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Discuss the View That It Was Women's Contribution to the War Effort Rather Than the Suffrage Movement Which Brought About Female Enfranchisement in 1918

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Essay Preview: Discuss the View That It Was Women's Contribution to the War Effort Rather Than the Suffrage Movement Which Brought About Female Enfranchisement in 1918

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There were many factors which gave way to the final enfranchisement of women in 1918. Before this, there were years of campaigning for female suffrage from the two main parties of the era; The National Union of Women's suffrage Societies (NUWSS) founded in 1879, and also the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) founded in 1903. As the War broke out in 1914, it brought an end to the WSPU movement in order to focus on the war effort and therefore did not participate in the revived suffrage campaign. The government and the WSPU worked together to encourage women to go out and work during the war effort, as they thought following the war, the female contribution would help gain the vote. Much attention therefore needs to be focused on whether the First World War was the cause or simply the reason behind female enfranchisement. Evidence suggests that women did gain the vote as a reward of their contribution to the war effort. However, this will need to examined further as this is undermined by the fact that only women aged 30 and above were granted the vote in 1918, whereas in actual fact, the majority of all women workers were under 30. It will be further argued therefore that the suffrage movement was a catalyst for female enfranchisement in 1918, as these organisations did much to advance women's rights but needed mainly the opportunity to contribute in the war effort in order to achieve suffrage.

It has long been assumed that the most important indirect effect of the First World War was to bring about a long fundamental change in attitudes towards women and their economic, social and political roles, which ultimately brought about female enfranchisement in 1918. This suggests that women's contribution to the war effort opened the eyes of men to their capabilities and revealed them as equal citizens. There is evidence to therefore suggest a direct link between the economic role of women's contribution during the First World War and the granting of the vote to most women over thirty in the 1918 Representation of the People Act. It has been argued that because women made a huge contribution to the war effort that they won the right to vote after the war. This argument can be seen in the works of Arthur Marwick who argues, "It is difficult to see how women could have achieved so much in anything like a similar time span without the unique circumstances arising from the war". Although women's contribution to the war effort did play a significant role in the vote being passed, It needs to taken into consideration that granting the vote for women was not necessarily the government showing gratitude for women's war work. This is simply shown by the vote being given to women over thirty, when it was indeed younger women who had done all the work. "It is understood that women enfranchised by the 1918 Act were disproportionately middle-class housewives aged 30 and above". However, taking into account such evidence does not therefore dismiss women's contribution to the war effort as the main reason which brought about female enfranchisement in 1918. Without women's contribution to the war effort, they would not have been able to prove themselves in which the government would have delayed even further allowing women to vote.

What the war effort was therefore able to do was allow women to prove their worth. Striking statistics shows that the total number of women employed during the war rose from 5.96 million in 1914 to 7.31 by 1918. What was particularly striking was the number employed in metalworking which rose from 170,000 to 594,000, in transport from 18,200 to 117,200 and in commerce from 505,200 to 934,000. Ironically, the greatest increase in the field that women were employed was in engineering, a career in which before the war would have been a predominantly male workforce. However, even though there was a rise in the number of women employed during the war, it needs to be pointed out that women were already an established feature in many pre-war industries. What gave the impression of change during the war effort was the background of the women employed. In particular, middle-class women took on jobs that had previously been done by working class women. "Many upper class and middle class women experienced their first taste of paid work during the war, entering occupations that would have been deemed unsuitable in peacetime". This can be seen in the numbers working in 'traditional' areas of employment such as domestic service and the clothing trade declining.

During the build up of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, it is suggested that the sacrifices made by women during the war had earned them the right to vote. "The highly skilled and dangerous work done by women during the war in the armament and munitions factories and in auxiliary ad nursing service at the Front was probably the greatest factor in the granting of the vote to women at the end of the war". However, historians such as Harold Smith and Elizabeth Roberts suggest that there is little evidence to show that war service caused a change in attitude towards women's political rights. The restrictions of women's voting in 1918 suggest that there was little alteration to women being treated as second-class citizens. Men still continued to oppose the idea that women should leave the private sphere and enter the workforce, therefore showing that attitudes towards women's employment did not change in any fundamental way.

When looking at female enfranchisement in 1918 and suggesting that women's contribution to the war effort was the only reason behind this, does underplay the significance of the suffrage campaigns before 1914. Historians such as Martin Pugh, for example, places greater emphasis on continuities and claims that the nature of the pre-war suffrage movement determined the legislation being passed in 1918. He suggests that "where women who undertook male tasks during the war have left a record of their feelings, they seem to have taken in for granted that they were stepping in on a purely temporary basis and they vacated their jobs at the end of the war without protest. This is not surprising in view of the relatively conservative, middle-class nature of the pre-1914 women's movement that had confined itself to the narrow question of the franchise and neglected the wider social objectives that the vote might have helped them to attain". Therefore long years of pre war suffrage movement cannot be dismissed as an important reason behind female enfranchisement in 1918, but rather a continuous factor which shaped the movement. As women's suffrage emerged as a political issue in the 1860's due to the failure of including women in an expanded electorate, this resulted in the creation of the organised

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