Women in Britain, 1900-2000

Women in Britain, 1900-2000

Annette Mayer

Hodder and Stoughton, Access to History series, 2002

The Access to History series enjoys a good reputation among students and Women in Britain, 1900-2000 is a worthy contribution to this popular list. The book is well structured, succinct and very readable. The introduction nicely contextualises women's position by examining the status of women in Britain in 1900. Annette Mayer observes historical convention by structuring the book chronologically into chapters on the First World War, Political Advances in the Inter-War years, Economic and Social Change 1918-1939, the Second World War, the Post-War Nation 1945-68 and an interesting section on the Modern Age 1968-2000. The author concludes by examining the progress made by women over the 20th century and assessing the extent to which women have achieved equality with men. There are useful summary diagrams at the end of each chapter to help students make notes, examples of primary source questions, advice on how to answer exam questions and useful hints on how to construct an essay.

Annette Mayer has packed a lot of history into her hundred-year story. Drawing from a wide range of secondary and primary sources, the author shows how, during this period, women experienced significant changes in their lives. In 1900, women had little choice as to how many children they had but, by the end of the century, women had control over their own reproduction. Women were denied equal marital status and divorce rights at the beginning of the century but by the millennium marriage was regarded as a co-equal partnership. It is somewhat ironic, given this alleged progress, that increasing numbers of women are declining marriage and living independently or with a partner or, if unhappily married, filing for divorce.

Women, as Mayer, shows are now less severely handicapped by lack of educational opportunities as girls constantly outperform boys at GCSE level and have equal access to higher education. Professionally women have earned their success in a number of occupations, as lawyers and barristers, as dealers on the stock exchange, as surgeons, as fire-fighters and as MPs. At the beginning of the twentieth century, all women were denied the vote whereas in 1979 women, as well as men, voted in an election which produced the country's first woman Prime Minister. Meyer's optimistic picture of women's progress is counterbalanced by her argument that politically, socially and economically women have not done as well as men. Widening access to education may have given opportunities to some women but the majority remain in professional grades where wages, prestige and status are lower than average.

In such a small book much has to be missed. However, I was surprised to find that the experiences of black and Asian women, which are often very different from those of their privileged white contemporaries, are largely ignored. This important omission should have been addressed, given the multi-cultural nature of Britain by the end of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, Annette Meyer has written a splendid introductory book which convinces me of the need for a much larger piece of work which examines the variety of women's experiences in this period.

Paula Bartley lectures at the University of Wolverhampton.

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