Category Archives: Women's History

The Civil Service Marriage Bar – Attitudes to Women and Work in the Mid-20th Century

I love Call the Midwife. A recent episode, set in 1965, about illegitimacy and the pressure on single women to give up their baby (or marry) really does give pause for thought about attitudes towards women in society generally, even within living memory.

It got me thinking wider about beliefs about the role of women in the middle part of the 20th century, particularly married working women. Certain jobs today are perceived as traditionally female occupations. As a former civil servant, I have an interest in this work area. Civil Service jobs, particularly junior administrative and clerical roles, may fall within this traditionally ‘female’ category. But perhaps that impression may not be quite as it seems.

Today 53.9% of the UK Civil Service are women, of all relationship statuses. However, in the not-so-distant past, this was not the case. Until the Great War, it was a male-dominated profession. Yes, the labour vacuum created by the two wars did result in the influx of female workers. But the position was far more nuanced – particularly with regard to marital status. The way the Civil Service was structured and operated in the mid 20th century was transformed totally by the end of the century.

A Day in the Life of a Wartime Housewife- Everyday Life in London, England, 1941, a ‘girl clerk in a war-time organisation’  – Wikimedia Commons – Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain],

One key factor influencing Civil Service employment in the early and middle part of the 20th century, which may not be obvious today, was the distinction between established and unestablished Civil Servants. Linked to this was a marriage bar for established female Civil Servants, a ban imposed by the government.

It meant married women couldn’t become established (permanent, pensionable) Civil Servants [1], and single women who were in the established cadre had to resign when they did marry, unless granted a waiver to continue. This waiver was an exceptional occurrence, with only eight of these granted between 1934 and 1938. In effect, married women were second-class citizens.

The Civil Service position regarding married women working in permanent roles was not unique. Similar restrictions on the employment of married women applied for a wide range of professions, some of these also traditionally viewed as suited to women. These included the post office (part of the Civil Service until the 1960s), banking, teaching and nursing.

The reasons for having this restriction included the view that it was the woman’s responsibility after marriage to look after her husband. Marriage was, in fact, a career in its own right – albeit unpaid! In 1944, when the marriage bar issue was under discussion by the Union of Post Office Workers, one representative argued:

In this country we have always held that a woman’s place is in the home.

This from someone in an organisation championing worker’s rights!

A Day in the Life of a Wartime Housewife- Everyday Life in London, England, 1941, ‘preparing the evening meal – Wikimedia Commons – Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain],

It was also perceived that women became less efficient employees once married, as their minds were no longer wholly on their job. They also needed time off to have children, and were unpunctual or absent because of their family responsibilities. Linked to this was the belief that it was the fundamental right of a man to be the provider in his own home. Working wives somehow shifted this balance, emasculating their husbands. Furthermore, married working women reduced employment opportunities for men, and this contributed to male unemployment. These women also took jobs and promotion opportunities away from single women, who needed work more than their married (and supposedly financially supported) sisters. And perhaps I’m being cynical here, but it also saved money. Pay was linked to time-served progression. Forcing women out on marriage meant their progression up the pay scale was curtailed.

But attitudes slowly shifted as the Second World War drew to a close, and practicalities were weighed up. Banishing a whole section of the female population to the kitchen again, and denying them rights to a full working life, was becoming an increasingly difficult line to hold. Once more, women needed to plug wartime labour market gaps, and stepped up to the plate effectively. There was also a growing realisation that the experience, ideas and contributions of a whole section of society was being denied. Female university graduates were put off from applying for jobs with no long-term prospects. Arguments were put forward that married female employment was not a cause of male unemployment, and pulling a whole section of women out of the workforce was not the answer. The push for equality, and freedom of choice, therefore gained traction, despite ingrained prejudices. And, ironically, labour-saving devices around the home helped too, freeing time and opening up the world of work to more women.

The marriage bar was gradually removed from 1944 onwards (this was the date the wider teaching profession lifted the restriction). The Civil Service was only slightly behind the pace – it was becoming increasingly untenable for government to continue with the policy. For well over a decade, the restriction on married women working in the established Civil Service had been under discussion. It had a Marriage Bar Committee investigating various aspects associated with the policy, both pros and cons. There was even a National Whitley Council report on the subject. The decision could no longer be kicked into the long grass.

The marriage bar was finally abolished in October 1946 for the Home Civil Service, and 1973 for Foreign Service employment. More details about this are at here.

