At the dawn of the 20th century, women's rights in the western world were in a state of flux. The Industrial Revolution had brought many women out of the home to work but along with that work had not immediately transferred the rights and privileges of working males. By 1900 many women were beginning to strive for a greater say in the society they were contributing to, but the struggle for more rights was a long one. During the first decade of the 20th century, the advocates of women's rights marshalled their forces for the fights ahead.
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Position of Women in 1900
In 1900, women in most of the Western World were second-class citizens, with severely limited rights. Although the Industrial Revolution had introduced women into the working world as factory workers or as servants to wealthier households, few --- if any --- rights had been transferred to the new workers. Women were still expected to care for their families and keep the home, regardless of their work outside of it, and in most countries had no say in the running of their government. Part of the reason why the build up to the Women's Rights movement was slow and languorous was because a conservative sect of society in the western world held the position that women did not really want or need more rights than they already had. In a 1903 editorial published in the Atlantic Monthly called "Why Women Do Not Wish the Suffrage," Lyman Abbott quoted a statistic that in an 1895 vote, women of Massachusetts were asked whether they wanted the right to vote, a right known as suffrage. According to the article, only 22,204 out of the 575,000 women in Massachusetts voted "an affirmative answer to this question . . . ninety-six per cent were opposed to woman suffrage or indifferent to it."
The English Suffrage Movement
Prior to 1903, the most visible organisation in England fighting for women's rights was the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. The Spartacus Educational website says that NUWSS worked in England not only to further the cause of woman suffrage but also to fight against "white slave traffic" and "to persuade the government to help protect low paid women workers." In October of 1903, an Englishwoman named Emmeline Pankhurst, who was "frustrated at the lack of success" was having in winning women the vote, formed a more militant group known as the WSPU, Women's Social and Political Union. Members and allies of the WSPU were arrested multiple occasions during public demonstrations, some of which turned violent. Although intent on avoiding violence that would discredit their position, NUWSS did emulate the WSPU in organising public demonstrations, the first of which took place in 1907.
According to the Spartacus Educational website, in 1910 the NUWSS "organised the signing petitions in 290 constituencies." (Reference 2) After getting 280,000 signatures NUWSS took a bill proposing women's' right to vote to the House of Commons in the Parliament and WSPU "suspended all militant activities" while the bill was being debated. Unfortunately, the bill was defeated in the House of Commons and on Black Friday, November 18, 1910, WSPU's "members clashed with the police in Parliament Square." (Reference2)
In the United States
According to the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site, in 1903, female trade unionists founded the Women's Trade Union League and devoted it "to securing better occupational conditions for women and encouraging women to join the labour movement." The website goes on to say that among its legislative victories, the WTUL reduced the work day to eight hours, created a national minimum wage, and ended the practice of child labour. Women's rights activists in America began to imitate the public demonstrations and marches employed by the movement in Britain.
Although neither Great Britain nor the United States of America --- two of the most powerful countries in the Western World during the 1900 to 1910 decade --- saw the women's rights movement succeed in obtaining the vote, the primary aim of the campaigns at that time, they did lay the ground work for the successes that came afterwards. In 1918 the United Kingdom granted the right to vote to some women and then extended it to every adult over the age of 21 in 1928. In the United States, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote in national elections after it was ratified by the required majority of states in 1920.
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