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From the Archive: Women at Work Throughout the Twentieth Century

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Authored by Niamh Franklin
Published on 2nd November, 2023 20 min read

From the Archive: Women at Work Throughout the Twentieth Century

Woman’s success is bought with tears of blood because she has so much to unlearn before she starts learning, so much to sacrifice, so much to overcome.[1]

Britannia and Eve, February 1931.

Britannia and Eve (B&E) was an Illustrated London News periodical established in 1929. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century B&E was perceived as an authority on the female lived experience. It published articles on a range of issues that the paper deemed to be of relevance to its largely female readership, including fashion and home advice, etiquette lessons, and the changing roles of women during wartime. This article hones in on the latter topic: women and work (although the others are likewise worthy of further analysis). A survey of B&E evidences the conflicting attitudes of women towards their new roles in the workplace, a development which was perhaps not as liberating as one might initially assume. For example, in an article titled “Women at Work”, which appeared in B&E in February 1931, author Pamela Fry lamented the continued (and uniquely gendered) experiences of inequality in the workplace. Fry observed how “there are moments when she may even wish that nobody had ever tried to improve woman’s lot. Existence seems to have been so much simpler before we got the vote.” [2] The frustration expressed in this article was not unique to Fry. Rather, a sense of frustration regarding the workplace has followed women right down to the present day. They still enter the workforce labelled as distinctly “female” and they carry the consequences that this othering induces within them. Othering has been a prominent concept in feminist literature since the publication of Simone De Beauvoir’s seminal work The Second Sex (1949). Beauvoir argued that “humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him” and that, ultimately, he ‘is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other”. [3] This means that a woman can only be defined in relation to a man, rather than in and of herself, thus making her his “Other”. [4] Beauvoir explored how these conceptions of gender shape the way in which men and women are viewed. Where a man represents pragmatism, a woman represents impracticality, and these stereotypes continue to inform a woman’s role in the workplace.  A comparative exploration of the experiences of the many women who entered workforce for the first time during the two World Wars, and of women in the contemporary, neoliberal workplace, has the potential to generate new perspectives on the capacity of work to liberate and on the pervasive nature of gender-based discrimination.

Women comprised almost a third of the workforce in 1951, but it was not until the 1990s, the era of “girl power” and “lean-in” philosophy, that UK officials felt that the entry of women into the workforce was “deep-rooted” and “irreversible”. [5] Demos researcher Helen Wilkinson asserted in her 1994 book No Turning Back: Generations and the Genderquake that women had “greater autonomy and the chance to develop identities through work.”[6] Whilst it is true that women have developed some aspects of their identities through employment throughout the twentieth century, the autonomy inscribed in this process remains debatable. Indeed, many women have recognised that their work remains tied to their gender: that from their point of entry into the workplace they are othered according to sex-based assumptions.

A quick-change artist

“Thus The Career Woman”, Britannia and Eve, January 1953.

B&E’s article “Thus The Career Woman” (1953) highlighted the challenges faced by working mothers.  New understandings about the contradictions between working life and the traditional role of women in British society are likewise explored in the article. Whilst it is undeniable that working women gained rights, such as the ability to earn a wage, these were counterbalanced by sacrifices. Women were still required to play the mandatory role of mother, wife, and cleaner. The author of “Thus The Career Woman” observed how “all you need to do is nurse your children, soothe your husband, outrage housewifely instincts by ignoring the dust in the sitting-room, mollify your business associates and take a couple of aspirin!” [7] The point, here, is that the working woman must be entirely unlike the working man. She must embody all the traditional expectations placed upon women but not let them interfere with her working life; she must, as the author of the article put it, “be a quick-change artist”. [8] As such, the ideal working woman becomes entirely twofold, at once male (in the workplace) and female (at home). She is able to provide childcare and manage the household, but she is also required to terminate this facet of herself upon entering the workplace. A woman’s work does not liberate her from the role of mother: it merely inserts into her life a new role, one which must not impinge upon the other. 

