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Contemporary Views of the Women¡¯s Rights Movement In the Early 20th Century Before World War I

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kang, Injung
Term Paper, AP European History Class, June 2009

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Encyclopedia Britannica 10th Edition (1902)
II.1 Article : Law Relating to Women
II.2 Article : Percy Bysshe Shelly
III. Encyclopedia Britannica 11th Edition (1911)
III.1 Article : Women
III.2 Article : Law Relating to Husband and Wife
III.3 Article : Woman Suffrage
III.4 Article : Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
IV. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            In pursuit of investigating and analyzing the contemporary views of the women¡¯s rights movement, the paper is to focus on the perspectives of two encyclopedias on women and compares and contrasts them: Encyclopedia Britannica 10th Edition and Encyclopedia Britannica 11th Edition. First one was printed in 1902, and the latter one in 1911, so exists about a decade between them. Because the women¡¯s rights movement is regularized in the late 19th century, the source of the paper is limited to those before 1914.
            The paper compares and studies the topic by searching for the specific statements that mentions about women and the appearance of articles on new subjects.

II. Encyclopedia Britannica 10th Edition (1902)
            There are a few articles about women or female in Encyclopedia Britannica 10th Edition. I could find only one article mentioning the general perspectives on and contemporary conditions of women: Law Relating to Women. In addition, I searched for an English writer who stressed the liberation of women and found an article that mentions her

II.1 Article: Law Relating to Women
            "The dependent position of women in early law is proved by the evidence of most ancient systems which have in whole or in part descended to us ... until the present day, the legal position of women differs little from that of men as far as regards private rights. Politically and professionally the, sexes are still not upon an equality ... no right of speaking or voting ... she cannot serve on an ordinary jury ... She cannot be registered as a voter or vote at a parliamentary election or be elected a member of parliament ... and the old theory of their intellectual and moral inferiority is virtually exploded."

            The article acknowledges the subordination of women in the contemporary legal system, which maintained not to provide women with unequal rights. However it shows a significant change in perception of women.

            "A woman may fill some of the highest positions in the state. She may be a queen, a regent, or a peeress in her own right ... The only one of the learned professions open to women is the medical "

            Although a woman in this period could enjoy some social privileges, her high social status could generally be acquired regarding her inherent condition of life such as lineage, fortune and marital advantage, not by her own ability, intelligence, willingness for power and effort. Women¡¯s opportunity of social participation and success was extremely limited, as can be seen from the last sentence.

            "Special regulations are made by the Factories and Mines Acts as to the employment of women and girls in factories and mines"

            Special regulations and protection were applied to women and girls. It shows that females in the early 20th century were considered as the weak in the society, who needed special treatment

            "Unmarried women and widows have practically equal rights with men. Since the date of the article HUSBAND AND WIFE the Married Women¡¯s Property Act, 1882, has extended the change in the law attempted to a limited degree by the previous Acts of 1870 and 1874. The most important provisions of the Act (45 and 46 Vict. c. 75) falling under this head are the following. A married woman is capable of acquiring, holding, and disposing by will or otherwise of any real and personal property as her separate property, in the same manner as if she were a feme sole, without the intervention of any trustee."

            Notably, the private property of women was acknowledged by law. However the word ¡®practically¡¯ means almost, but not completely or exactly. Rights of property of men and women were still not equal.

II.1 Article: Percy Bysshe Shelly
            Percy Bysshe Shelly is a son-in-law of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin who is best known for "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" (1792), in which she argued that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be so just because they lack sufficient education. She suggested that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagined a social order based on human reason.

            Although Wollstonecraft¡¯s life has received much more attention from the general public and specifically from feminists later, there is no article about her in the 10th edition of Britannica. Instead, she is shortly mentioned in an article about Percy Shelly.

            "The speculative sage whom Shelley especially reverenced was William Godwin, the author of Political Justice and of the romance Caleb Williams; in 1796 he had married Mary Wollstonecraft, authoress of The Rights of Woman, who died shortly after giving birth, on 30th August 1797, to a daughter Mary."

            In this statement, Mary Wollstonecraft appears to explain the background of Shelly¡¯s wife. She is informed as an authoress of her one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. However the title of her writing which is actually "A Vindication of Women¡¯s Rights" is wrongly written as "The Rights of Woman." In addition, the word ¡°authoress¡± which is hardly used in these days reflects short distinction between men and women.

III Encyclopedia Britannica 11th Edition (1911)
            Compared to Encyclopedia Britannica 10th Edition, 11th Edition has more articles and fuller explanation about women. It might reflect that women¡¯s rights movement became more active and gathered more attention from the society.

III.1 Article : Women
            "The very word woman ... sums up a long history of dependence and subordination, from which the women of to-day have only gradually emancipated themselves in such parts of the world has come under Western civilization ... The most remarkable disabilities under which women were still placed in 1910 were (I) the exclusion of female heirs from intestate succession to real estate, unless in the absence of a male heir (see Inheritance; Succession); and (2) the fact that a husband could obtain a divorce for the adultery of his wife, while a wife could only obtain it for her husband's adultery if coupled with some other cause, such as cruelty or desertion ... The movement for the abolition of the sex distinction in respect of the right conferred upon certain citizens to share in the election of parliamentary representatives dates for practical purposes from the middle of the 19th century."

