William Sinclair Manson

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Scotland and its history / Writings · 19 September 2023

Scotland and its History (Women. A History).

20th Century Scottish Women – Changing Roles


The role played by women in Scottish society has changed more during the 20th century than any other century in recorded history. The roles of mother, wife, worker and fully enfranchised member of society varied widely over the century and were dependent on an age, status and class. When these roles began to change and women’s voices were heard in Scottish society, the benefits weren’t universal but first affected the top of the social pecking order and filtered down through the middle classes to the working class women who made up the majority. It was a long process of inclusion and exclusion.

Prior to the First World War, which changed the female role in society drastically as it did in most things, the role of women was very much confined to life at home. This was something of a Victorian ideal. Whether from the middle or the working classes it was deemed by this most patriarchal culture to be unsavoury for a woman to work in the sense of nurturing a career, and hence University education and training was not a viable option. Work for a middle class woman was seen as something which was done prior to marriage, a hobby which was unpaid, or something done by spinsters and widows who didn’t have a man to bring home the bread. Such work was often within the confines of nursing, teaching or childcare, and was never considered to be of as much value as male work. In fact an equal wage package for male and female teachers wasn’t implemented until the 1950s.

In the working classes the situation was far worse. Industrial Scotland, centred on Clydeside shipbuilding and engineering, was extremely male orientated and for a woman to enter such work was unthinkable before the war. Also, the birth rate amongst working class women was considerably higher than amongst the middle classes. It was quite common for women in the pre-war slums of Glasgow to be cooking and cleaning for ten children, without any labour saving devices, whilst working part-time to supplement the male wage. Again none of this was really considered to be work, especially if you were married because ‘true labour’ was considered the male domain. A 1911 census showed that only 1 in 20 employed women in Scotland were married, and although this demonstrates attitudes to working women and their place in the family, the census undoubtedly missed the vast amount of part-time work done by working class women, which was often cleaning, cooking or childcare for the wealthy, and was mainly off the books. The 

Munitions Workers

exception to this was in Dundee where the Jute Mills employed mainly married women, and unemployed women were regarded as lazy, whether married or not.

There were several important factors which changed this situation for women. During the First World War women started to fill the places in factories which were left vacant by men fighting in the trenches. This seems to have been something of a catalyst for women as a group in society. It was a demonstration that women were more than capable of doing work which was previously considered to be the sole preserve of men. The situation amplified the political voice of women in society and female Trade Union membership rose accordingly. This is not to say that there was a sudden change in gender relationships after the war. Those soldiers who survived did return to work and the male Trade Unions didn’t suddenly fling the doors open to women (they were in fact quite bluntly told to return home by many Trade Unionists), but women were now in a far stronger bargaining position.

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