In his explanatory parliamentary statement on 15 October 1946, Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, Edward Hugh John Neale Dalton, said:

In future, married women will not be ineligible by reason of their marriage for appointment to established posts in the Home Civil Service, and women who remain in the Service will be required to comply with the normal conditions and practices of their employment, including regular attendance, the working of overtime when necessary and the acceptance of the liability to transfer within the United Kingdom and outside it. Those who, on account of domestic responsibilities or otherwise, are unable to comply with these conditions will not be retained in Service.
The abolition of the marriage bar will take effect today. It will not give any right of reinstatement to women who in the past have been required to resign from the Civil Service on marriage. Marriage gratuities will be paid [2], as hitherto, to women who voluntarily resign from established Civil Service posts on marriage.

However, the opposition to the removal of the marriage bar in the Civil Service and elsewhere continued to be aired well into the 1950s. For example, at the Civil Service Conference of 1950, a motion to re-introduce it was defeated by 7,348 votes to 5,454.

The arguments for its re-imposition focused around easing the redundancy threat facing established officers, particularly married men. Questions were also raised about the future shape of the Civil Service. The implication being this was a step on the slippery slope to employing married women with children. It raised the question:

What kind of Civil Service are we building up? Next we’ll be asking to requisition playpens so they can bring their children into the office.

There were even cartoons depicting the chaos of infants in the office.

And some were unhappy at the potential job competition faced by single women from their married counterparts. Men clearly had an ulterior motive for espousing this view, although some single women did put it forward too.

An illustration of the denial of jobs for unmarried women argument was seen at the Union of Post Office Workers Annual Conference of 1953. This was a union which had campaigned for the removal of the marriage bar in the Civil Service. Yet at their 1953 Conference, attempts were made to seek reimposition of the ban on married women in the Post Office. Those in favour here claimed it was unfair that single women who had dependents were being denied an income, whilst married women were able to afford TV sets and washing machines from their dual family income. The Conference contained the immortal lines of one speaker:

Do not let us have girls standing in unemployment queues while their married colleagues are going about looking like bookies wives.

However, the situation of married women working did gradually become tolerated and accepted.

By 15 September 1958, The Times, in a feature on Whitehall Women, focusing on Administrative Class (senior hierarchy) rather than the more junior Executive, Clerical and other Officer Classes, was extolling the opportunities in the Home Civil Service for suitably qualified women, stating that:

…the State is an enlightened employer recognising by generous maternity leave that a married woman may have children in the course of her career and arrange her life so she can have the best of these two worlds.

It went on to cover advantages such as annual leave, a five-day week, the prospect of travel to places such as Paris, Bonn, Geneva and Washington, and, from 1961, equal pay with male colleagues. This was all aimed at enticing more female university graduates to apply for a Civil Service career.

Yet even in this article there was the whiff of sexism, with lines such as:

If they are attractive, as well as having good brains, “they are most useful” to quote an official “in swaying meetings.”

Despite the example set by government for Home Service Civil Servants, the marriage bar continued formally and informally in the private sector even beyond the 1950s. For example, Barclays Bank did not abolish it until 1961. And there was still a bar in place for Foreign Service Civil Servants into the early 1970s.

So it is well worth considering this specific restriction on the employment of women when investigating the occupations of your female ancestors. Did such a restriction play a part in their career choices, even the choices for university graduates? And did it also play a part in prematurely ending their working lives, effectively forcing them to leave their jobs and work colleagues? And imagine how that felt, cut adrift from the familiar routine of their lives, their friends and daily interactions, let alone the monetary impact.

It also is worth considering that the Civil Service wasn’t structured as now – it contained two classes of workers: established (which is probably what we regard today as the Civil Service) and unestablished. And very different terms and conditions of employment existed when compared to today. Even if jobs and professions continue today, do investigate the terms and conditions which existed for your ancestors. You may be surprised.

Finally, the marriage bar and societal attitudes towards it, provides yet another fascinating insight into the lives of our female ancestors, and the job choices they had. And it is another example of the pitfall of using 21st century eyes to view the lives of our ancestors, and their work (and life) options. Many did not choose to give up work, they were in effect forced out because they married and their job did not permit them to continue under these circumstances.

