The Women’s Century by Mary Turner

8 March, 2010

I thought I’d celebrate International Women’s Day today by posting this review!

The Women’s Century by Mary Turner is a wonderful introduction to feminism and the role of women in 20th century Britain. Although coming in at just under 200 pages, it covers all aspects from the home, education, employment, politics, the war and marriage and had a good section on suffragettes and their struggle for the women’s vote.

Although I’ve been dipping into books on feminisim for many years, I haven’t really done any concentrated reading on the subject for a while now (since reading Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs at university and Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture by Ariel Levy a few years back – all of which I recommend). And I confess I haven’t read any Germaine Greer either…bad me.

So what better way to get into the Women Unbound Challenge by reading a gentle introduction to the subject. But it wasn’t. Turner does a great job in dropping you straight into the women’s struggle for emancipation. It didn’t surprise me that compared to the 19th century, women in the 20th century have it so much better. But I didn’t realise by how much. We don’t have to worry about being penniless (with absolutely no recourse to money if you aren’t married, have private wealth or are allowed to work – everything belongs either to your father or your husband), we are entitled to an education that opens all sorts of possibilities and that we are entitled to protection from violence.

But it wasn’t just that. The most shocking thing is that although we have it so much better, we still have to struggle with society’s perceptions and expectations of a woman’s place. Yes, we can get an education and a job. We can earn money which gives us freedom. But we are still bound by the same worries that plague the women who came before us. It just struck me that things haven’t changed much since the 1930s. We are still expected to get married by a certain age (regardless of our academic qualifications). It’s still the woman’s job to look after the house and kids (when we can now work and possibly earn as much or more than our husbands). We are still expected to dress in a way that will enhance our femininity and wear ridiculous heels (which are nice to look at but impossible to walk in). It’s so strange to think that we have come so far but are still so far away from being on an equal footing with men.

This book has certainly fired me to go and get on with my feminist reading. Especially the section about the suffragettes and what they had to go through in order for us to get the vote. It still shocks me to read that in the early 20th century, some politicians didn’t even consider women to have the brain capacity to vote. Consider this quotation:

Another controversial view came from Asquith, the suffragettes’ most powerful opponent. Acording to a letter from George Bernard Shaw to The Times, quoted in The Virago Book of Suffragettes, Asquith argued against giving women the vote ‘on the ground that woman is not the female of the human species but a distinct and inferior species.’ Asquith also said that a woman was no more qualified to vote than a rabbit. His view that women were not fully human goes a long way to explain why the suffragettes were so harshly treated both when sentenced and when they were imprisoned. (p.23, 2006 edn, The National Archives: London)

H.H. Asquith was Prime Minister of Britain from 1908-1916 (and incidentally great-grandfather of Helena Bonham-Carter – go HBC, you are an inspiration to us all!) He was succeeded by David Lloyd George who was sympathetic to the suffragette cause and granted women over 30 the vote in 1918. The age bar was lowered to 21 (the same as for men) ten years later.

The Women’s Century is a wonderful and pretty hard-hitting book dotted with some incredible pictures that make the history come a little more alive. There are so many things it makes you think about such as the marriage bar, the Government’s selective dissemination of information to women as a form of social control (especially with regard to contraception) and the rights of women in marriage and divorce, but I’ve still got a lot more reading to do and will rant about them in future posts.

5 Responses to “The Women’s Century by Mary Turner”

  1. Aarti Says:

    This sounds like a GREAT book! What a fabulous find for Women Unbound. Glad that you enjoyed it.

  2. candletea Says:

    This sounds like a good introductory book. Your post made me want to look into reading this one. Thanks for sharing.

  3. chasing bawa Says:

    Aarti and candletea: It really was an enjoyable and eye-opening book. And not too long…

  4. Nymeth Says:

    This sounds like a book I’d absolutely LOVE! I love that it acknowledges both how much has changed and how much is still the same. It kind of upsets me to come across books on the past that are basically just an excuse for us to pat ourselves on the back about the present. Sure, a lot has changed, and I don’t want to take the improvements for granted. But there’s still such a long way to go.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      I agree. What I hear from the women around me re-inforces the idea that the women’s movement is ongoing and evolving. But it’s great to read about how much things have changed just to remind us to keep going.

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