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Domesticity and Motherhood in the UK: 1919-1939

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Published: Fri, 23 Feb 2018

A return to domesticity and motherhood in Britain in the years 1919-1939

This dissertation analyses the extent of women’s return to domesticity and motherhood in Britain in the years 1919-1939. Applying to the primary sources taken from women’s magazines, newspapers and novels and utilising the feminist approach and the social constructionist approach, the research identifies social, political and historical reasons to explain women’s position at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The findings of the paper suggest that after the First World War the country began to revive the cult of domesticity, returning to the traditional stereotypes in regard to females. Those women who continued to work were rejected by society. However, British women managed to turn the principles of domesticity and motherhood into a new direction, combining their domestic duties with professional careers. Thus, some received results are consistent with the previous researches, while other results provide new findings, concerning the discussed issue. In this regard, the interwar revival of domesticity does not represent women’s loss of independence, but instead contributes to the creation of a new female identity.

1 Statement of the problem

Although the beginning of the twentieth century in Britain demonstrated the rise of the suffrage movement and the implementation of the voting rights for females, the period of 1919-1939 revealed women’s return to domesticity and motherhood. Despite the fact that there were some tensions between the former ideologies and new principles of females’ independence, British women successfully coped with the existing domestic restrictions and renewed the ideals of motherhood. However, the conditions of domesticity slightly differed in middle-class and working-class families due to different social status of these groups.

2 Introduction

During the First World War the usual females’ roles in Britain were exposed to some changes: women substituted men in munitions factories and other plants, achieving a certain degree of independence. They faced new perspectives and managed to acquire financial security. However, in the post-war period the cult of domesticity gained much strength, and British females were forced to return to domesticity and motherhood. This sudden shift in roles can be explained by various social and political events occurred within the country.

British society that experienced considerable difficulties after the War began to idealise women who devoted themselves to a family and, on the contrary, expressed enmity to those females who wanted to work and acquire economic independence. Thousands of women were discharged from factories and they could not find another place of employment. According to Jude Giles, the popular British papers constantly advocated the principles of domesticity and motherhood, strongly criticising unmarried females who challenged the existing socialstereotypes1. British fiction and films depicted women within domestic sphere, while all other spheres were restricted for females. Although the voting rights for females were preserved, constant attempts were made by some politicians to introduce certain restrictions into the process of voting.

Thus, British society gradually returned to the traditional division of gender roles; and, as Martin Pugh puts it, the period of 1919-1939“marked the start of a long-term trend towards marriage”2. However, women considerably changed their marriages and their relations with men, demonstrating independence and strength. The aim of the dissertation is to analyse women’s return to domesticity and motherhood in Britain in the years 1919-1939. The research is divided into several parts. Chapter 1 provides a statement of the problem that uncovers the principal thesis of the paper.

Chapter 2 conducts a general overview of the discussed historical period and the position of women in Britain since 1900. Chapter 3 discusses the critical works that are written on the issue of domesticity and motherhood at the beginning of the twentieth century. Chapter 4 discusses the research methods that provide the basis for theoretical explanation of the changes in the position of both middle-class and working-class females.

Chapter 5investigates in depth various aspects of the issue, such as the impact of historical events on women in the years 1919-1939, the social and political changes that resulted in women’s return to domesticity and the depiction of these changes in British literature and mass media of the twentieth century. Chapter 6 analyses the results of the research, while Chapter 7 points at the limitations of the dissertation and gives suggestions for further research of the discussed issue.

3 Review of the literature

The issue of domesticity and motherhood in Britain in the years1919-1939 has been widely researched by critics. Deirdre Beddoes points out that it was the period when the “notion that women’s place is in the home” was revived3. The researcher analyses women of middle-class society, suggesting that they greatly changed the ideals of domesticity and motherhood after the First World War. Sue Burley goes further inhere analysis; she pays much attention to women of working class, trying to give “a synthesis which will give us [readers] an overview of twentieth century femininity in Britain”4 and demonstrating women’s difficulties in dealing with household duties and work.