[1] The Civil Service structure, and its strict recruitment and promotion procedures, was a complex system. In addition to established permanent Civil Servants, there existed another tier of unestablished employees. The unestablished Civil Service were essentially supposed to be non-permanent staff, not subject to the superannuation act. They were meant to plug gaps such as those created during wartime, or through seasonal fluctuations. They could be easily dispensed with when conditions changed, thus protecting established staff from the threat of redundancy. Recruitment of these temporary staff tended to be on a Departmental level and not as a result of stringent centrally imposed examinations. It was therefore a concern that if these unestablished workers did gain entry to the established ranks (which could happen) they would not match the rigorous intellectual standards attained by examination entrant Civil Servants. Nevertheless there was some blurring, with an increasing tendency for unestablished posts to become temporary in name only without the benefits of permanency. This in itself resulted in pressure for change. However, even as late as 1 January 1965 there were approximately 159,000 temporary non-industrial civil servants.
[2] These length of service based gratuities were paid upon marriage to permanent female civil servants who had worked a minimum of six (established) years.


Pioneers of the FIFA Women’s World Cup: The First Football Internationals

The Women’s Football World Cup is now well underway. With England v Scotland attracting a peak of 6.1 million BBC TV viewers, becoming the UK’s most watched women’s football match of all time, it’s a far cry from the sport’s early days.

The first women’s international match took place on Saturday 7 May 1881 between Scotland and England at Hibernian Road, Easter Park in front of about 2,000. According to some reports the teams had only trained for about a fortnight for this game, the first in a series of rather chaotic, public exhibition matches to be played in both countries. 

The England team, including (according to some press reports) women from London [1], which took the field comprised of May Goodwin (goal); Mabel Bradbury, Maude Hopewell, Maude Starling, Ada Everstone, Geraldine Ventner, Mabel Vance, Eva Davenport, Minnie Hopewell, Kate Mellor and Nellie Sherwood. The Scotland team, from Glasgow and the surrounding area, was Ethel Hay (goal); Bella Oswald, Georgina Wright, Rose Raynham, Isa Stevenson, Emma Wright, Louise/Louisa Cole, Lily St Clair, Maude Riverford,[2] Carrie Baliol and Minnie Brymner. Some spellings vary depending on newspaper.

It is possible some of the names were stage names to disguise real identities. Interestingly two ‘actors,’ 18-year-old Louisa Cole (born in Greenock, Renfrewshire) and 19-year-old English-born Carrie H Baliol, were lodging in the home of Margaret Henderson in Campbeltown, Argyllshire [3]. Both these names featured amongst the Scotland forwards. Their presence adds to this game owing as much to theatre and entertainment as a sporting contest.

The game took place against the backdrop of the early years of the suffrage movement and advancement of women’s rights. In fact, the games were part of the pushing back of the long-established boundaries confining and defining women and their place in society. Indeed, a piece in The Jedburgh Gazette described it as ‘women’s rights with a vengeance.’ [4]

To put in some kind of context, it was only in 1870 that any money which a married woman earned could be treated as her own property and not her husband’s, with the introduction of the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act. And it was not until after the Internationals, in 1882, that the right was extended to allow married women to have complete personal control over all of their property. 

The attitudes towards women and ideas around their expected behaviours were instrumental to most of the reporting.  The game was variously described as a ‘most disappointing spectacle…football is not a game for women,’ [5] ‘an athletic novelty’ [6] and ‘a general feeling was apparent…to make fun of the match.’ [7] although the players were described as being ‘of excellent physique in most cases’ [8]. It was claimed ‘before the match was concluded more than half the spectators had gone. The general feeling seemed to be that the whole affair was a most unfeminine exhibition…’ [9]. 

An inordinate amount of attention was paid to the players’ attire and hair, with some retaining

 …such feminine ornaments as frilling, bracelets, &c., but others, with arms bare to the shoulder, entered into the game with all the enthusiasm of boys. [10]

The kit was essentially similar to their male counterparts. Scotland sported blue jerseys, a badge with two Union Jacks, a crimson waist sash, knickerbockers and blue and white hose. The English team’s jersey was crimson, with a blue sash and a lion rampant badge. They had white knickerbockers and crimson and white hose. Both teams wore crimson and white woollen cowls and high-laced boots. 

