Histories of the women’s movement in England have commonly focused on the suffrage and post-suffrage feminist societies, suggesting that after the passing of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act the movement declined in the 1930s, only to be revived in the late 1960s when the women’s liberation movement suddenly burst on to the scene. This dominant narrative has been challenged by only a few scholars – among them, in a number of influential essays, Caitriona Beaumont. In Housewives and Citizens, she reworks this material into a broader analysis, outlining clearly and vigorously how a successful network of women’s organisations was active not only during the post-suffrage era but also throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
Here, she explores the contribution that a number of conservative voluntary and popular women’s organisations – ignored in most histories of the women’s movement – made to women’s lives and to the campaigns for women’s rights from 1928 to 1964. The five organisations she focuses on are the Mothers’ Union of the Church of England, the Catholic Women’s League, the National Council of Women, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes and the National Union of Townswomen’s Guilds. These organisations embraced domesticity during the period under discussion, emphasising the centrality of mothers to family life and societal stability. Reluctant to be associated with the “feminist” beliefs seen as a threat to traditional family values, these organisations never seriously challenged the traditional sexual division of labour. So how then can they be said to have been a part of the women’s movement?
The ‘women’s movement’ can be redrawn to include conservative groups that campaigned to improve the status of women
Beaumont argues, persuasively, that the contribution of these organisations to the women’s movement has been overlooked because the term “women’s movement” has been exclusively associated with feminism. If the term is freed from this association, then it can be redrawn to include conservative groups that campaigned to improve the position and status of women throughout the 20th century. Beaumont places emphasis on the way these five groups utilised a rhetoric of “democratic citizenship” that encouraged their members to be active participants in social and political change.
Perhaps the chapter on divorce, birth control and abortion (a criminal act until 1967) in the inter-war years is the most relevant in illustrating many of the author’s points. Throughout this period, the National Council of Women was the only one of the five organisations calling for greater access for women to divorce, birth control and abortion – all of them controversial issues that the Women’s Institutes and Townswomen’s Guilds refused to discuss. The Mothers’ Union and the Catholic Women’s League were strongly opposed to such reforms, too, and argued that the state should provide adequate services to protect and support wives and mothers. Such conservative views cannot be omitted from a history of the women’s movement, asserts Beaumont, since in their differing ways they gave a “public voice” to the difficulties that thousands of “ordinary housewives” faced daily.
Nor can we ignore the involvement of all five organisations in later campaigns, such as the payment of family allowances to mothers and improved maternity services. During the 1950s and 1960s, when increasing numbers of mothers were going out to work, these groups also called for more flexible work provision and extended childcare. Indeed, claims Beaumont, these voluntary organisations were “successful” in bringing about legislative reform and influencing public policy that raised the status of women.
Housewives and Citizens offers a refreshing perspective on women’s activism in 20th-century England, enlarging – and challenging – our study of the past. It is a timely reminder that women who did not identify with feminism were nonetheless active in campaigning for improvements in women’s lot.
Housewives and Citizens: Domesticity and the Women’s Movement in England, 1928-64
By Caitriona Beaumont
Manchester University Press, 2pp, £65.00
Published 1 September 2013