Burley regards the period of 1919-1939 as the times when a new family with a great emphasis on domesticity and motherhood was formed, but when many women were still engaged in various kinds of work outside home, such as military, banking, nursing and teaching spheres. Susan Kingsley Kent draws a parallel between the ideals of domesticity and various stages of the inter-war period. In particular, the researcher claims that at the beginning of the First World War British society adhered to the traditional division of gender roles, that is, women spent much time at home and men took part in the battle.

Kent considers that, as the War progressed, women acquired males’ places, while men revealed passivity and became rather feminised5. In the post-war period the women’s suffrage was widely opposed and criticised by British society, while females’ domesticity was maintained by all possible means. However, Pat Thane challenges this viewpoint by stating that “there is reason to question the assumption that a reasserted ideology of domesticity was successfully imposed upon women in the 1930s”6.Applying to a detailed observation of social, historical, economic and political contexts of 1919-1939 Thane demonstrates that the First World War did not change the position of women, but only slightly improved it.
Billie Merman demonstrates that the cult of domesticity in Britain was maintained through British media, especially through such famous newspapers as the Express and the Mail.

As the researcher states, “From the beginning of 1919 the contemporary young woman was criticised on every conceivable ground. Her appearance was derided, her manners deplored and her newly gained freedom was regarded with suspicion”7.Melman considers that the British government was afraid of females ‘independence and made everything to eliminate it. The only possible way to decrease the spread of the suffrage movement and females’ employment was to force women to return to domesticity and motherhood. As a result, unmarried working females were accepted with great enmity, creating poor conditions of living for them, especially for working-class females.

Sue Burley even claims that single British females “were vilified as useless members of society”8. Such a prejudiced viewpoint reveals the attempts of the British government to utilise gender differences for their own benefits. During the First World War females were treated as an important gender group that maintained industries, that is why working females were provided with certain rights. But the attitude towards working females was greatly changed in the post-war period, when it was necessary to improve an economic situation in the country and decrease the level of men’s unemployment.

Deirdre Beddoes maintains the similar notion, as she states, “In the inter-war years only one desirable image was held up to women by all the mainstream media agencies – that of housewife and mother”9. However, Marcus Collins suggests that at the beginning of the twentieth century patriarchal marriages in Great Britain were replaced by marriages based on equality and freedom, despite the attempts of the British government to destroy this equality10. In view of such ambiguous critical opinions, further analysis makes an attempt to overcome these differences and evaluate the extent of females’ return to domesticity and motherhood.

4 Research methodology

The research is conducted, applying to two theoretical methods – feminist approach and a social constructionist approach. These theories provide an opportunity to analyse the issue of women’s return to domesticity and motherhood in Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century from different perspectives and historical context. As a valid tool of analysis, the feminist approach observes women’s position in Britain in the inter-war period, demonstrating the changes within society.

It is also aimed at evaluating various literary works through political, social, economic and historical contexts, trying to reveal truthful portrayal of females in both men’s and women’s writing. The social constructionist approach demonstrates that women follow the norms of society that assigns specific roles for both males and females. Thus, females’ sexuality is defined by cultural and social factors.

5 Discussion

5.1. Historical Background

Until the end of the nineteenth century British women had been prohibited any display of free will and independence; instead, they had to follow the existing social norms that defined them the roles of wife and a mother, depriving females of the opportunity to receive education or work. This especially regarded women of the upper and middle classes who had to subdue males in everything, because men controlled all aspects of social, cultural and political life in Britain. They also controlled family’s property, thus a wife received nothing, if she decided to divorce; even her children remained with husband.

In view of such norms, it was a disgrace for a man, if his wife expressed a desire for work; as Jane MacDiarmid puts it, “Middle-class women were ladies for whom waged work was demeaning, indeed a slur on middle-class manhood”11. However, the position of British women began to slightly change with the rise of the suffrage movement, on the one hand, and the inability of females to find inappropriate match, on the other hand. Some females made weak attempts to receive education and achieve independence, but in the majority of cases parents did not allow them to acquire specific professions.

