Churchill Archive Platform - Women and Social Change

The history of twentieth-century Britain has often been written as a ‘century of progress’ with regards to social trends and changes, with the structural inequalities of Victorian Britain evolving into the more egalitarian and democratic society that existed at the century’s close. Women’s history has often acted as an exemplar of this model of progressive social change. The enfranchisement of women in 1918 and 1928, the changes of the two world wars, the first and second wave of feminist movements and the introduction of wide-ranging legislation, giving women the right to equal pay and equal opportunities in the 1970s, have all been seen as key moments in this history.

However, this model of progress can act to disguise setbacks and lacunae in the history of women in twentieth-century Britain. Social change is not always progressive. Falling family size in the early years of the century combined with a growth in new, light industry to produce new opportunities for women’s work, but mothers continued to bear the weight of childcare and housework, often combining a ‘double burden’ of paid and unpaid work. New opportunities for women to undertake paid work in both world wars were followed by social and cultural pressure for women to ‘return’ to the home in the immediate aftermath of war. The sexual liberation of the 1960s was something of a poisoned chalice, with women gaining increased control over their own bodies through wider access to contraception and the Abortion Act of 1967, but often coming under unwanted increased pressure to be sexually active.

The social progress model also disguises the different ways that social change affected women according to age, class, sexuality, ‘race’, education and family role. Not all women had equal access to the opportunities that were created by the changes of the twentieth century. For example, access to the range of social and welfare benefits brought about by the expansion of the state that took place in the first seventy years of the century, such as old age pensions and family allowances, was frequently dependent upon residence and nationality qualifications, excluding immigrant women from access to the full range of welfare provisions that did so much to improve the lives of both women and men. Increasing access to all levels of education, a notable feature of the century, favoured middle-class girls over their working-class sisters.

Much of the history of women in twentieth-century Britain has been written ‘from below’, using oral history, autobiographies and a range of other sources of personal testimony to try to recover and recount the lives that have been ‘hidden from history’. Perhaps contrary to expectation then, the papers in the Churchill Archive can provide us with some surprising insights into women’s lives and social change. A selection of these, providing evidence of both social change and resistance to such change in both war and peace, is listed below.

Where to Find Documents within the Churchill Archive

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a suggestion for starting points, and should be used in conjunction with the search facilities that will enable you to search across files for people, places and topics relevant to your individual research interests.

Collections of papers relating to aspects of women’s lives where change is often seen to be particularly notable are bundled together under the headings ‘Women and Education’, Women in the Workforce’ and ‘Women in the Military’. There are also significant holdings on women’s suffrage and letters from notable women of the twentieth century, including the writer, traveller, archaeologist and sometime spy Gertrude Bell (CHAR 17/15) and Lady Randolph Churchill (CHAR 28/1).

'Women and Education' is a collection of 10 different papers. These include:

  • CHUR 3/10 to CHUR 3/100A-B: correspondence between Churchill and his constituents dated between 1951 and 1956, covering a range of topics including equal pay for women and women’s education. One example is a letter from Wilfred Thick on the subject of equal pay for women (CHUR 3/10, image 153).

'Women in the Workforce' bring together 37 different bundles of document. These include

  • CHAR 7/16A-B to CHAR 7/34A-B, correspondence between Churchill and his constituents between 1935 and 1936.
  • CHUR 3/6 to CHUR 3/76A-B: correspondence between Churchill and his constituents between 1951 and 1956.
  • CHAR 11/16/13-20: a copy of the report ‘Observations on the case for and against a legal minimum wage for sweated workers’ published by the Women’s Industrial Council in 1908.

'Women in the Military' is a collection of 6 papers. These include:

  • CHAR 27/3: War Cabinet papers relating to the topic in 1917 (the year the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was formed), including Sir Auckland Geddes’ paper on the recruitment of women ‘for work of national importance’ (images 27 to 29).
  • CHAR 23/14: Prime Minister’s Directives to the War Cabinet between 1944 and 1945, including on ‘Manpower’ and the release of women from the Armed Services (images 73 to 74).
  • CHAR 8/619: a collection of articles Churchill wrote for the Sunday Chronicle in 1938, including ‘Women Can Win Wars’ (image 37).

Other material relating to women’s lives in early and mid-twentieth century Britain can be found at:

  • CHAR 12/1/1: a Home Office Report of 1907 into ‘Women and Children in Public Houses’. This shows us the state employing police officers to observe and count the numbers of women, with and without children, frequenting pubs, demonstrating vividly the limited access that ‘respectable’ women had to public spaces in the early years of the twentieth century.
  • CHAR 15/14 contains the minutes of meetings held between April and October 1918 at the Ministry of Munitions of the Women’s Trades Unions Advisory Committee.
  • CHAR 15/115: a Department of Labour report on the discharge of munitions workers in 1918. This demonstrates the temporary nature of much of women’s wartime employment, recording the dismissal of some 8,000 female munitions workers over the course of three weeks.
  • CHAR 20/232: a collection of Cabinet Office papers from July 1945, which demonstrates that at the end of the Second World War, Churchill himself had his own views on the demobilization of women from the military, arguing that because ‘they do not mutiny or cause disturbance ... the sooner they are back at their homes the better’.
  • CHAR 24/7: papers and correspondence relating to the controversial Women’s Suffrage Bill of 1910, prepared and debated while Churchill was Home Secretary and which he initially supported but then opposed.
  • CHAR 2/46/104-107: this deals with one aspect of the aftermath of the Suffrage Bill – an alleged assault on Churchill by Hugh Franklin, a supporter of Female Suffrage who, Churchill claimed, attempted to attack him with a dog whip after a meeting in Bradford.
  • CHAR 12/3/49 gives Franklin’s account of the incident in an article he wrote for the Suffrage newspaper Votes for Women: ‘Why I struck at Mr Churchill’.

See also...

‘Churchill and Women’ – Paul Addison