This dualism has been expected of women throughout the twentieth century. If anything, the neoliberal workplace of today has only amplified this sense of expectation. Jill Black’s Working Mother’s Survival Guide (1989) presented these dual expectations of the working woman as a fact of life, inadvertently exposing the entrenched nature of sexism in the workplace. Amongst the vast array of social rules to follow in her guide, Black encouraged women not to discuss home matters in front of male colleagues and to deal with anything related to the family in private. [9] For mothers who worked from home the advice was to “have the self-discipline to shut yourself away and keep at it even if the utility room is stuffed full of dirty washing and it sounds as if the nanny is murdering the baby.” [10] Evidently, merely entering the workforce does not liberate female workers from sex-based divisions of labour which hold them responsible for domestic work. Rather, working women are required to excel in the home and the workplace, and to do so quietly. Black’s suggestion to “shut yourself away” in order to complete work highlights a prevailing understanding that motherhood and career success are incompatible with each other. [11] One must put a physical barrier between the two, thus making these dimensions of a woman's life combative and inharmonious. Indeed, patriarchy continues to triumph, requiring women to alienate themselves from their role as a mother in order to succeed professionally.

“Thus The Career Woman” also suggested that the conflict between motherhood and career success was inescapable: there “will inevitably be moments”, the author of the article observed, “when the demands of her career clash with the needs and exigencies of family life.” [12] The idea here, one that prevails today, is that motherhood and working life must “clash”: that these two roles cannot exist harmoniously because they require different conceptions of women. [13] But even though it is impossible for a woman to separate the role of mother and worker, the workplace requires her to do so. Such requirements deliberately diminish the influence a woman can have in the workplace and inherently prioritise male workers. Accordingly, B&E’s article recognised that a working woman must “be on her toes at work because it is professionally unethical (also impractical) to use family problems as an excuse for inefficiency.” [14] Having already established that domestic work remains a female responsibility, the author recognised that the workplace is an inherently male space through labelling family issues as “unethical” or “impractical”. [15] The working mother must not be seen dealing with these issues as it would undermine the ethical and professional codes that the workplace is built upon. Instead, it is necessary for her to maintain two separate selves in order to comply with the standards of the workplace. As such, by dividing the woman in two, the workplace minimises her influence and severely inhibits her ability to excel in an arena which is overwhelmingly, and preferably, male.

This partitioning of the self remains an issue for modern working women. For example, Nicola Horlick, a British investment fund manager and mother of four, has faced immense scrutiny as a result of her public image as a successful career woman and mother. The Express found her outward blending of these two roles unrealistic. It published an article in which Topaz Amoore contended that “just because the cult of uber-banker Nicola Horlick suggests you can be a leading fund manager and bring up a herd of children, there’s no need to fall for it.” [16] Here, we see that the average woman need not “fall for” the lie of success in both her career and home life as this discourse is only peddled by the fanatical few belonging to the “cult of uber-banker Nicola Horlick”. [17] Instead, it is realistic, rational, and pragmatic (these traits noticeably male-coded) to pick one or the other or accept mediocrity in both. The existence of a multifaceted woman who can achieve success both in her professional and domestic life is inconceivable. Instead, the working mother is told that to blend these two responsibilities would only afford her self-inflicted adversity.

The young female worker and her sexual deviance

“Should Men take the Blame”, Britannia and Eve, January 1931.

In Britannia and Eve’s 1931 article “Should Men take the Blame...?”, author Rosita Forbes considered some of the sexist stereotypes that obstructed the equal integration of women in the workplace. The article argues that “women are not as fully occupied as men”, that they “are more easily diverted and stimulated”, and that this excess of energy “finds all sorts of new channels, the commonest of which is sexual philandering”. [18] It is also acknowledged that “in 1931 both [men and women] are potentially self-supporting", as opposed to fifty years prior when “women were dependent on men not only for protection, but for their very means of existence.”[19] This drastic change in traditional family structures combined with Forbes’ preconceptions about the female disposition creates sinister links between female independence and promiscuity. A woman’s entry into the workplace facilitates greater independence from her husband.  Due to her “easily diverted sensibilities”, however, work is not enough to occupy the female mind. [20] Rather, it gives the newly-independent woman space to divert her energy into “sexual philandering.” [21] Consequently, the independence that work has afforded women becomes associated with sexual deviance. Forbes reinforced this association by arguing that a woman is “entitled to all the support she can get from a faithless husband” as long as “she has spent her whole existence bearing ... children...till, in middle age, she has no chance of getting decently paid work and making a life of her own.”[22] Here, Forbes asserted that this support should only be afforded to the devoted mother who remains sexually pure and removed from the workplace. Conversely, these parameters reinforce the link between young working women and sexual deviance. Forbes went on to ask why “the childless wife in her twenties, who has an equal chance in the labour market with the husband she divorces because she wants a change” should “be able to claim maintenance from him?”. [23] The young working woman is denied any support towards her entry into the workplace because she has refused her designated role of mother and wife. As such, her work becomes subversive; it allows her to divorce her husband “because she wants a change”, and facilitates a new found independence and promiscuity. [24]

