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The history of feminism in the United Kingdom (UK) spans centuries, it’s a story of how women organised themselves in community groups, organisations, and now online to not only fight for their rights but for women not yet born. From the fight for the vote (the suffrage movement), for the recognition of marital rape, the accumulation of laws strengthening women’s society, to the modern day Me-Too movement. The movement has been constantly fragmented with each year adding chapters to the feminist chapter. This article seeks to briefly examine, the history of feminism in the UK. the women and groups which make the history so diverse, and some of the modern struggles feminists face in the UK.


The Beginning of Feminism in the UK


The dissemination of feminist thought throughout the UK is believed to have begun with Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft was born in 1759, just after the Chartist Movement, a suffrage movement for working-class men to gain rights and influence. After experiencing her families decreased standard of living due to her fathers drinking, Wollstonecraft authored ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman‘ in 1792 calling out society for under-educating the mothers of children whilst reducing women only to the position of wives (Wollstonecraft, 1792). This call for women’s rights was actually received fairly well.

What set Wollstonecraft apart was her influence on other writers of the time. She attacked the view of female education put forth by Rousseau and countless others who regarded women as weak and incapable of reasoning effectively (Sofia-Rothschild, 2009). She wasn’t the only one, but the book was so in demand bookshops hurried to supply readers (Taylor, 2003). Almost half a century later, in 1851, Harriet Taylor Mill published The Enfranchisement of Women. Her second husband, the radical MP John Stuart Mill went on to publish The Subjection of Women in 1869. Thereby carrying on the literary tradition of calling for change and hoping to be as influential as Wollstonecraft.


Late 19th Century – The Suffragists


In 1897, Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage (NUWS). Millicent wasn’t a believer in violence, and the women who subscribed to the non-violent movement became known as Suffragists. By the beginning of World War 1, the NUWS grew to have 500 branches with more than 100,000 members. Notably, most were middle-class women though men were allowed admittance. The NUWS was a precursor to the more radical suffragette movement led by the Pankhurst family. In 1903, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was formed, this was made possible by a group of women wanting more militant action choosing to split from the NUWS. Over time, the two groups distanced from one another (both notably were vital to the UK women’s movement and exercised considerable amounts of influence abroad). Millicent once said it was after hearing a speech by MP John Stuart Mill that she knew she wanted to join Politics and she did well, she found the all-women Newnham College at Cambridge University, lobbied for the criminalising of incest and cruelty against children (Oppenheim, 2018). She was made a Dame in 1925, before dying in 1929.

The NUWS found itself split on many issues including, how militant to be and what position to take on the law. During World War 1, they ran female only hospital units. After the war, and under Eleanor Rathbone’s leadership, the group changed its name to the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship. Suffragists demonstrated peacefully, attempting to abide by the law, and noticeably stook out in their group colours Green, White, and Red. Give Women Rights. Millicents most notable saying is ‘Courage calls for courage everywhere’, and she is seen holding up this slogan in a newly unveiled statue of her in London. Success must have run in the family. Her older sister, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, became Britains first female doctor.


The 20th Century – The Suffragettes 


The Pankhurst family, and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – the suffragettes conducted bombing and arson campaigns. Attacks on MPs’ houses, railways stations and post offices armed with guns, bombs, and a belief that that the only way to win the vote for women was to follow in the violent footsteps of men (Riddel, 2018). Some such as Culbertson (2018) are of the position that women would not have attained the vote had it not been for the Suffragettes.

The term itself ‘Suffragette’ was supposed to be derogatory but it was embraced by Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the group. Emmeline would be imprisoned more than 10 times following through on the group motto ‘Deeds Not Words’. The majority of the Pankhurst family was involved, Christabel Pankhurst, Emmeline’s eldest daughter was imprisoned numerous times, Sylvia Pankhurst was imprisoned and force-fed not to mention manhandled by Winston Churchill in public. Emmeline Pankhurst was a founding member of the WSPU and their tactics were often to cause disruption and civil disobedience. Take the rush on Parliament in October 1908 when they managed to gather 60,000 people to invade Parliament. Tactics, such as these, made them excellent at gaining attention to the suffrage movement (Parliament, Undated).

One highly populised event was when Emily Wilding Davison threw herself before King George V’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby. Davidson had been known throughout the WSPU for her militant behaviour, for example, she hid overnight in the Palace of Westminister. Her legacy in the history of  Feminism is cemented by the fact that by walking onto a racehorse, in what is believed to be the name of suffrage, she was sadly martyred by the King’s horse. Whether she meant to be harmed we will never know. The following year World War 1 broke out.

After the war, in 1918, women over the age of 30 and owning property or living in a property worth more than £5 (roughly £275 in 2018) were awarded the right to vote. By this point, women had gained the vote in Australia, Finland, & New Zealand. Some are of the opinion women would have been awarded the right earlier had the war not broke out. The right to vote was extended in 1928 when women managed to gain the full vote from 21 with no property restrictions. After attaining the vote, Sylvia Pankhurst continued pushing for social issues and a stronger communist community in the UK. Adela stayed in Australia and was quite influential in Australian politics. Christabel, who was most devasted by her mother Emmeline’s death in 1928 eventually moved to the United States.


