British Feminism in the Second World War



The Second World War introduced destabilizing forces that threatened to undermine gender and class hierarchies. Although the British home front used to be viewed as an example of total war generating social unity, historians now are more aware of the ways in which the war heightened gender and class tensions as the equal citizenship rhetoric aroused expectations inconsistent with gender and class structures.1 As a result, recent studies have focused on explaining how the wartime pressures for change were contained or diverted into less threatening channels.2


Woman Worker Labour Party Feminist Group Family Allowance Family Planning Association 
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  1. 6.
    On Ray Strachey’s role in increasing women’s employment opportunities during the First World War see Jo Vellacott, Pacifists, Patriots and the Vote (London, 2007), chap. 8. Strachey was the NUWSS’s parliamentary secretary during the First World War, and as one of the LNSWS’s leaders throughout the interwar period played a key role in the 1930s equal pay campaign. See Harold L. Smith, “British Feminism and the Equal Pay Issue in the 1930s”, Women’s History Review 5 no. 1 (1996): 97–110.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 9.
    Ray Strachey had been Astor’s parliamentary secretary from 1931 to 1935, while the BFBPW had developed close ties with the Conservative women M.P.s in the late 1930s. Linda Perriton, “Forgotten Feminists: The Federation of British Business and Professional Women, 1933–1969”, Women’s History Review 16 (2007): 85Google Scholar
  3. 28.
    Caroline Haslett, “A Message”, International Women’s News, 35 (July 1941), 165.Google Scholar
  4. 63.
    Harold L. Smith, “Gender and the Welfare State: The 1940 Old Age and Widows’ Pensions Act”, History 80 (1995): 384Google Scholar
  5. 84.
    Harold L. Smith, “The Womanpower Problem in Britain During the Second World War”, Historical Journal 27, no. 4 (1984): 942.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 91.
    Stephen Brooke, “‘A New World for Women’? Abortion Law Reform in Britain during the 1930s”, American Historical Review 106, no. 2 (2001): 447–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 95.
    Harold L. Smith, “The Politics of Conservative Reform: The Equal Pay for Equal Work Issue, 1945–1955”, Historical Journal 35, no 2 (1992): 401–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 98.
    Caitriona Beaumont, “Citizens not Feminists: the Boundary Negotiated between Citizenship and Feminism by Mainstream Women’s Organizations in England, 1928–39”, Women’s History Review 9, no. 2 (2000), 426.Google Scholar
  9. 103.
    Jennie Lee, “As I Please”, Tribune (23 March 1945). Cited in Patricia Hollis, Jennie Lee: A Life (Oxford, 1997), 154. Middle-class women, both feminist and non-feminist, considered domestic servants essential in order for them to participate in public life. The war exacerbated the servant shortage and aroused such anguish among middle-class women that the government proposed the establishment of a National Institute of Homeworkers to train women for domestic service. This scheme suggests the wartime government’s vision of postwar society included restoring class as well as gender structures despite its equalitarian rhetoric. Judy Giles, “Help for Housewives: Domestic Service and the Reconstruction of Domesticity in Britain, 1940–50”, Women’s History Review 10, no. 2 (2001), 316.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Harold L. Smith 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Houston-VictoriaUSA

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