            Similar to the articles of 10th Edition, this article mentions the long history of the subordination of women and unfair conditions for women still existing. In those days, women gradually started to claim their fundamental rights and to free themselves from the other gender.

            "Women have always found a peculiarly fitting sphere as nurses, though it is only in recent years that nursing (q.v.) has been professionalized by means of proper education."

            The article in the 11th Edition also mentions the limited professions opened to women, medical.

III.2 Article : Women
            "The courts of equity, however, greatly modified the rules of the common law by the introduction of the wife's separate estate, i.e. property settled to the wife for her separate use, independently of her husband. The principle seems to have been originally admitted in a case of actual separation, when a fund was given for the maintenance of the wife while living apart from her husband ... The common practice of regulating the rights of husband, wife and children by marriage settlements obviates the hardships of the common law - at least for the women of the wealthier classes. The legislature by the Married Women's Property Acts of 1870, 1874, 1882 (which repealed and consolidated the acts of 1870 and 1874), 1893 and 1907 introduced very considerable changes. The chief provisions of the Married Women's Property Act 1882, which enormously improved the position of women unprotected by marriage settlement, are, shortly, that a married woman is capable of acquiring, holding and disposing of by will or otherwise, any real and personal property."
            The article of the 11th Edition shows that women were allowed to have their separate property. However as the word ¡®practically¡¯ in the 10th edition, the expression ¡®at least for the women of the wealthier classes¡¯ reveals that the equity in rights of property was still not completely realized.

III.3 Article: Woman Suffrage
            "In 1908 the death of the suffragist Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman and the succession of the anti-suffragist Mr. Asquith to the Liberal premiership were very disadvantageous to suffrage prospects in the House of Commons ... The anti-suffragists in the Lords were a more formidable group than in the Commons. Lord Curzon, president of the Anti Suffrage Society, was the leader of the House and chief representative of the Government ... Later, if persisted in, those who asked them were treated with shameful violence ... It should always be remembered that between 1905 and 1908 the militants never answered violence by violence; they suffered violence, but used none. In 1908 they definitely abandoned this policy of non-retaliation; to the last, however, they set limits for themselves, and never shed one drop of blood of either man or beast."

            Even the head of Liberal Party which advocates individual rights and civil liberties opposed to the introduction of suffragettes. I surmise that the contemporary society still had hardships in accepting the concept of gender equality. Sometimes, as opposition is intensified, feminists suffered violence. However feminists maintained not to take a means of violence to respond opposition,

            "The Women's Social and Political Union, led by Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, which came into existence about this time, confined its activities to asking inconvenient questions of members of the Government at public meeting."

            Therefore, women had to keep long, painful struggle. In a way of struggle, unions for women were formed to organize the movements and to raise the public¡¯s consciousness on the matter

III.4 Article: Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
            Unlike Encyclopedia Britannica 10th Edition, the 11th Edition has an article about Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. It also mentions her writing "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" asserting that human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men.

            "In 1792 appeared A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the work with which her name is always associated ... built on this simple principle that, if woman be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence or general practice ... It was a protest against the assumption that woman was only the plaything of man, and she asserted that intellectual companionship was the chief, as it is the lasting, happiness of marriage ... "

            Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin opposed to the general idea that women are intellectually inferior by nature. Assuming Mary Wollstonecraft¡¯s idea reflected the general atmosphere of the contemporary society, females in those days started to assert their rights and claim the equality of sex

IV. Conclusion
            According to the encyclopedias of the early 20th century, women still had to suffer discrimination and neglect of the society. Several expressions in the encyclopedia also revealed contemporary views of women which strictly separated women from men. However women themselves began to realize their fair rights which ought to be respected as well as those of men. Aiming to obtain equal rights as men, women started rights movement, and as a result, the society gradually changed their perception on women. Amendments described in the encyclopedias reflect improved women¡¯s condition in the contemporary society.
            To compare Encyclopedia Britannica 10th Edition and 11th Edition, they reflect similar atmosphere and perspective of society and conditions of women. However 11th Edition gives more mention and articles about women, which shows increased attention on the issue throughout an decade.


Note : websites quoted below were visited in June 2009.
Primary Sources
1.      Encyclopedia Britannica 10th Edition(1902),
1.a      Article : Law Relating to Women
1.b      Article : Percy Bysshe Shelly ¡°¡±
2.      Encyclopedia Britannica 11th Edition(1911)
2.a      Article : Women ¡°¡±
2.b      Article : Law Relating to Husband and Wife ¡°¡±
2.c      Article : Woman Suffrage ¡°¡±
2.d      Article : Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin

Secondary Sources
3.      Article : Suffragettes, from Wikipedia
4.      Article : Mary Wollstonecraft, from Wikipedia

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