The 1930s-1960s


It is often argued that Feminism in the UK faced a great decline after the 1920’s. But one also has to take into consideration the social situation. The Great Depression post-war solidified anti-feminist notions (Smith, 1996). But it seems during this time period feminists were simply playing the waiting game, once government finances recovered in 1934, 31 women’s groups, in a coalition, sponsored a rally to arouse public support for equal pay (Smith, 1996, p. 101). Eleanor Rathbone lobbied for equal pay on the grounds men getting more pay was only fair in the case of a family allowance. Advocates of fair play met her with hostility (Smith, 1996). Male unionists had advocated equal pay as a means of protecting men’s jobs for several decades… But the feminist claim that equal pay was a matter of justice for women had not persuaded Parliament and was even less effective during that decade when male employment became a focus of political debate (Smith, 1996, p. 102). In a fortnight in 1931, the unemployment rate rose from 494,798 to 774,620 (The Guardian, 1931).

Even in this tough economic crisis, feminists were still able to attain successes. In 1936, 156 MPs voted for equal pay whilst 148 MPs voted against. It was only when the government threatened to resign that more sided with them in a second vote (Smith, 1996). Evidently, the belief that feminism subsided is a myth. During World War 2, Women would face conscription for the first time, those who weren’t supporting the war effort on the frontline, stepped in to fill the jobs of men in the factories, cities, and towns. Following the war, the National Health Service (NHS) was launched, this empowered women as before then only men had access to health insurance on a widespread level.

During the 1940’s and 1950’s feminist literature in the UK wasn’t developed much (Birmingham Feminist History Group, 1979). This is in stark contrast to the wider international community. Simone de Beauvoir published the controversial The Second Sex (Vintage Classics) in France 1949, equating women to the other and advocating the position of the Independent Woman. The work which was published in the UK, on the other hand, was within a framework which accepted the primacy of the women’s role as wife and mother (Birmingham Feminist History Group, 1979, p. 50). But it may be that our understandings of feminism are simply out of line with what women of the 50’s were seeking to attain. The Birmingham Feminist History Group (1979) argue feminism of the fifties was concerned with the integration of femininity into a masculine world.

Through the period of the 1930s to the 1960s, feminism is accused of dying down as though attaining the vote had been the only aspiration for women. Instead, the frameworks for the Second Wave of feminism were being put in place. Feminists continued pushing for legal rights and were quite successful. The country experienced a war where female participation aided a win and the UK was becoming increasingly more diverse, beginning to resemble its colonial empire.


The 1960s to the 1990s 


From the 1960’s onwards the period of feminism is often referred to as the Second Wave, one thing which differs this period from the others is the wave of political and social rights women acquired. In 1961, the contraceptive pill was made available. Initially, the pill was prescribed to older women who already had children. The government was worried about being seen as endorsing ‘free love’, as the 60’s was also the time of ‘the summer of love’. In 1974, this changed with the pill becoming available to single women (Cafe, 2011). Once its availability was allowed widespread, it created the illusion of women becoming sexually liberated. This is a theme still contested amongst feminists today, especially the relationship between women’s liberation and sexual liberty. In 2011, it was estimated 70% of all women in Britain have used the pill at some stage (Cafe, 2011).

In 1964, women gained the right to become legal owners over the money they owned/earned and to inherit property. Before then the husband had been legally entitled to everything. But it only makes sense. Women who can choose when to have babies should also have the right to spend their own money, right? 1967 then welcomed The Abortion Act, the act was initially restricted to cases where harm was thought to come to either baby or child. In the spheres of home, reproduction, and work, it seemed women were making strides.

Women continued to use first generation tactics in the form of protests. 1968, in Dagenham, women at the Ford factory went on strike over equal work. Ford classified the women’s work as ‘unskilled’, this classification allowed them to be paid less than their male colleagues. This act went on to trigger the Equal Pay Act 1970. In the 1970s feminist threw flour bombs a the 1970 Miss World Contestors in a protest against objectification. The women from the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) chanted ‘We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry’. A year later in Chiswick, the first women’s refuge opened This provided a safe place for children and women to escape abusive situations and paved the way for future refuges.

Following World War 2 the UK saw waves of immigration especially in the forms of Asians, Caribbeans, and Africans. By the 1970s, the women in these groups were able to organise themselves. The Brixton Black Women’s group was formed and became protesting on issues of racism and discrimination. The Welsh National Women’s Liberation Conference, the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAS) founded and, Southall Black Sisters. The campaigning of such groups led to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) being made illegal in 1985.

Glass ceilings kept on falling down, in 1973 women were allowed access to join the stock exchange. The exchange didn’t exactly bar women, but everytime one applied to work for the exchange outside of an assistant or secretary role they were voted down. The 1980’s also brought around greater law attainments for women, these include the Sex Discrimination Act, the Employment Act, and the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act.

