“I am here as a soldier who has temporarily left the field of battle in order to explain – it seems strange it should have to be explained – what civil war is like when civil war is waged by women.”


These words, spoken by prominent women’s suffrage campaigner Emmeline Pankhurst in 1913 to an audience in the US state of Connecticut, describe the fight that many women took up during the early years of the 20th century. In her now-infamous ‘Freedom or death’ speech, Pankhurst spoke of the numerous hardships suffered by imprisoned women and the torture endured by campaigners who chose to go on hunger strike. Her name (along with her daughters Sylvia and Christabel) endures as one of the most famous of the Edwardian era.

Though by no means the first in Britain’s history to campaign for the vote, societies like the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) – founded in 1903 and whose militant members were nicknamed ‘suffragettes’ by the Daily Mail in 1906 – took on new momentum in the period. The rapid urbanisation of the 19th-century Industrial Revolution had brought welcome changes for many women, giving them a wider range of opportunities to earn a wage. But it also came with hardship, with most women still expected to marry, maintain homes and manage families, many with multiple children (ideas of birth control would not be discussed more openly until near the end of the period).

And so, although women such as the Pankhursts and Millicent Garrett Fawcett, leader of the non-militant National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), were from inarguably middle-class backgrounds, this was no privileged or narrow movement. In a world rigorously divided by class, tens of thousands of working-class women also joined the cause. Radicalisation of urban workers spurred on the suffrage fight, and speeches were given at factory gates, rallying women towards unionism. Suffragists like Ada Nield Chew campaigned for workers’ wages and better welfare for working mothers, advocating nursery care for the babies of all working women to be paid for, she suggested, by levying additional taxes on incomes of over £1,000 per annum.

Christabel, Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst lead a suffragette parade
Christabel, Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst lead a suffragette parade in London, 1911. (Image by Getty Images)

By the Edwardian era, it wasn’t just factory work or domestic service that occupied women. The 1901 census recorded women working as lawyers’ clerks, physicians, dentists and dental assistants, and during the period there was also a marked rise in women becoming teachers. But, at a time when women and men were expected to occupy different spheres of society, the battle was far from won: a common argument was that domestic service was the best option for women because it was good ‘training’ for becoming a wife; and when a female doctor was appointed at Macclesfield Infirmary in 1901, male colleagues walked out. She was forced to resign.

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The suffrage fight was particularly reviled as it bucked against the rigid etiquette of the day. Many campaigners were openly jeered. Contemporary postcards caricatured leading suffragists and suffragettes as unattractive and man-hating, or as sexually depraved creatures who needed to be ‘tamed’.

The angel in the house

The Edwardian era was a time when ‘respectable’ women would not remove their gloves in public, when women were expected to be subservient, meek and live their lives almost entirely in the domestic sphere. In Edwardian Britain, the ideal place of women was in the home. Social mores had not yet moved on from women as the ‘angel in the house’, a Victorian ideal that Virginia Woolf later described as “intensely sympathetic… immensely charming… utterly unselfish.” Such a woman, wrote Woolf, “excelled in the difficult arts of family life,” and never “had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathise always with the minds and wishes of others.”

Though some strides had been made in the Victorian era as to women’s marital rights, such as the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 (allowing women to maintain ownership of their property and earnings after marriage), cultural taboos persevered into the early 20th century, with many rules around adultery and divorce favouring men, fuelled by a pervasive double-standard regarding sexual morality. In 1901, just 14 per cent of women under 45 were unmarried. These women had the limited options of living with their immediate family, or possibly becoming a ‘companion’ to an older woman or family member.

Birth control advocate Marie Stopes with her husband, Humphrey Verdon Roe
Birth control advocate
Marie Stopes with her husband, Humphrey Verdon Roe. Her book 'Married Love' became a bestseller. (Image by Getty Images)

Nevertheless, the era also stoked the beginnings of a revolution in women’s private lives. Marie Stopes’ Married Love, published in 1918, was groundbreaking for openly discussing methods of birth control. Advances in technology, too, granted new opportunities. Domestic sewing machines, such as those produced by Singer, gave women more control over the clothes they wore (see box), and the invention and mass production of the bicycle presented opportunities for wider travel – potentially without a chaperone.

The upheaval of war in 1914 brought an abrupt end to many of the Edwardian era’s most restrictive traditions, and required many women to step into roles previously held by men, such as managing budgets and taking up munitions or land work. These collapsing barriers brought down with them many of the arguments against women gaining the vote.

Performer Vesta Tilley in a top hat and trousers
Vesta Tilley was famous for her impersonationsof men. (Image by Getty Images)

The first significant victory would not arrive until 1918, in the wake of World War I, when women over 30 who owned property were granted the vote – in part, a recognition of the ‘men’s work’ they had carried out during the conflict. Though far from universal, it was another step in the fight for equality. As Pankhurst had told her Connecticut audience in 1913: “If we win it, this hardest of all fights, then, to be sure, in the future it is going to be made easier for women all over the world to win their fight when their time comes.”


Women's fashion in the Edwardian era

The social changes of the Edwardian era also had an impact on women’s wardrobes

At the start of the Edwardian period, women’s fashion favoured the ‘S’ curve, a shape that pushed the hips back and the bust forward, with the wealthiest women sporting high lace collars and plenty of embellishments.

But an increase in leisure activities soon brought about a change. With crinolines and corsets no longer suitable for pursuits such as riding a bicycle, garments that restricted movement fell out of fashion. Draped, corset-free dresses by designers such as Paul Poirot were favoured, while smaller hats such as boaters replaced wider, more elaborate feathered brims.

Elsewhere, musical variety performers such as Vesta Tilley pushed boundaries even further by appearing on stage at performances in trousers (Queen Mary, wife of George V, reportedly covered her eyes at the sight).

War brought about even more radical change, with women donning overalls and tunics to carry out work in factories and farms. As social historian Arthur Marwick wrote in 1965 of the war’s impact on women’s lives: “However far politicians were to put the clocks back in other steeples in the years after the war, no one ever put the lost inches back on the hems of women’s skirts.”


Elinor EvansDigital editor

Elinor Evans is digital editor of HistoryExtra.com. She commissions and writes history articles for the website, and regularly interviews historians for the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast