The Edwardian Paradox
The coronation of King Charles III on May 6th, 2023, marking a new era in the UK, coincides with another important event over a century ago. On May 6th, 1910, King Edward VII died, technically ending the Edwardian era and marking a start of a new one. In King Edward VII’s coronation in 1901, Queen Alexandra’s crown was adorned with the Koh-i-noor diamond—today, a controversial gem considered by some as symbolizing colonialism and imperialism, and which Queen Consort Camilla avoided to wear in her coronation. Interestingly, like today, the sentiments of anti-imperialism, albeit in no reference to the gem, had also echoed throughout the Edwardian era.
Although King Edward VII died in 1910, historians use the term Edwardian era to include the years onto the beginning of the First World War. Because the era was just before the Great War, some romanticize it as a golden age of a laid-back life with nostalgic summer garden parties. This created a misconceived image of a less turbulent era, while in fact it was a time of the upsurge of labor rights and suffrage.
Because the era was just before the Great War, some romanticize it as a golden age of a laid-back life with nostalgic summer garden parties.
Angels and Labors
The Industrial Revolution and urbanization during the Victorian era brought the prosperous middle class into the Edwardian era. However, class divisions (although less stringent) and wage gaps from the previous era were much intact in the new era, as was the gender ideology. It was considered inappropriate for upper- and middle-class women to work. However, advances in technologies, such as in transportation and communications, had opened more doors to Edwardian women who had to work for a living.
Thus, working class and lower middle-class women continued to play an important economic role for the country. According to the statistics of Edwardian times, one of every ten women were in paid employment. Women worked as teachers, clerks, and physicians’ assistants. With advances in photography, some well-to-do women as well worked as models. However, most working women were from poor households, who toiled in gender-segregated and low-paying jobs, and struggled in bad labor conditions, barely surviving; many also worked as domestic workers.
Women march with their symbol of freedom, the bicycle (bustle.com)
Like the Victorian era, the ideal middle-class woman was the “angel in the house” with servants. The typical middle-class household would have at least one live-in domestic worker, typically a woman. Interestingly, due to the middle-class lifestyle and the rise in consumerism, middle-class families even during this period were already reducing the number of children they’d like to have. Abortion (which was illegal) was the birth control method widely used.
Nevertheless, some changes late in the Victorian period provided impetus for Edwardian women’s advancement. One example is how Victorian women were able to defy society’s mores and gravity by learning to ride the bicycle. This made mobility less of an issue for most Edwardian women, especially as bicycles had become affordable to the masses. The bike was revolutionary in the sense that it gave women the freedom of movement and changed restrictive fashion. The split skirt which flows open during riding allowed Edwardian women to pedal with ease. The vehicle became a symbol of women’s liberation.
Against the backdrop of British leisure, however, was rising suffrage and labor activism ...
Suffrage and Labor
Against the backdrop of British leisure, however, was rising suffrage and labor activism, which was the momentum of the Edwardian era. The suffragette movement grew stronger and louder, despite protesters being arrested and forced fed in jail if they went on hunger strikes. Socialist thoughts began to flourish and labor strikes peaked. Between 1900 and 1911, the percentage of the working-class population involved in strikes increased more than three times.
Suffragettes were also involved in labor activism. In 1903, suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and others established the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). The suffragette movement raised women workers’ issues, spurred rallies, and push for unionizing. Although not always on the same page with the suffragettes, women workers also advocated for suffrage, such as members of the Federation of Women Workers.
Pankhurst being arrested (Mashable.com)
In fact, in this era, there were issues raised that working women still face today. The welfare of working mothers as well as nurseries and childcare for all working women were issues already being raised at this time, particularly by suffragette and socialist, Ada Nield Chew. However, not surprisingly, the campaign did not gain much traction.
Domestic labor issues also did not find wide support due to conflict of interest between poor and wealthier women. The Domestic Workers’ Union (DWU) was established in 1909 and it campaigned for a 10-hour workday and for household work to be treated like industrial labor.
Moreover, anti-imperialists sentiments echoed through the era similar to today. Breaking away from Victorian values, Edwardian literature grew critical of imperialism, colonialism, and the class system.
Actually, anti-imperialist sentiments in Britain had begun in the late 19th century, but the controversial Second Boer War (1899–1902) had generated an increasingly critical view from radical liberals and socialists. In addition, the exploitation, abuse, and death occurring in indentured labor of the Indian people shipped to British colonies also sparked criticism towards the Empire until the practice finally ended in 1917.
Workers’ strikes continued throughout the era as the working class became increasingly dissatisfied with labor conditions. Between 1911 and 1914, there were over 3000 workers’ strikes; hence the period is known as “the Great Labor Unrest”. It was during this period, in 1906, that the Independent Labour Party (founded in 1893) established the Labour Representation Committee, which was then named the Labour Party.
Ready for the garden party, girls? (Pinterest.com)
During the war, suffragists took a break to focus on their support of the country. Women worked in replacement of men to support the war effort and supposedly for this contribution, they were awarded the right to vote, albeit not universal suffrage, in 1918. However, the war had destroyed an era.
Coined the Golden Age of British life, the Edwardian era was nonetheless a hotbed for turbulence as different groups struggled against inequalities. In short, the era was a paradox of social unrest and summer garden parties.
-Some Thoughts from the Cappuccino Girl- (2023)
#Edwardian #suffrage #labormovement #Britain #history #gender
Top image: Portrait of socialites Violet Morene and Yvonne Fitzroy modelling for Bassano, circa 1910 (npg.org.uk).
Check out my other blog, Some Thoughts from the Cappuccino Girl for topics on gender and history.
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