Gradually, the number of British women who did not have any occupation and could not marry became so intensified that British society realised the necessity of providing women with some occupation and professional skills. But as Althea Cullen reveals, “the question of creating employment for needy gentlewomen posed severe social problems in a period when ‘lady’ and ‘work’ were contradictions in terms”12.

The fact is that British patriarchal society continued to impose restrictions on females’ occupation, wishing to preserve their position of a wife and another and forbidding them to interfere into males’ jobs. As “the majority of girls in Britain received a crucial part of their education in the home”13, they could only work as governess, nurses or teachers.

If women in Britain wanted to receive another occupation, such as drawing or banking, they had to acquire specific vocational training. Although some educational establishments, like Bedford College, the Female School of Design and Queen’s College were established to provide females with necessary knowledge in teaching skills and art, the number of women in these colleges was disastrously low. British society continued to maintain its previous stereotypes and considered it inappropriate for females to be earnestly engaged in such activity as art or writing, because “the serious pursuit of art was incompatible with the demands of marriage and domesticity – it unsexed women”14.

When the First World War began, British females received an opportunity to replace men in the working places. Women of the middle-class society were mainly engaged in civil activity, while females of the working-class society worked on munitions factories and other industries. As Pugh states, in 1918 more than 110,000 females worked indifferent places15. However, by 1919 the situation in Britain had changed and women started to gradually return to domesticity and motherhood.

On the other hand, this return was different for working-class females and middle-class females. The first group of women had used to work before the First World War and their position did not change much in the post-war period, except some improvements unemployment. But the second group of females “entered occupations which they would have never dreamt of pursuing in normal circumstances”16. As a result, some of them abandoned the work after the end of the First World War, while others continued to perform their professional duties, though the British government made everything to suppress such females ‘activity.

5.2. Domesticity and motherhood in Britain in the years 1919-1939

The First World War aggravated the living conditions of British people and intensified the problems that had already existed in the country in the pre-war period. For instance, the spread of venereal diseases began to threaten women’s fertility17, and various social changes inspired by the War resulted in the decrease of the country’s power, especially in the sphere of economics.

The conditions of females and children in Great Britain were especially complex. In the absence of men, females began to realise that they had to take responsibility for their homes and children on themselves; however, they were also forced to substitute males on their working places. In addition, those males who were not killed in the War were psychologically destroyed by the war experience and the difficult economic conditions, with which people collided in the post-war period.

As Sally Alexander puts it, “After the War, the sexual division of labour was again a source of friction”18. Thousands of British males who came back home in 1919 realised that their jobs were taken away by females. Thus, men could no longer support their families in inappropriate way and women refused to abandon their jobs. Such a shifting economic positions of women and men resulted in men’s unemployment that was proved by the official data of the twentieth century19. Some men had to send their children in search of a work to South or even sell them, this especially regarded young girls of British miners who lost their jobs in the post-war period. Men started to experience the lack of dignity that usually resulted in the destruction of a family or their own personalities.

The situation was complicated by serious economic depression of 1921that was a direct consequence of the First World War, as many industries in Britain were destroyed. Besides, the country that lost great part of male population during the War was impaired and required fresh force to cope with the negative consequences of the War. As Kent claims, “marriage and marital sex bore the brunt of restoring social harmony in post-war Britain”20.

The British government understood that it was crucial to restore the traditional division of gender roles. As women returned to domesticity and motherhood, they were gradually transformed into new females. In the pre-war period British women occupied lower legal, cultural and social position than males, but the changes inspired by the War and the suffrage movement resulted in the improvement of women’s conditions21.

