (the same as men). In 1919 Nancy Astor became the first female MP and in 1929
Margaret Bondfield became the first female cabinet minister. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher
became the first female Prime Minister.
Women's Jobs in the 20th Century
More occupations were opened to women during the 20th century. In 1910 the first
policewoman was appointed in Los Angeles. In 1916 the first policewoman (with full powers)
was appointed in Britain. The 1919 Sex Disqualification Removal Act allowed women to
become lawyers, vets and civil servants. (The first female solicitor was Carrie Morrison in
1922). Also in 1922 Irene Barclay became the first female chartered surveyor.
In 1917 the WRNS (Women's Royal Naval Service) was formed. So was the WRAF
(Women's Royal Air Force). In 1938 the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the female branch of the
British army was formed.
Nevertheless in the early 20th century it was unusual for married women to work (except in
wartime). However in the 1950s and 1960s it became common for them to do so at least
parttime. By the end of the century it was normal for married women to have their own
In 1970 the law was changed so women had to be paid the same wages as men for doing
work of equal value. In 1973 women were admitted to the stock exchange. From 1975 it was
made illegal to sack women for becoming pregnant. Also in 1975 the Sex Discrimination Act
made it illegal to discriminate against women in employment, education and training. In 1984
a new law stated that equal pay must be given for work of equal value. In the late 20th century
the number of women in managerial and other highly paid jobs greatly increased.
Meanwhile during the 20th century new appliances made housework much easier. (Even at
the end of the century most housework was still done by women!). By the 1920s vacuum
cleaners and washing machines were available but only rich people could afford them. They
became more common in the 1930s, though they were still expensive. By 1959 about two
thirds of British homes had a vacuum cleaner. However fridges and washing machines did
not become really common till the 1960s.
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In 1921 Dr Marie Stopes opened the first birth control clinic in England. Contraceptive pills
went on sale in Britain in 1961. They gave women new freedom.
Among many firsts in the 20th century in 1930 Amy Johnson became the first women to fly
from Britain to Australia. In 1963 Valentina Tereshbova became the first woman in space.
Famous female scientists of the 20th century include chemists Dorothy Hodgkin
(19101994), Edith Flanigen and Helen Free and pharmacologist Gertrude Elion (19181999).…read more
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In the 19th century wealthy women were kept busy running the household and organising the
servants. Well to do women often also did charitable work.
In 1874 the first successful typewriter went on sale (It was invented in the USA by
Christopher Sholes) and the telephone was invented in 1876. These two new inventions
meant more job opportunities for women.
In the late 19th century contraception became easier. In 1877 Annie Besant and Charles
Bradlaugh published a book on the subject called Fruits of Philosophy.…read more
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Women's Clothes in the 19th Century
In the early 19th century women wore light dresses. In the 1830s they had puffed sleeves. In
the 1850s they wore frames of whalebone or steel wire called crinolines under their skirts. In
the late 1860s women began to wear a kind of half crinoline. The front of the skirt was flat but
it bulged outwards at the back. This was called a bustle and it disappeared in the 1890s.…read more