Forgotten Feminism: Feminist Activism in Interwar Britain

Serena Murphy

When we think of the history of feminist activism in Britain...

...we often think of two distinct images: the ‘votes for women’ sash-wearing suffragette of the 1910s and the bra-burning feminist of the late 1960s. These rigidly defined images of feminism are upheld in the historiography of twentieth-century British feminist movements, which are often categorised into neat and separate ‘waves’. The first ‘wave’ came in the late nineteenth and very beginning of the twentieth century. The second ‘wave’ came in 1968, coinciding with an eruption of social justice movements across the Western world. The third wave came in the 1990s and early 2000s, ushered in by The Spice Girls with their ‘girl power’ message. Some even argue that, with the advent of movements like ‘#metoo’, we have entered a fourth wave. However, this rigid ‘wave’ concept leaves the interwar period, under-represented. There is a tendency in feminist historiography to see the period as one of retraction. However, if we move away from viewing feminism in a retractive ‘wave’ model and see it as a flowing and constantly evolving social force, it becomes clear that the interwar period was one of vibrant feminist action in many ways, just not in the visible ways that have been seared into public memory. The interwar era, from 1918 to 1939, was an era in which the sites and content of feminist activism re-focused towards private, personal and domestic issues, rather than retracting entirely. This period was one of heightened tension and discussion surrounding notions of femininity, the role of women in society, and domesticity. Women’s involvement in the First World War on the home front had offered many women levels of independence they had previously never experienced. Though many settled back into their pre-war domestic roles as peacetime ensued, this experience of independence shaped their expectations of the ideal domestic life, and their own notions of femininity and domesticity.
Forgotten Feminism: Feminist Activism in Interwar Britain
Women's Freedom League badge, c. 1907. London School of Economics, Library, Unsplash

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These profound experiences of independence prompted by the war contributed to...

...the emergence of a ‘new’ kind of feminism, as feminist circles began to distinguish between ‘old’ and ‘new’ feminism. ‘Old’ feminists tended to view their ‘work’ as unpaid labour for feminist committees, while younger feminists argued that actively participating in paid labour was a feminist act in itself. It seemed that younger generations of feminists were beginning to equate feminist liberation to heightened social and economic independence. This post-FWW move away from distinct feminist committee work and towards paid employment explains why the interwar period is categorised in popular memory as one of retraction, given that feminist activism and action began to take up less physical public space. This did not, however, mean that feminist sentiments disappeared. The fact that interwar feminist discourse happened in more private spheres, rather than the visible public demonstrations of the Suffragettes before them reflects and responds to this societal discussion of the changing role of women. A key site of feminist activism emerging in the interwar years was the feminist periodical. In line with ‘new’ feminists’ increased interest in paid employment, feminist periodicals offered spaces in which feminist debate could be developed and provided a platform for women to enter the world of journalism. The 1920s saw many women lose wartime jobs and the heightened independence that came with them, as society re-assumed the traditional male-breadwinner dynamic. However, the expansion of the women-led feminist journalism sector in the interwar years provided many women with an outlet both to voice their feminist opinions and feel that sense of independence that having a paid job afforded them. Founded in 1920, a time of uncertainty surrounding women’s societal roles, ‘Time and Tide’ magazine is a prime example of this. Although it began to distance itself from being viewed as a specifically feminist publication and branched out into other areas of debate, it understood itself as distinctly feminist in its earlier years, retaining and utilising its links to suffrage networks. Founder and editor of Time and Tide, Lady Margaret Rhondda, believed women’s work was a vital cornerstone of feminist progress, and carried this sentiment to both the magazine’s leadership and discussion topics.
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As well as the more public activism seen in feminist periodicals in the period...

...feminist activism in the period could also be seen in the private domestic sphere. Historians have often dismissed the ability of the domestic sphere to be a site of activism in itself. However, an exploration of women’s groups and their focus on domestic issues is telling of the rich activism in the domestic sphere. The 1920s and 1930s saw a marked rise in women’s voluntary groups, particularly those which discussed broader political issues such as attitudes to divorce, birth control and abortion. Debate on these issues became prevalent in the period. For example, throughout the period, the Women’s Co-operative Guild, which represented roughly 27,000 working-class wives, continually argued that cruelty, insanity, and mutual consent should be accepted as grounds for divorce, given that the existing 1957 Divorce Law was marred by inconsistency and made women’s attempts to request divorces largely futile. In response to ongoing pressure from groups like the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, which continued to campaign for a wide variety of women’s rights after the passing of the 1928 Representation of the People Act, limited divorce reform was passed in the 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act, giving women the right to sue for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Women’s voluntary organisations that specifically targeted housewives also engaged in discussions surrounding birth control and contraception. Though many didn’t identify specifically with the word ‘feminism’, they provided key sites for discussion and petitioning parliament about prominent women’s issues of the time. In 1915, the Women’s Co-operative Guild published ‘Maternity: Letters from Working Women’, highlighting the negative physical and emotional effects that frequent childbirth could have on mothers. It suggested birth control as an option for married women to reduce these negative effects. This focus on birth control as a tool to alleviate the burdens faced by married women continued throughout the period, with the creation of the National Birth Control Association in 1930, and the rise of the Abortion Law Reform Association in 1936 to pressure the government into introducing birth control for married women. This focus on alleviating the personal domestic burdens caused by the lack of birth control for wives and mothers in the 1930s signalled a departure from the focus of feminist discourse at the beginning of the interwar years, which primarily discussed women’s changing public roles in the immediate aftermath of the FWW. Ultimately, the interwar era of feminism can be understood as a period in which activism shifted from public to more private spheres, making it less visible to the general public. However, viewing it as a retraction fails to acknowledge its vibrancy and the groundwork that it did for the more visible form of feminism commonly associated with the ‘second wave’. Indeed, feminist discussions in the interwar period can be seen as setting the groundwork for the idea that ‘the personal is the political’ that is commonly associated with ‘second wave’ feminism. 
Forgotten Feminism: Feminist Activism in Interwar Britain

Serena Murphy

Modern social and cultural history, particularly the history of marginalised and oppressed groups has always interested me, as it provides a valuable insight into understanding the workings of our world today. I am in the final year of an undergraduate history degree and am focused on pursuing a career in journalism after graduation. Writing for The Historians combines my love of writing and history, and my passion for making history accessible for all.
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