In particular, females turned from passive creatures to active figures, while men changed into indifferent personalities. In addition, “the British parliamentary franchise was extended to women aged 30 years Andover who were occupiers, or wives of occupiers, of land or premises of not less than five pounds annual value”22. It was also given to those females who had a university degree. This was an important change in females’ position, because since 1832 franchise had been given only tamales in Britain, according to the Great Reform Act23.

New females made constant attempts to improve their marriages and their education, following the ideas of freedom and equality. For instance, they managed to create a great number of Women’s Clubs and gathered there to discuss various females’ issues or oppose some legal decisions. The fact is that, although British government provided females with the voting rights, it still restricted their participation in certain spheres of political, economic, cultural and social life24. Some British politicians considered that young females would support only one political party, thus they challenged the necessity to give legal rights to women, instead suppressing their freedom of actions and choice. As a result, “the impact of women as voters on politics and policy was slight, except possibly to reinforce conservative and Conservative Party values, including traditional values ofdomesticity”25.

However, as women began to succeed in both domestic and working spheres, they proved their abilities to combine professional careers with the position of a wife and a mother. Females realised that family is their main responsibility, but according to Rhea Dorr, “Home is not contained within the four walls of an individual home, Home is the community. The city full of people is the Family. The public school is the real Nursery. And badly do the Home and the Family and the Nursery need their mother”26. If British females failed to prove their rights in peace negotiations with political leaders, they turned to active military actions that usually ended in their imprisonment.

The years 1919-1939 in Britain are characterised by the spread of hunger-strikes among women that were usually suppressed by the government. Therefore, these women passed the way from ‘the gallant girls’ of the eighteenth century to ‘domestic women’ and feminists of the twentieth century. Some females worked as hard as men both during and after the First World War, running the risk of miscarriage, starvation or death, though British media, as Deirdre Beddoes claims, concealed these facts, instead introducing the stereotypic ideals of females that were changed from time to time due to social, cultural and political changes27.

The British government continued to implicitly oppose women’s involvement into the working industrial process, maintaining the notion that if married females earned money, they deprived men and unmarried females of the opportunity to earn theirliving28. Such a viewpoint can be understood, if taken into account serious unemployment in Britain in 1920s. As a result, the greater part of married British women was unemployed in the period of 1919-1939.

Even in 1928 when females managed to achieve equality in voting rights, their “political involvement declined still further, reinforced by powerful and effective social pressure upon women to give primacy to their domestic roles”29. Specific official policies were implemented in Britain to make women return to domesticity, as the First World War wasover30.

Those married women who still worked were exposed to social rejection and punishment; in other cases, women were driven over the edge, as owners of industrial companies made them perform the same amount of work as men who were physically stronger than women. As one female worker claimed, “He [husband] might as well have a wooden woman. We’re that tired by the end of the evening we’re fit for nothing”31. As a result, many British companies preferred to hire men for different kinds of work, especially in factories, while women were hired only for seasonal or temporary activities, if there was shortage of man power during complex periods of manufacturing.

As British women received training only in housekeeping and crafts, they were not allowed for qualified jobs in offices or banks32. Infect, they were suited only for household work, especially if women were more than thirty. Young girls were more appropriate for a job, because they required less salary than men and older women. Thus, women had no choice but to fully involve in domesticity and motherhood, finding new interests in this routine.

It was only in 1939 that the attitude towards women began to change, and many industries preferred to hire women rather than girls or men. The formation of trade unions in Britain greatly contributed to these changes. However, British women were still forbidden to work at night and, in this regard, their earnings were comparatively low33. Such a situation had existed until the end of the twentieth century.

British literature of the twentieth century reflects the conditions of women after the First World War, simultaneously revealing that women’s return to domesticity and motherhood did not deprive females of the opportunity to take part in certain occupations, especially, art, writing, home design, nursing, gardening, banking34. For instance, in Diary of a Provincial Lady Elizabeth Monica Delafield creates a woman who lives in English countryside in the midst of Two World Wars and who tries to combine her household duties with her attempts to become writer.