Whilst the period before accused Feminism of slowing down, this period sped things up, through the hard work of women numerous law changes and new laws were pushed through. Women expanded intro careers they had never been admitted into before, and Britain was not only recognising the grievances of its minority women but. The ability to control reproduction also allowed women to take back control of their lives and not be dictated by nature as to when, and where to become a mother. The next period would bring girl power and pornification. Activism would move from the sheets to the screens, and feminism would join the popular cultures, cool crowd.


The 1990s to the Modern Day 


The 1990s kick starts the Third Wave of feminism. The world is now increasingly more connected with movies and music becoming ever more globalised. This lead to American artists influencing British girls and vice versa. It was a contradiction, on one hand, there was Girl Power, with the Spice Girls, TLC, and Destinys Child. On the other hand, there was an ever-increasing pornification of the female body (Hirsch, 2018).

Television was filled with superhuman women in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Notably, all main characters in these shows were white women (Hirsch, 2018). Like the First and Second Waves of feminism this wave also began with a focus on Caucasian women. Even with the characters lacking diversity, their lives were not viewed through the lens of a romantic relationship, but their relationships with other women, their powers, and the world around them. In a world where women lacked power in reality, the supernatural abilities projected onscreen offered a more empowering alternative (Huffington Post, 2017).

Harry Potter would propagate the strong and intelligent woman with Hermione Granger, Sex in the city cherished the diversity amongst white middle-class women and their different expressions of rationality. The media was now rushing to portray feminism and become its biggest advocate. The 21st century also saw the rise of the internet, spreading and creating a revolution of its own. With it came Social Media, and through the removal of physical and geographical barriers, the internet has made feminist activism easier, you can push your cause on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any platform. It’s possible to do this anonymized. It has inevitably aided awareness building but also highlights the diverse nature of current feminism.

Whilst #HashTag feminism has been called out for its effectiveness to enact everlasting change, it has proved effective in pressuring organisations. Victoria Secrets was forced to change its slogan ‘Perfect Body’ after a petition was uploaded onto and a long trail of backlash on Twitter. Dove is another organisation which has been called out as racist by feminist and had to pull a number of its adverts. This trend will evidently continue for years to come.

The pornification of women has raised questions such as whether women are more sexualised than before. It highlights sexualised images of women in movies, music videos, advertisement and now social media. Women’s self-loathing is big business and supports a global capitalist system that, ironically, depends heavily on the exploitation of women’s labour in developing countries (Dines & Long, 2011). Dines & Long (2011) aren’t the first to put forward these ideas. The American feminist Naomi Wolf published The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women in 1990 the premise of the book is that whilst feminism had allowed women to acquire rights. There is now an added Beauty Qualification which allows for beautiful women to progress or fit in place more easily (Wolf, 1990). This issue is vast and wide so won’t be tackled in this article, but feminists tend to fall onto varying sides of expression of identity to female exploitation.

Movements which start in one country can now spread rapidly to another, one example is the Slutwalk. Slutwalk began in an American university when a police officer, addressing a group of students, told females they should cover up in order to not be raped. Females then took to the streets underdressed in an act of defiance and a protest was born. The protests quickly spread to London and became a yearly occurrence. I sadly never got a chance to go.

Women are still pushing to have laws fully equalised in the UK. LGBT persons gained the right to marriage but currently, employers in the UK have the right to dictate to women when they have to wear high heels to work. The argument is made on the basis that this is legal when similar requirements are made on men. Nicole Thorp petitioned for a government debate, Parliament did deliberate but decided to reject law changes. I have written on this issue before, but to summarise there is no male equivalent to the heel so it should be made illegal to then suss out how many women choose (not obliged) to wear heels as part of their uniform.


The Conclusion


The women’s movement in the UK has been one big journey, there are countless women, organisations, movements, and protests which haven’t been explored because this was only supposed to be brief. The establishment could have turned around at times and simply awarded certain rights to women building on Lockean philosophies of inherent rights. But, instead, we see a Hobbesian view of human nature within the rigidity of the establishment and reluctance to amend the unequal status quo. Even now, the government is presupposing that there is a male equivalent in clothing to high heel shoes, but that is false.

Feminism has experienced many changes in the UK, from organised peaceful protest to acts of ‘terrorism’ which feminism no longer subscribes to. That isn’t to say the movement is over. It’s just as divided on tactics as it always has been in the UK. Since the 1990’s, Feminism has moved to the forefront of popular TV. Gone are the day’s women could be shunned for being a feminist or participating in Feminist organizations. Women now are allowed to embrace a type of feminism which tastes best to them and it will be interesting to see what great changes are brought around in the future.


By Shaneka Knight

Instagram: Shanekaakknight


Books mentioned in this article

Mary Wollstonecraft – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Harriet Taylor Mill – The Enfranchisement of Women
John Stuart Mill – The Subjection of Women
Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex (Vintage Classics)
Naomi Wolf – The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women



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