1890’s Illustration of a Women’s Football Match

Scotland ran out 3-0 victors. The Fife Herald typified the waspish type of reporting. Their take on the women was: 

They were slow in all their movements except, perhaps, when they were within a few feet of the goal, when their tongues were in full swing…

Although they did grudgingly conclude:

Misses Maude Hopewell and Bella Oswald as backs, and several of the forwards played well. [11]

They went on to quote the Glasgow News saying:

Football is not a game for women and the spectacle of a score of girls careering about the field in knickerbockers is not to be defended on any ground of public utility.

The teams struggled to get a venue for the next game, it being eventually played on 16 May 1881 at the Shawfield Ground, Rutherglen Bridge, Glasgow.  It resulted in what was termed as a scandalous exhibition, disgraceful scenes and a display of ruffianism from ‘Glasgow Roughs’ with fighting and a pitch invasion. 

Around 400 paid to watch the game but others burst the gates despite police efforts to prevent them. This swelled the crowd to what some newspapers estimated to be as many as 5,000.  Mainly men, they hooted, hissed and laughed at the women and ‘after 55 minutes of play of the most amateurish description’ [12] a contingent cut the ropes and stormed the pitch.

A police baton charge was required to rescue the players, some who were badly treated by the mob. With difficulty the women managed to get to their horse-drawn omnibus, one (or two, depending on newspaper report) fainting in the process. The four grey horses pulling the omnibus galloped away, with the accompanying jeers and hisses from the mob ringing in the women’s ears.

A further attempt to play a game at Kilmarnock was halted by the intervention of magistrates. The Ayr Advertiser’s take on this read:

The “LADY” FOOTBALL PLAYERS – Kilmarnock was saved the scandal of a visit from the “Lady Football players” on Tuesday night, by the intervention of the magistrates whose representations caused the club who had granted the use of their field to cancel the engagement. The managers of the female teams being advised of this decision by telegraph, they did not put in an appearance. And the disgraceful exhibition was accordingly prevented. [13]

The teams now moved over the border to England. They played their next game in front of a crowd of about 4,000 at the Olympic Club, Blackburn on the afternoon of Saturday, 21 May 1881. 

I can find no details of the team sheets but curiously a couple of reports stated ‘The players hail from Glasgow’ [14]

This is backed up by a report in the Athletic News of 25 May which stated:

The fair performers were unmercifully chaffed by the spectators but as the remarks were passed in the coarsest Lancashire, and the girls are as Scotch as they can find in Glasgow, the talk did not hurt them much for want of being understood. [15]

Both teams had second half goals disallowed, but a few minutes before the game ended the ‘English representatives’ scrambled the ball over to finish 1-0 winners.

The ad hoc nature of the matches is illustrated by the report of what appears to be the next game which took place on 3 June:

The female football players not being able to find a ground in Manchester, wandered to Liverpool, and on Friday last they managed to bring off a match at a running ground in the outskirts of the city. The following report of what the “ladies” are pleased to call “football” has been sent in to me for publication:- On Friday evening the lady football players gave an exhibition of their powers to the Liverpool public at Stanley Athletic Grounds. The young ladies appeared on the field at 7.30 p.m., and were loudly cheered by the spectators. The Scotch captain won the toss and selected to play with the wind. The match, from the players point of view, was very good. About 15 minutes from the start the English secured the first goal through a piece of good dribbling on the part of Miss Eva Davenport. Thereafter the Scotch pressed their opponents very hard, Miss Louisa Cole making several fine runs but failed to score before half-time was called. On ends being changed, the Scotch scored their first goal, Miss Louisa Cole doing the needful just before time was called. For the English Miss May Goodwin at goal stopped several dangerous shots. Misses Geraldine Vintner, Eva Davenport, and Minnie Hopewell as forwards dribbled well and made some splendid runs. For the Scotch, Miss Georgia Wright at back played a good defensive game. Misses Louisa Cole and Maud Rimeford, as forwards, played a good combined game. Altogether the match was a great success although the attendance was not so large as might have been expected to witness such a novelty. [16]

The team appeared to be based in Manchester. From there on 13 June they travelled by rail to Windhill, Bradford to play another game. The Leeds Times reported:

They are not a prepossessing band of females, and generally are composed of young girls, a few of them being between twenty and thirty years of age. A large number of people witnessed the game, which was well played. The competitors were frequently and uproariously cheered by spectators. The match ended in a victory for Scotland by three goals to two. [17] 

They did eventually get to play in Manchester, but once more confusion reigned. The Athletic News of 22 June 1881 reported that the team had arrived in Manchester a month ago but initially had not found a ground to play on. They finally arranged to play on the field of Salford FC but this fell through when their cashier absconded with the money needed for the ground rent. It was then announced they would play at Cheetham Football Club’s Tetlow Fold, and a 3,000- strong crowd turned up for the game on 20 June.