This female character has to deal with a lazy and tedious husband, disobedient children, quarrelsome servants and other arrogant people who surround her in the village, such as Lady Bakeshop and Lady Boxed. She tries to please the members of her family in all possible ways, but receives nothing in return, except complaints and whims. In particular, her husband Robert constantly keeps silence and ignores her, as the Provincial Lady claims, “Speak of this to Robert, who returns no answer. Perhaps he is afraid of repeating himself?”35Robert is used to sit lazily and read a newspaper or a book, while his wife controls everything in the house: “Robert comes very late and says he must have dropped over the Times”36.

Robert makes no attempt to understand his wife and does not want to help her; instead he is absorbed in his inner world, in his thoughts and affairs. However, the Provincial Lady is truly devoted to Robert and her children Robin and Vicky, although she tries to conceal her feelings from other people, especially her neighbours. Delafield shows that British society does not understand such devotion and love; instead, it forces people to adhere to strict norms and act like machines that possess no emotions and feelings.

When the Provincial Lady talks with Lady B. about Robin, she states that “I refer to [him]in a detached way as ‘the boy’ so that she shan’t think I am foolish about him”37. In fact, the Provincial Lady implicitly criticises society, in which she lives, when she uncovers her inner thoughts through her diary. On the other hand, Delafield embodies her ideals of domesticity in the character of the Provincial Lady, portraying her as an ideal mother, a wife and a woman who successfully copes with all affairs, including children’s upbringing.

The writer intensifies these images of domesticity and motherhood by contrasting the Provincial Lady with other characters, such as Robert, Lady Boxed and Lady Bakeshop. As the narrator claims at the beginning of the Diary, “Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxed calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her”38.These words reveal that the Provincial Lady tries to maintain good relations with everyone, including her family, friends, relatives and neighbours, but simultaneously they demonstrate that she is overwhelmed with household duties, while other people lead lazy existence.

Although her family belongs to middle-class society, the Provincial Lady considers that it is her responsibility to take control over her household. She realises that in such a complex inter-war period she needs all her strength and wit to support her family and save it. On the contrary, her husband avoids any household work, failing to realise that his wife is the only person who tries to save her family from destruction. In this regard, the Provincial Lady proves to be stronger than her husband who is portrayed as a passive creature without any hopes and desires. However, the principal female character perceives reality with enthusiasm and understanding.

It is an unusual sense of humour that helps the Provincial Lady to perfectly deal with various people and events. For instance, when she goes to her son’s school for a meeting, she ironically describes this visit: “Find that history, as usual, repeats itself…Discover strong tendency to exchange with fellow-parents exactly the same remarks as last year, and the year before it”39. In this regard, this female character demonstrates not only a complete devotion to her family, but also wit and politeness. The latter features also allow her to write essays and sketches for The Provincial Lady Goes Further. Although this woman is used to live in middle-class society that is obsessed with gossips and secrets, she constantly reveals her difference from other members.

The Provincial Lady often challenges daily life of women throughout the narration, claiming that she is not able to understand them and their style of life. According to the feminist approach, women were usually misrepresented in literature40; however, such female writers as Elizabeth Monica Delafield, Jan Struthers and Virginia Woolf make attempts to overcome the traditional image of women, instead introducing a truthful portrayal of middle-class females.
The female character of Jan Struthers’s literary work Mgrs.

Minivan is also a symbol of British domesticity before the Second World War. Portraying daily life of Mgrs. Minivan, the writer uncovers the tensions between domestic ideologies of 1919-1939 and the feminist movement that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. However, through the principal female character that belongs to the middle-class society Struthers reveals that at the beginning of the twentieth century women managed to overcome domestic restrictions by reviving domesticity and motherhood, but not by opposing these ideologies. In fact, Struthers demonstrates the attempts of females to balance new domestic ideology with traditional domesticity.

Similar to the Provincial Lady, Mgrs. Minivan describes her household duties and her struggle for independence in the inter-war period. As Jan Struthers herself managed to combine her duties of a wife with a career of a writer, she was well aware of the inability of some females to accept the pressure of social norms.

