Saturday, 2 October 2010

Suffragette Victory - An alternative reality

Since the dawn of humanity, with few exceptions, the roles of men and women were clearly defined. Man was the protector and the provider, whose masculine traits of aggression, stoicism, risk-taking and competitiveness stood him in good stead for the performance of his roles.

To womankind went the roles of homemaker and childraiser. Womanly qualities such as kindness, gentleness, nurturing, meekness and humility were encouraged in all females to win the approval of men.

Man's role and qualities meant that it was he who held the power and the wealth in society. With rare exceptions, any power women held was indirect. For example, a woman could use her sexuality or feminine wiles to influence a man to do her bidding.

Male dominance continued and was unchallenged for centuries. An agrarian economy valued brute strength and aggression. Even where intellectual horsepower was needed, men held the advantage, as they received education whilst most women did not. A woman was not only financially dependent on her man, but needed him to read and write for her also.

The edifice of male power began to crumble in the 19th century, as the agrarian economy was transformed by astonishing technological change into the industrial age. Although the new machines could do the work of many men, the economy needed more labour than ever to produce goods and commodities in massive quantities.

That meant that, in addition to male labour, employers increasingly needed female and even child labour. Women were employed in greater numbers than ever before. And they began to question why it was that they were paid less than men, had fewer rights than men and had more limited opportunities.

At least working class women got the chance to work. Upper and middle class women were married off and expected to sit at home all day being ladylike. Although they lived in greater comfort than lower class women, their existence was mind numbingly boring and unfulfilling by comparison.

Even female clothing, such as the corset, restricted a woman from doing anything too strenuous, whilst their underwear and outer clothing was designed to be pretty and flattering to the wearer, rather than practical.

By the dawn of the 20th century, woman had became aware that, as compared to man, she was disadvantaged and discriminated against from birth. She was determined to change that.

The Suffragette movement was born and grew in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and campaigned for equality for women. The struggle was not easy. Man would not willingly give up the advantage he held over woman. The Suffragettes were persecuted by the male dominated establishment. The struggle seemed hopeless, but the Suffragettes perservered.

In fact, the seeds of man's downfall had already been sown by the expansion of the new industrial economy. More women were working and earning their own income, albeit less than that of a man, which gave them a greater degree of financial independence than womankind as a group had ever enjoyed before. But the most significant development came in the form of educational reform. The new economy needed a better educated workforce and so most western nations made it compulsory for both boys AND girls to attend school.

The education of girls in the past had been seen as unimportant and so few girls received an education on the same basis as their brothers. On this basis, it was assumed that males were cleverer than females.

The educational reforms did not transform the prospects for girls overnight, for girls were still receiving a more limited and feminine orientated education than was provided for boys, but it was a giant step in the right direction, and opened up more opportunities for woman. The brightest girls even began to attend universities, which would have been unthinkable a generation earlier.

Suffragette agitation, and a weakening of resolve on the part of the male dominated elite, led to significant changes in the law. Divorce became easier for women to obtain, women could own property in their own right and women were generally awarded custody of their children on divorce.

The vote, the most crucial concession, was still out of reach.

This changed with the First World War. Previous wars had been small scale and had been fought only with professional armies. This new war was fought on a huge scale and demanded enormous quantities of material. And manpower. The small professional army could not keep up with the losses being inflicted upon it and so began conscripting men in large numbers. When the men left the offices and factories to fight, women were conscripted into the workforce in order to replace them.

Many working class women worked already, of course, but women of the middle and upper classes suddenly found fulfilment in working and using their minds. The wartime workforce became predominantly female and the new female workforce proved to be more productive and efficient at producing goods in large quantities than the males that they had replaced. Company Directors and Factory owners were impressed with their new workforce.

In November 1918, the First World War ended, and the men began to come home. But they came home to a different world from the one that they had left behind. For one thing, the holy grail that Suffragettes had been trying to obtain for decades, the vote, was granted to women by a grateful government that was relieved to be on the winning side and recognised that the war could not have been won without the contribution of women. Women could now vote in their own right and even stand for office. Politicians now had to take notice of them.

Second, employers were reluctant to let their female staff go in order for the men to have their old jobs back. Women, they found, were more efficient and more reliable than men. They simply refused to take most of the men back. Many men now found themselves unemployed and living on the wages of their wives or girlfriends, a startling and humiliating turnaround.

Sensing their new freedom and power, women began to take the leading role in bringing about more change. They put off their corsets and petticoats and lowered the hemlines of their skirts. Some of them even began to wear trousers. More girls than ever went to university and then entered the workforce in professional and managerial roles. Those women who supported their unemployed man began to make him pull his weight around the home whilst she was at work, threatening to withold the allowance she gave him unless he earned it in the home. Some men were even made by their wives to wear an apron when performing household duties.

Some men, mainly those who were single and had no income, were so desperate that they even applied for, and got, jobs as maids, and had to wear the complete uniform. The male maid was born.

But the most dramatic change came in the political arena. Leading Suffragettes and other women realised that having the vote and being able to stand for public office was all very well, but that change would still come about very slowly. The few female politicians around were still heavily outnumbered by the men and so had limited scope to bring about change.

What was needed was a national movement to put as many women into politics as possible. The population was 52% female. In theory, if all women voted for the party that represented women, womankind would sweep to power and then real change could begin.