Paradoxically, a working woman who has children is seen as equally subversive, even in the modern workplace. For example, Express journalist Jane Gordon has argued that “the mother-with-Trophy-Child trick is an ideal way of softening her image and broadening her appeal.” [25] Once more, due to the inherent belief that motherhood and work are incompatible, increased success cannot be based on the virtues and lessons learnt from being a mother. Rather, it is accepted that this role is wielded by the working woman and used as a “trick” to enhance her professional status. [26] Where work empowers a man, it taints a woman. It makes her conniving and calculating; she subverts her “natural instincts” as a mother and uses this traditional image as a mask.

Sex-based divisions of labour

“Women After the War”, Britannia and Eve, February 1942.

Evidently, the working woman needs to navigate a minefield of contradictions and paradoxes in order to emerge unscathed, including the idea that women can be conniving when using the “mother-with-Trophy-child trick” yet simultaneously not capable of completing skilled labour. [27] B&E’s article “Women After the War”, written by MP Edith Summerskill in 1942, reflected upon this contradiction. Summerskill made clear that it is a “man-made world” that has always insisted women’s work should consist of “cooking, cleaning and nursing”. [28] She argued that the wartime effort by women enabled them to aspire to greater feats of intellect. Summerskill also noted the disparity amongst female workers doing skilled versus unskilled labour, warning that “we must remember that all women are not scientists or mathematicians or trained to follow a profession. Most of them have non-creative work, long hours and miserably inadequate pay.” [29] This disparity highlights experiences of gender-based subjugation in the workplace. Rather than liberating women from the confines of the home and the notions of inferiority which qualify these gender-based roles, the workplace reaffirms sexist understandings of female capability. Accordingly, the Survey of Metal Industries in 1937 evidences working structures which adhere to these stereotypes: 

A number of operations are carried out on machines with rotating tables, attended by girls working in teams, each team member performing one of a series of operations. The majority of the workers are girls, but men are employed as supervisors and maintenance engineers. [30]

Fundamental to these working conditions is the maintenance of male supervision. Thus, a woman’s role in the industry is contingent on a man's approval of her menial labour. The New London Survey which covered the period from 1930–1935 presented similar findings when investigating the production of radios. It reported that “the work is . . . mainly assembly, and much of it can in the earlier and simpler stages be performed by juvenile and female labour. As the set nears completion it is taken over by male assemblers.” [31] Crucially, the working woman operates under the watchful male eye, unable to be trusted with skilled work or to be integrated fully into the labour pool. The idea of an innate, conniving intellect is nowhere to be found. It is replaced with a belief in a natural incompetence native to the female constitution. This ensures that the working woman does not overstep her boundaries. As long as her incompetence is assured she can gain no agency or power from work.

This attitude has persisted across the twentieth century, manifesting in an internalised inferiority complex which continues to affect working women. Interviews conducted by the historian Madeleine Jowett, published in All About the Girl: Culture, Power, and Identity (2005), explore women and their interactions with the workplace. A participant named Anna explained how “years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to go into engineering. But now there’s new ways in from this government. We’re very aware of that in our future line of work.” [32] Whilst it is recognised that key advancements have been made in admitting women into traditionally male spaces, gendered identity in these spaces remains wholly intact. The reason Anna is “very aware” of her new ability to pursue engineering is because of the largely gendered experience this entails. [33] Merely being allowed to be an engineer does not negate the further challenges that come with womanhood — the need to be alert to opportunity and the feeling of privilege as a result of being afforded the same chances as men are all fundamental to the female working experience.

