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How far did attitudes to women change after they secured the vote in 1918?

Source 4

A newspaper article, in the Sunday Chronicle, written by Winston Churchill on 27 March 1938

Reference

CHAR 8/619/19

We've highlighted the parts of the document which appear in the transcription below.

Simplified Transcript

WOMEN can win WARS – without firing a shot

By WINSTON CHURCHILL

The idea of women fighting in war is revolting to us. The first [group trying to change women’s role in warfare] is the feminist movement, which claims equal rights for women, and prides itself in stripping them of their privileges. Secondly, the mad rush of barbarism which is breaking out in so many parts of the world only recognises lethal force.

But though women did not enter the trenches of the Great War activities during that time, they drove cars, lorries, ambulances almost to the front line. They served in their thousands behind the front line. They released vast numbers of men for military service by temporarily taking their places in offices and elsewhere; and, above all, they were engaged in making the weapons of destruction which these men used against the enemy.

The part which our women played in winning the War was rewarded by some women getting the vote in 1918. For so many years they had unsuccessfully tried to achieve the vote by violent methods, which showed that they were not ready to be given such a responsibility. It was the War which solved that problem.

We should not allow women to fight in the air. It is very remarkable that the most militaristic nation at the present time - the Germans – have decided against using women as fighters (in airplanes). They believe that the woman’s place is in the home and that the male protects her…In Britain, where feminist ideas have gained a great ascendency, it is more common to treat men and women generally as equals. The test of war would soon show that the stronger sex [men] would have to do the fighting and the weaker sex [women] the suffering and weeping.

Original Transcript

WOMEN can win WARS – without firing a shot

By WINSTON CHURCHILL

The idea of women entering the line of battle and fighting in war is revolting to us. The whole civilisation of the Western world is based upon the traditions of chivalry which have come down from mediaeval times and still exert a potent force.

The first [group trying to change women’s role in warfare] is the feminist movement, which claims equal rights for women, and in its course prides itself in stripping them of their privileges. Secondly, the mad rush of barbarism which is breaking out in so many parts of the world owes no principle but that of lethal force.

But though even the Great War did not carry women into the trenches, this was only one step removed from the many activities which women in this country, among others, performed during that time.

They drove cars, lorries, ambulances almost to the front line. They served in their thousands in dressing-stations behind the lines. They released vast numbers of men for military service by temporarily taking their places in offices and elsewhere; and, above all, they were engaged in making the weapons of destruction which these men used against the enemy.

The part which our women played in winning the War was enshrined in the grant to them of the vote which for so many years they had vainly sought to wrest from successive governments by methods too often suggesting that they had not the civic sense to use the privilege rightly. It was the War which solved that problem, as it solved so many others in our internal affairs.

Only at the very last gasp of our life and civilisation should we allow women to fight in the air…It is very remarkable that the most virile and militaristic nation at the present time - the Germans – have set their faces like flint against using women as fighters. They hold to the broad human principle that the woman’s place is in the home and that the male protects her…In Britain, where feminist ideas have gained a great ascendency, it is the tendency to treat men and women generally as on equal footing…The tests of war would very soon show that the stronger sex would have to do the fighting and the weaker the suffering and weeping.

What is this source?

A newspaper article, in the Sunday Chronicle, by Winston Churchill published on 27 March 1938. Churchill was a Member of Parliament, but not in the Cabinet at this time. The article was written two weeks after Nazi Germany had formed a political union with Austria (Anschluss), which gave them enormous power in central Europe.

Background to this source

In 1928, the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act had been passed, which gave all women the same voting rights as men, meaning all British citizens over the age of 21 could vote. Soon after, in 1929, the Great Depression descended across the industrialised world. This was a period of economic downturn that increasingly caused citizens to turn to extreme political parties. In Germany, the Nazi Party came to power under the leadership of Adolf Hitler in 1932 and immediately began building up German military power. One key development was the German air-force (Luftwaffe) which had been explicitly banned after WW1 in the Treaty of Versailles. In 1936, the Nazis wanted to trial their new planes and bombs, and joined the Spanish Civil War on the side of General Franco and the Nationalists. During the Spanish Civil War people around the world were terrified of the new, horrific dangers brought about by advancing technology in aerial combat. This was captured in a famous painting by Pablo Picasso, which showed the destruction of a Spanish town called Guernica. Back in Britain, people began to wonder what warfare would be like in the future, as bomber planes did not discriminate between man, woman or child, and whether it would simply be men fighting on the front lines.

By 1938, Nazi Germany had taken several aggressive acts which increased its military strength such as completing the Anschluss, the political union with Austria. Churchill had been receiving inside information about the dangers posed by Nazi Germany since the early 1930s and argued that Britain needed to get ready for an impending war. He later described this period as the ‘Gathering Storm’.

Churchill had shown his distrust of movements calling for equality for the previous two decades, and in the 1930s the feminist campaigners in Britain turned their attention to the issue of equal pay. While this movement was relatively small, in 1936 there was a successful House of Commons equal pay vote. This did not attract widespread support, as the 1930s were a time of mass unemployment.

How can we use this source in the investigation?

Remember we are hoping that this source can be useful to us in investigating whether the attitudes towards women changed after they secured the vote in 1918. Sources usually help historians in two ways:

Surface level: details, facts and figures

  1. What are the two groups that Churchill argues are increasing the likelihood of women having to join the armed forces?
  2. What does Churchill mean when he says ‘stripping them of their privileges’?
  3. What roles did women carry out in the Great War of 1914-1918?
  4. What words does Churchill use to describe the Nazi Germany nation in 1938?
  5. What does it reveal about Churchill when he refers to the ‘broad human principle’?

Deeper level: inferences and using the source as evidence

Which of the inferences below can be made from this source?


On a scale of 1-5 how far do you agree that this source supports this inference? Which extract(s) from the source support your argument?
The Suffragette movement was responsible for getting women the vote in 1918.

Feminism was a bigger threat to stability than the extreme political groups across Europe in Churchill’s opinion.

Churchill saw war as unavoidable by 1938.

Churchill was seeking attention in the late 1930s.

The source shows attitudes to women changed after they secured the vote in 1918.

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Need some help interpreting the source?

This source is a great example of how a historian needs to think carefully about the context in which the source was produced. Churchill was out of office and in the political ‘wilderness’ when he wrote this article. During this period Churchill supported himself financially through his writing: as well as working on substantial books, he published a huge number of newspaper articles on a wide range of topics. The language he uses in this source showcases some of the provocative language he was prepared to capture the attention of his readers.
It is immediately worth considering who Churchill means by ‘us’ in the first line. Does he mean the readers of the Sunday Chronicle? Or does he mean the British population more widely?

Churchill’s reflections on the First World War are also revealing. During 1917 and 1918, Churchill was Minister for Munitions and proved incredibly successful. Given his political position in 1938, why might Churchill choose to emphasise the role women played in munitions production? He goes on to criticise the role that the ‘suffragette’ movement played in women securing the vote in 1918, based on their unruly protests, which was the subject of a Churchill Archive investigation.
The final paragraph of Churchill’s article raises even more questions. What exactly does he mean by predicting that the ‘weaker’ sex should do the ‘suffering’ in the event of war? How does this fit with his attitudes towards women? Plus it is unclear what he means by calling Nazi Germany ‘virile’ – a term usually associated with masculinity and sexual prowess.

Source 5

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