The First World War and the demise of British feminism: assumption or reality?

There is an enduring impression that the First World War led to the demise of feminism in Britain. One of the most prominent works following this line of enquiry is that of Susan Kingsley Kent, who’s overall argument is that the First World War completely altered the principles of feminism, and thus created the shift that led to the demise in feminism across Britain.[1] However, there is in fact evidence to show that the opposite of this actually occurred, particularly during and immediately after the war. 

Millicent Garrett Fawcett, Agnes Garrett, Miss Fawcett and Ray Strachey, after Royal Assent to the Equal Franchise Act, 1928

There is a myth that the outbreak of the war meant that the women’s movement was held back, but this has since been debunked. Rather the women’s movement in Britain wanted to show the usefulness women could offer to the wartime cause. For example, prominent Suffragist Millicent Fawcett, wrote in the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) journal in 1914, “Women, your country needs you. Let us show ourselves worthy of citizenship, whether our claims to it be recognised or not.”[2] Similarly, the Women’s Freedom League threw themselves into promoting patriotism, despite feeling somewhat ambivalent towards the war itself. 

Lady Commandant of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry

By the end of the war, women had done just as Fawcett had called for, and approximately one million more women were working than had been in August 1914, mostly in jobs that had previously been undertaken by men. Women volunteered for war services in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the Women’s Royal Navy Service, the Women’s Royal Airforce Service and the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, among many other services. Women also held roles in both skilled and semi-skilled roles in industry, such as heaving coal, portering, farm labourers and munition. As expected, this was met with hostility from the male workforce, however, with over 750,000 British men perishing in the First World War, the economy would not have been able to be sustained both during and after the war without the hard work of the female workers. The war allowed women to demonstrate their entitlement for citizenship in new ways. Notions of citizenship were affected by the war and remained gendered; however, this did not mean that the feminists in Britain just took a step back. 

In her work “The Politics of Sexual Difference,” Kent highlights that one of the biggest reasons for the demise of British feminism was that the understandings of masculinity and femininity changed during the war, leading to feminist ideas being almost completely indistinguishable to that of the anti-feminist ones.[3] Kent therefore argues that it was for this reason that the movement never gained the size and status that it had held before the war began.[4] Most obviously, this would be because women began to question what exactly it was that they wanted. 

On the other hand, there are many examples of British feminism thriving despite the war. For example, the Women’s Party relaunched in 1917.[5] Previously known as the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the overriding aim of the new party was to “prepare women for their impending citizenship during and after wartime.”[6] Whereas some have believed the party changed their campaign due to the war, others have since argued that the change in strategy was intentional, showing patriotism and nationalism, rather than focusing solely on women’s rights.[7] In this way, the British feminist movement can be seen to have realised the tensions that the war was, and would continue to cause, and changed tactics merely to continue their fight for citizenship and rights in a slightly different, and more tactful way. However, it is also important to note that the changes the party were not positively received by all party members, and subsequently the party’s existence was short.[8]

Eleanor Rathbone addressing a National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship meeting at Aubrey house, Camden Hill, Kensington on 23 Jul 1925

Feminist parities at this time did undergo a shift in ideology, as Kent suggests, however this shift was not as negative as she makes out. One prominent example is that of the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (NUSEC). Feminists such as Eleanor Rathbone, the president of the NUSEC from 1919, realised that the party, and feminism more generally, needed to re-evaluate in order to keep up with the changing political climate.[9] In what was considered to be a sharp shift to a ‘new feminist’ course, the idea of Rathbone, and other similar feminist leaders, was to begin to appeal to a larger group of women and thus create a “co-ordinating organ of all feminist activity throughout Great Britain.”[10]

While a number of pre-war women’s societies and campaigns did disband after 1918, other continued, sometimes joined by new non-party political groups. For example, the National Union of Women Workers (NUWW) became the National Council of Women (NCW). The Women’s Freedom League continued, as did the Women’s Co-Operative Guild. Furthermore, some new societies were founded with the changing direction of the feminist movement in Britain, such as the Open Door Council and the British Commonwealth League. While these groups had a range of different, and sometimes conflicting priorities, there was a general consensus that the laws should be changed to be more gender inclusive.

Officers and members of National Union of Societies to Equal Citizenship after Royal Assent to the Equal Franchise Act on 2 July 1928

Therefore, while it can be seen that at least in part, Kent’s arguments have resonance, overall, there was not a complete demise in British feminism as some scholarly work would suggest. Kent’s work has been criticised for exaggerating the extent to which the women’s pre-war movement focussed on gender equality, rather than women’s different interests, as can be seen to have emerged in the party ideologies after the war. While there is evidence that the ideologies of the British feminist movement shifted, whether this be solely or in part because of the war, these changes on the whole did little to contribute to the demise of British feminism. Rather, this shift caused the feminist movement to move on to a new approach and way of thinking, thus allowing women to attempt to gain rights in new ways. The general notion in most accounts of this time in history is that the Great War was the catalyst in the downfall of the British feminist movement, but in reality, this was not the case.


[1] Susan Kingsley Kent, “The Politics of Sexual Difference: World War I and the Demise of British Feminism,” The Journal of British Studies 27, no. 3 (1988): 232 – 253

[2] Brynn Holland, ‘First Statue of a Women to be Erected in Parliament Square,’ History, 29 November 2018, last accessed 27 February 2021, https://www.history.com/news/first-statue-of-a-woman-to-be-erected-in-parliament-square

[3] Kent, “The Politics of Sexual Difference,” 232

[4] Ibid

[5] June Purvis, “The Women’s Party of Great Britain (1917 – 1919): a forgotten episode in British women’s political history,” Women’s History Review 25, no. 4 (2016): 638

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Cheryl Law, Suffrage and Power: The Women’s Movement, 1918 – 1928 (London: I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2000): 51

[10] Kent, “The Politics of Sexual Difference,” 239 and Law, Suffrage and Power, 51

[Images] All images courtesy of the LSE Library accessed here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lselibrary/ and the National Library of Scotland, accessed here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nlscotland/ (all with no known copyright restrictions)


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