But, of course, it was not quite that simple. Not all women were supporters of the Suffrage movement. Others were still conditioned to be in thrall to their husbands and voted for the same party as he did. A lot of women were not remotely interested in politics and did not even bother to vote.

The Suffragette movement had achieved its purpose, obtaining the vote. But it recognised that the vote alone was not enough. Women had to take control of the political machinery and change society in favour of women. Man had had his way for millennia, now it was woman's turn to take the lead.

The Suffragette movement became a national political movement and put up as many female candidates for public office as possible. It reached out to all women and girls, including the Girl Guides, Women's Institute and female undergraduates in universities, and even to a few men who were sympathisers of the movement.

Working women and female students, recognising that the movement represented the potential for real change, supported it financially and by being activists. The elections of 1927 saw the Suffragettes secure almost a third of the seats in the legislative body.

The male dominated establishment tried to do all that it could to derail the movement. It used the police to heckle and break up Suffragette rallies and used the press to pillory them. This actually worked against the establishment, as women who had previously been uninterested in politics became outraged at the treatment of their sisters and many became activists.

The growing Suffragette movement was helped along by global events. In 1929, the world economy went into depression following the Wall Street Crash, leading to businesses failing on a huge scale, mass unemployment (hitting men especially hard) and widespread hardship. Traditional, male dominated governments seemed to be at a loss as to how to cope with the crisis. People, both male and female, began to perceive that something new was needed.

The elections of 1930 returned its first Suffragette government in the United Kingdom. For the first time ever, Number Ten Downing Street was occupied by a woman, Dr Emily Shaw, a woman of middle class background who had gone to university and had become a Doctor. She was a Suffragette of long standing and knew exactly what she had to do.

Prime Minister Shaw did not hang about. Her first parliament passed the following laws:

1. The boards of companies had to be composed of a membership that was at least 50% female (there was no similar stipulation that 50% of the board had to be male)
2. Extra funding was made available to raise the academic performance of girls (no extra funding was made available for boys)
3. 50% of university places had to be awarded to females
4. In the interests of equality, men were required to do at least 50% of household and childcare duties
5. Programmes were to be set up for all men and boys to teach them homemaking and childcare skills
6. Women and girls were to attend special courses in carpentry, plumbing and electrical repair
7. Women were to be paid exactly the same wage as a man doing the same job
8. Workplace commissions were set up to police and report discrimination against women and had the power to discipline male offenders
9. Women would receive a "househusband allowance" if she was supporting a man who was not working
10. A work programme was set up for unemployed women, to educate and train them to enable them to enter the workplace. There was no equivalent programme for unemployed men.
11. 50% of the armed forces, police and civil service personnel had to be female.

Ten years later after these sweeping reforms, the UK was a greatly changed place from the way it had been just 20 years earlier. The Suffragettes were still in power, helped by legislation in successive parliaments to reduce male suffrage and increase female suffrage. By 1940, only males aged 45 and who owned property were allowed to vote. The voting age for females, meanwhile, had been reduced to the age of 16.

Parliament was now dominated by the Suffragette movement. The male dominated parties were reduced to a rump, powerless and impotent against a tidal wave of united female representatives, and unlikely to ever form a government again.

In schools, assisted by funding and special programmes to enhance their performance, girls were doing a lot better than the boys and now comprised 77% of university undergraduates. Women dominated the professions and the top echelons of the business world. Lower down the career ladder, many more women than men worked.

Man, meantime, had in a very short time, fallen from grace. He was now less well educated, less likely to be in employment or to hold any senior role in politics, business, the civil service or even the armed forces than woman. He was required, against his will, to spend 50% of his time cooking, cleaning and looking after his children, thus doing what he considered to be "women's work".

Most men in the UK in 1940 were also financially dependent on their wives or girlfriends, who held the best jobs. Women were by now perceiving that they now called the shots in their relationship. They were making their man do the lion's share of the housework and child rearing, even if he worked. They were even making men dress up in the traditional uniform of maids and housewives for revenge for the way they had treated women in the past.

For middle and upper class men, it was now their turn to sit at home, dressed in the way ladies had been at the turn of the century, complete with frilly drawers, corsets and petticoats, their function being to look pretty, but with their brains atrophying with boredom as their male maids took care of their every need.

An inversion of traditional dress for males and females was underway. Women and girls greatly preferred trousers and enjoyed making their menfolk wear the skirt and watching them squirm with the realisation that they were now the second sex and had to wear the uniform of the weaker sex.

Other countries followed the lead of the UK, including the USA, Germany, Italy and Russia. Hitler never attained power in Germany and Mussolini and Stalin were replaced by female politicians. The Second World War and the Stalinist purges never happened and so the ugliest chapter in human history was never written.

Woman in the western world entered the second half of the twentieth century in complete mastery of the political system, the economy, and, especially, man.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this post of an alternative herstory.
    I have a blog about a future herstory, perhaps much harder to take than yours, but you just might want to check it out.
    In a time in the near future, because of women outdoing men in academics and business, they achieve power and go about setting up a matriarchy. There is a male revolt which the women crush. Once victorious the women then construct a Gynarchy that insures that males will never again regain power. The women remain beautiful but build their body strength while making all males into sissies.
    Might be too much feminization (forced and voluntary) for you, but check it out.