Ideas, structures and practices of feminism, 1939-64
A dominant theme in histories of twentieth century women's politics is the argument that there have been two 'waves' of high profile activity and unity: the pre 1914 suffrage Movement and the post 1960s Women's Liberation Movement. As a result of this historical temporality, the years 1918-68 have generally been presented as a period of longterm decline in women's politics. Since the late 1980s, research on women's politics in the interwar years has begun to challenge this consensus. However, there has been limited re-evaluation of women's political organisation in the 1940s and 1950s. Existing research presents this period primarily in terms of decline, and offers an interpretation of 1940s and l950s feminism through the unsympathetic lens of a 'second wave' definition of feminism based on opposition to women's traditional domestic roles. Using recently released archival material which has yet to be incorporated into analysis of women's politics in this period, and drawing on shifts in feminist thinking since the 1980s, the thesis offers a re-evaluation of self identified feminism in the period 1939-64. Taking as its primary focus, the Married Women's Association, a feminist organisation concerned with the legal economic rights of married women, the thesis argues that a new strand of feminism emerged in the late 1930s. Although the key themes of this 'new' feminism - economic equality and independence of the full-time housewife - were distinctive to the l940s and 1950s, they also revealed intimations of ideas and issues taken up by the Women's Liberation Movement from the late l960s. By arguing for equality in difference, 'new' feminists applied the language of equal rights to women's position in the private sphere. In the process they argued that full-time housewives, as workers and marital partners, were entitled to economic independence in the form of a legal right to half the male wage. From the late 1950s however, growing feminist recognition of married women's dual role led to the beginnings of a discussion about the effects of women's domesticity on their status in the workplace; this was to develop into a critique of the role of full-time housewife for women.