The neoliberal prioritisation of free trade and ruthless efficiency remains largely responsible for the continued prominence of sex-based discrimination on the above grounds. Ivy Papps’ book For Love or Money (1982) illustrates how ideas of inferior female intellect and skill have been used to justify the limitation of the female labour pool. Papps has argued that jobs “such as catering, nursing, [and] teaching of small children” are “economically rational” for women to take on as they also develop a woman’s domestic capabilities. [34] In presenting sex-based distinctions as “economically rational” Papps makes jobs for women outside of the domestic sphere economically irrational and works to severely limit the range of positions a woman should work in. [35] The female worker is now placed in a heavily regulated role and her autonomy continues to be infringed, despite the capitalist contention that liberation can be found in the workplace. Ultimately, the neoliberal push towards efficiency and productivity has denied women the chance to enter the workforce as equals. Instead, women are forced to choose between their families and their career. They are encouraged to cleave apart their gender identity and their professional capacity. The modern workplace continues to purport the incompatibility of womanhood and work. A subsequent alienation is required for the success of the businesswoman, who must “unsex” herself in order to integrate fully into capitalist society.

“Lady Drummond Hay Says I’d Rather Be A Woman”, Britannia and Eve, February 1931.

Returning to B&E’s “Women at Work” and its author’s statement that “there are moments when she may even wish that nobody had ever tried to improve woman’s lot”, it is evident that as long as the workplace is presented as a liberating arena, working women will continue to be exploited by the sex-based assumptions that capitalism relies upon. [36] The optimistic belief that entry into the workforce serves to reverse sexist attitudes towards women is quickly discredited when the working woman’s experience is analysed. Rather, capitalist institutions continue to uphold sexist beliefs about women so as to maintain control over female workers. They make it immoral to be overly ambitious and institutionalise notions of innate female incompetence. As posited in “Thus the Career Woman”, the working mother is required to live a double life, forbidden from engaging with her familial responsibilities in the workplace. She is destined to do “two jobs instead of one” and fated to “develop something of a split personality.” [37] Accordingly, the workplace erects barriers for women, upholding sex-based assumptions which reinforce the oppression of women within British society. 

British Online Archives’ collection Britannia and Eve, 1926–1957 contains many articles relating to women’s issues across this period. This publication has the potential to generate intellectual insights into portrayals of the working woman. It can also shed light on subjects such as the female consumer and female sexuality. The collection is an excellent resource for those interested in the history of print media throughout the early twentieth century. 


[1] Britannia and Eve, February 1931.

[2] “Women at Work”, Britannia and Eve, February 1953.

[3] Simone De Beauvoir, “The Second Sex”, (1949). [AB4] Accessed 8 August 2023. Available at

[4] Ibid.                                                                     

[5] Helen McCarthy, Double Lives: A History of Working Motherhood (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), p. 251.

[6] Helen Wilkinson, No Turning Back: Generations and the Genderquake (London: DEMOS, 1994).

[7] Pamela Fry, “Thus The Career Woman”, Britannia and Eve, January 1953.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jill Black, Working Mother’s Survival Guide (London: Simon and Schuster, 1989).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Pamela Fry, “Thus The Career Woman”, Britannia and Eve, January 1953.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Quoted in McCarthy, Double Lives, p. 256.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Rosita Forbes, “Should Men take the Blame”, Britannia and Eve, January 1931.

[19] Ibid., 35.

[20] Ibid., 34.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 35.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Quoted McCarthy, Double Lives, p. 256.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Edith Summerskill, “Women After the War”, Britannia and Eve, February 1942.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Miriam Glucksmann “In a Class of Their Own? Women Workers in the New Industries in Inter-War Britain”, Feminist Review, no. 24 (1986): 7–37.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Anita Harris, All About the Girl: Culture, Power, and Identity, (Taylor & Francis Group, 2004) p. 93. 

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ben Jackson, “Free markets and feminism: the neo-liberal defence of the male breadwinner model in Britain, c. 1980–1997”, Women's History Review, no. 2 (2018): 297–316.

[35] Ibid.

[36] “Women at Work”, Britannia and Eve, February 1953.

[37] Pamela Fry, “Thus The Career Woman”, Britannia and Eve, January 1953.

Authored by Niamh Franklin

Niamh Franklin

Niamh Franklin is a History graduate from the University of Bristol.

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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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