The New Woman and Others
In the last part of the 19th and the early 20th century there was an upsurge of questioning about what the proper roles for women should be. Women began to gain access more widely to education at secondary level with the opening of girls high schools and, after long campaigns, women’s colleges began to be established including Royal Holloway, Westfield and Bedford Colleges in London, Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford, Girton and later Newnham at Cambridge. Women also began to gain access to professions previously closed to them like medicine and the law. On the lower social rungs women were working from an early age both inside and outside the house, in insanitary factories, as sweated labourers, as home workers. There was no birth control and families were large and infant mortality high, domestic violence rife. Newly educated and independent women began increasingly to use their voices to draw attention to these social problems.
A demographic ‘surplus’ of women in the population meant that fewer middle class women could expect to marry and be supported forcing many more into where many women joined their working class sisters who had always had to work, the labour market. Jobs like clerk and typewriting girl began to appear in large numbers and in most cases were paid less than their male counterparts. Women increasingly were living outside the family home in rented rooms and shared flats.
Campaigns were started against unhealthy restrictive clothing, such as corsets and the tight-lacing which had physically restricted their foremothers and rational dress became a trend. Women also began to participate in more sporting activities. The introduction of the bicycle brought women a new freedom of movement. A popular iconography of the New Woman began to emerge, using bold language, riding a bicycle, clutching her own latch-key and smoking a cigarette.
The increased freedoms and responsibilities made many women aware of their social and political position and of their exclusion from the democratic process and from the ability to change things through the ballot box.