In Mgrs. Minivan the writer depicts domestication through the character’s privacy and self- respect. She is an ideal of a good woman and a wife who is not destroyed by household duties and children’s upbringing. Instead, Mgrs. Minivan utilises domesticity to shape her personality and improve her inner world. As Judy Giles puts it, “educated women may have enjoyed a degree of privacy, directly connected to the home and its pleasures, in which to nurture forms of selfhood unknown to either their mothers or their daughters”41.

Despite the fact that Mgrs. Minivan has fewer servants than she used to have in the pre-war period, she has more freedom and more opportunities. After the War middle-class society lost their servants, as they were young girls who began to work on factories; however, some devoted servants remained in the disposition of these people. As Mgrs. Minivan does not have to work hard to earn her living, she utilises her knowledge to reveal herself through domestic activity, including cooking, upbringing, childcare and interior design. Gradually, a woman manages to create a true home, ‘a private room of one’s own’, as Virginia Woolf claims in her essays42.

As a housewife has much free time, she is able to improve her skills income occupations. A woman no longer feels herself in a prison, but instead she transforms her home into a sacred place; such a change is obvious throughout Struthers’s narration. As Mgrs. Minivan states, “Not that she didn’t enjoy the holiday: but she always felt… a little relieved when they were over. Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half afraid to step out of its frame in case one day she should find herself unable to get back”43.

The principal female character does not make an attempt to run away from reality, but she finds many pleasurable things in her home, unlike females of the nineteenth century who suffered much under the control of their parents and husbands. Domesticity becomes an important part of her soul; the writer describes her domestic activities in much detail to reveal Mgrs. Minivan’s obsession with her work: “Tea was already laid… Three new library books lay virginally on the fender-stool… The clock on the mantelpiece chimed, very softly and precisely, five times”44.

Mgrs. Minivan, similar to the Provincial Lady, likes her home and is truly devoted to her family. She manages to find her independence in domesticity and motherhood; besides, she receives an opportunity to think much about her life and the world around her. Mgrs. Minivan’s domestic activity satisfies her needs, although she collides with difficulties from time to time. But the character’s intelligence allows her to create an unusual approach to domestic affairs: “she managed to keep household matters in what she considered their proper place.

They should be no more, she felt, than a low, unobtrusive humming in the background of consciousness: the mechanics of life should never be allowed to interfere with living”45. Mgrs. Minivan follows such an approach in everything, even in children’s upbringing. She reveals certain respect towards children – Judy, Vin and Toby – and provides them with freedom of actions, simultaneously maintaining her own independence. This viewpoint positively contributes to her relations with a husband Clem, because Mgrs. Minivan considers “every relationships a pair of intersecting circles”46. Although Mgrs. Minivan is really close to her husband, she is also separated from him, as she preserves some parts of her identity to herself.

Therefore, this female character is portrayed as a splendid mother and wife, but she is also a great individual, because she does not allow domesticity to destroy her identity, although many females were psychologically destroyed by household duties in the nineteenth century. Mgrs. Minivan strives for privacy; thus almost nothing is known about her, except her thoughts and humour. However, it is through her words, domestic affairs and relations with other people that Struthers uncovers Mgrs. Minivan.

Applying to the character of Mgrs. Minivan, the writer wants to prove that domesticity provides an opportunity for self-development. In this regard, domesticity is not a barrier to independence and growth; on the contrary, as the feminist approach demonstrates, it can bring many positive results for both a woman and her family, if a person knows how to rightfully utilise them47. does not lose her sense of humour, her power and independence even under really complex conditions.

When the Second World War begins, she makes constant attempts to preserve her home and save the members of her family. The character does everything with enthusiasm and reveals unusual spirit in all affairs. When Mgrs. Minivan goes shopping, she observes other people; when she does some work, she tries to diversify this daily routine. Similar to the Provincial Lady, Mgrs. Minivan mainta


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