Twentieth Century Housewives and Competing Visions of Legal Equality in Marriage
This paper will explore how the debate over proper recognition of housewives’ work became a concern for feminists from the 1920s to the 1950s. While there are some notable accounts of the history of the women’s movement during this time (particularly throughout the 1940s and 1950s), there is a dearth of information on the connections during this period between feminist organisations and the broader framework of married women’s status in law. But this did not mean feminist organisation was not happening, or that there was no need for it. Indeed, the aftermath of women’s suffrage, changing economic conditions, the Second World War and the creation of the welfare state combined to form the backdrop to evolving feminist ideas about women’s role in the home. Specifically, I will explore the strand of ‘new feminism’ that emerged at this time, often overlooked as a result of the frequently used terminology of first and second wave feminism. Instead of associating equality with sameness of treatment and pursuing the ‘old’ aim to remove disabilities in law so women’s rights could be equal to men’s, new feminism sought to highlight work typically undertaken by women as being different yet equally valuable to work typically done by men. I will argue that these new ideas about recognising the value of housework helped fuel important legal challenges to marriage and its implications for property ownership, while exposing law’s failure to protect married women economically and to recognise the value of their work in the home.
Dr Sharon Thompson is a Reader in the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University, with interests in family law and mid-twentieth century feminist legal history. She is currently writing a book on the history of the Married Women’s Association. Her first monograph Prenuptial Agreements and the Presumption of Free Choice (Hart 2015) was shortlisted for the 2017 SLS Birks Prize and the 2016 SLSA Socio-Legal Prize.