It must have been inconceivable to the Victorians that their prettified, domesticated, obedient “little women” could one day become the dominant power on the planet and force men into submission.
Yet it was towards the end of the Victorian era that women’s role slowly began to change. Through the charitable missions, the expansion of domestic labour and the opening of the medical professions, above all nursing, women began to redefine their place in society. They slowly won new legal rights, especially within marriage.
Wary of their privileges, men tended to resist these changes. Their pay and social status depended in part upon keeping women subordinate relative to themselves. Women performed a vast amount of labour in a man’s home for zero pay. There was resistance from women, too, partly because they were wary of change, but also because they recognised that their importance to the domestic sphere gave them a kind of stability and status, albeit a second-rate one.
At the dawn of the 20th century, very few women were employed in highly-skilled or well-paid work. When they did break through, life was made very difficult for them. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the first woman to get a medical qualification in the UK, found that few people would become her patients because, as a woman, she was not trusted as much as a man. In 1900, 1,740,000 women worked as domestic servants — and only two as architects.
But over the century the women’s movement made great advances towards the goal of female equality. Its first great achievement in the UK was to win women’s suffrage and the right to stand for Parliament in 1918. Later legislation acted against sexual discrimination and harrassment.
At the beginning of the 21st century, women still faced disadvantage and were under-represented in senior positions in all fields. However, a combination of social change and women’s own activism had sown the seeds for a remarkable rise that took them to equality, and then beyond.