Talk on ‘Devon Women in Public and Professional Life, 1900-1950’

On 18 January Dr Neville spoke about the changing role of women in this country during the first half of the 20th century. Her talk focused on eight Devon women and is the outcome of some twelve years’ research, using mainly local sources such as archived regional newspapers.

In just 100 years much has changed for women in our society but it is all too easy to forget the battles – both literal and figurative – that were fought during the campaign to achieve equal status with men. Even the right to vote was restricted initially to property ownership and a specific age range, and the campaigns and actions of the suffragettes served to highlight these injustices.

Julia drew attention to the way in which women’s roles were transformed during both World Wars as men were called up and so women took on many jobs previously done by men in order to keep the country fed, its transport system functioning and its factories producing everyday necessities as well as armaments and supplies for troops. In addition, many women served as nurses in the armed forces and in civilian life began to take on more senior roles in education, social care and medicine. The period following WW1 in particular, provided many opportunities for women, following some years of better education and encouraging girls to stay on at school, with the first female university graduates and barristers taking up posts in the 1920s.

Amongst these women were Clara Daymond, the first woman elected onto Plymouth Borough Council’s Public Health Committee, and Dr. Mabel Ramsay who became a surgeon following her pioneering work in WW1 and who went on to found the Medical Women’s Federation. We were particularly interested to hear about Jessie Headridge who was head of Exeter’s Episcopal Modern School for Girls – later known as Bishop Blackall School – where she encouraged girls to stay on at school beyond 14, the statutory leaving age.

While much took place locally, few women had national roles. However Eleanor Acland from Killerton was the first Devon woman to stand for Parliament in 1931 although she was not elected. Most of the women in Julia’s study did not need to earn their own living; they had the benefit of a good education and also the time, energy and in some cases the money to make significant changes to the society in which they lived.

Louise Clunies-Ross and Mike Aspray

Created by Alex Volkov