The Role and Status of Women in Britain in the late 1940's and 50's

The Role and Status of Women in Britain in the late 1940's and 50's

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The Role and Status of Women in Britain in the late 1940's and 50's

During the war women in Britain experienced freedom they had never had
before. However, when the war came to and end and the men returned
from fighting, many women were immediately made redundant without any
explanation. The government encouraged them to go back to working in
the home, looking after her family was seen as a woman's priority and

Women in Britain were used as a 'reserve army of labour' called upon
in a crisis but expected to go back to their traditional roles when
the crisis was over. People saw a women's place as being in the home
looking after the children, they were only required for emergencies.
Any part time work was viewed as 'pin money' (extra money) for
spending on luxuries and the children. Men were seen as the main bread
winners. Statistics show that the number of women in paid employment
in the middle of the war was 51%, but by 1951 this had decreased to
only 35%.

Although in some ways women were treated very unfairly in the post war
period, in some respects the war had led to some positive changes in
the status of women.

The new Welfare State was introduced in 1942 in the 'Beveridge report'
and recommended that laws be made so that all people were looked after
from the 'cradle to the grave.' Before this National Insurance had
only been available to workers, but not their families. Now for the
first time even unemployed women were covered.

The introduction of the National Health Service in 1948 meant that
many women could at last be treated for ailments many had been
carrying for years but had previously been to expensive to afford. The
Welfare State made a massive change to the lives of women, because for
the first time they could be provided with their own money, and money
was paid directly to them, not their husbands.

As well as the NHS, the Butler Education Act was introduced to provide

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more children with a better education. The school leaving age was
raised to 15, and when leaving primary school all children had to take
the 11+ exam, and depending on the result would be sent to one of
three different schools; grammar, secondary modern, and technical. For
the first time the act provided all children with a free education,
and also gave girls an equal opportunity to learn. However, there were
not as many girls' grammar schools as there were boys, so I infact
girls were not made quite equal. Compulsory secondary education meant
that pupils would no longer be forced into low paid unskilled work.

Although changes made by the Welfare State were a great improvement in
the lives of women, the government's insistence of women returning to
the home must have felt very restrictive, and probably left a lot of
women feeling trapped and unhappy. The number of women in part time
employment rose after the war, women were working for extra money
until they got married, and were still not seen as equal to men.

In the 1950's some improvements in women's employment rights included:
women being accepted for full degree courses at Cambridge University,
women being allowed to become senior barristors, and the campaigning
for equal pay by women in teaching, local government, and the civil
service. First the government said they couldn't afford it, but then
partly relented by saying that some careers like teachers, doctors,
accountants etc

were given equal pay to men. But manual workers, which included
nurses, were not, because these careers were seen as strictly 'women's

In the post war period, improved family planning had a great effect on
women's lives. The greater awareness and acceptance of birth control
in the 1950's meant that women could plan when and if to have
children. They finally had freedom to make their own decisions.

With the 'baby boom' after the war, lots of child care books published
in the 50's encouraged women that their place was in the home, and an
idea that a working women was a bad mother developed. Marriage was
increasing and couples were getting married at a younger age. Divorce
also started becoming more common, in 1937 one marriage in 60 had
ended in divorce, but by 1955 that number fell to one in fifteen.

By the end of the 50's many girls were receiving grammar school
education, and more then a third of university graduates were women.
With advances in machinery and labour saving devices eg. The washing
machine, women had more spare time and could really look to the future
and start breaking free from their traditional roles in society by
using their education and the other benefits given to them by the new
Welfare State to start improving the lives of women.
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