The New Feminism and the Decline of the Women’s Movement in the 1930s

  • Martin Pugh


‘Today the battle we thought won is going badly against us’, commented Cicely Hamilton in 1935, ‘we are retreating where once we advanced.’1 Her younger colleague on Time and Tide, Winifred Holtby, got closer to an explanation when she posed the question: ‘Why, in 1934, are women themselves often the first to repudiate the movements of the past hundred and fifty years, which gained for them at least the foundations of political, economic, educational and moral equality?’2 Such remarks by contemporary feminists are a valuable corrective to the claims made by Dale Spender that the inter-war decline of the women’s movement is no more than another male conspiracy to deny women their heritage!3 Indeed the theme of decline has exercised several scholars recently. Olive Banks has argued that the movement ‘trapped women in the cult of domesticity’ and failed to ‘survive the combined assault of both the Depression and the Second World War’. Susan Kingsley Kent has pointed to the impact of the Great War on perceptions of gender, suggesting that as early as the 1920s ‘feminism as a distinct political and social movement no longer existed’. And the most severe verdict comes from Sheila Jeffries, who has condemned the leading inter-war feminist Eleanor Rathbone for ‘defeatism’ and speaks of her ‘betrayal’ of the movement.4


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  2. 2.
    Winifred Holtby, Women in a Changing Civilisation (1935), p. 6.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Dale Spender, There’s Always Been A Women’s Movement This Century (1983), pp. 1–8.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
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© Martin Pugh 2000

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  • Martin Pugh

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