The report continued:

Unfortunately, there was some other hitch in the proceedings, and the game did not come off, but I am informed that all the difficulties have been cleared away, and that these matches would duly be played last evening [21 June] and to-night (Wednesday). [18]

Cheetham FC were at pains to distance themselves from the event. They even advertised to this effect in an open letter dated 21 June from Edwin Smales, the Club Secretary, which was published in the Manchester Courier. [19]

The game on 21 June proved another debacle. The Huddersfield Chronicle of 23 June carried a full report about the ‘Scene at a Football Match’:

The players attired in a costume which is neither graceful nor very becoming, were driven to the ground in a wagonette, and, as was to be expected, were followed by a crowd largely composed of youths eager to avail themselves of the opportunity presented for a little boisterous amusement…Very few persons paid for admission to the grounds, but a great multitude assembled in the road and struggled for a sight of what was going on within the enclosure, whilst an equally large number gathered in the higher ground on the other side of the field for a similar purpose. A number of police constables were present to maintain order and prevent anyone entering without paying, and for about an hour, whilst the so-called match was being played they succeeded. There were frequent attempts, however, to elude the constables. At length a great rush was made by those occupying the higher land, and the football ground was speedily taken possession by the mob. Apprehending a repetition of the rough treatment they have met with in other parts of the country, the women no sooner heard the clamour which accompanied the rush than they also took to their heels and ran to where their wagonette was standing. This they reached before the crowd could overtake them, and amid the jeers of the multitude and much disorder they were immediately driven away. [20]

So, another abandoned match. But the ladies did not give in. These pioneers of the women’s game returned to Liverpool. There, as advertised in the Liverpool Mercury of 25 June 1881, the International Lady Football Players played two more games on the 25 and 27 June at the Cattle Market Inn Athletic Ground, Stanley. Admission was 1s. 

Liverpool Mercury – 25 June 1881

In yet another curious newspaper report, reference was made to the disappointingly small attendance:

Owing, probably, to the disappointment caused a few weeks ago by their failure to keep an engagement to play at the same grounds… [21]

The report went on to discuss the women’s ‘modest and picturesque’ costume, and half-time refreshments of oranges. Scotland won the game 2-1.

The second game on 27 June was better attended:

The play was very spirited, and at times the feeling of nationality was strongly manifested by the onlookers, the efforts of the players on both sides being encouraged and rewarded by cheers. [22]

Scotland proved the stronger side, winning 2-0. The report made mention of a further match to be played that night, 28 June. Indeed, the newspaper even carried an advert for the game. I’ve not found any report of the result yet.

Liverpool Echo – 28 June 1881

This typified the chaos surrounding these first so-called internationals with cancelled and abandoned games, uncertainty about identities (and nationalities) of those playing or even scorers, and all this taking place in the face of the prevailing attitude about the role of women in society. The fact that these ‘anonymous’ women managed to play any games at all under such difficult and downright hostile circumstances is a testament to their strength of character.

What a total contrast to the FIFA Women’s World Cup of 2019, with its media coverage, worldwide interest, and Panini sticker albums all contributing to the profiles of the players, making them household names and sporting role models to future generations of female footballers. 


  • [1] Edinburgh Evening News, 9 May 1881
  • [2] For example Riverford is sometimes Rimeford or Riweford
  • [3] 1881 Scotland Census, accessed via Ancestry, Reference – Parish: Campbeltown; ED: 16; Page: 13; Line: 6; Roll: cssct1881_150
  • [4] The Jedburgh Gazette, 14 May 1881
  • [5] The Dundee Courier and Argus, 10 May 1881
  • [6] Buxton Herald, 11 May 1881
  • [7] The Edinburgh Evening News, 9 May 1881
  • [8] Ibid
  • [9] Nottinghamshire Guardian, 13 May 1881
  • [10] The Ayr Advertiser, 12 May 1881
  • [11] The Fife Herald, 12 May 1881
  • [12] Glasgow Herald 17 May 1881
  • [13] The Ayr Advertiser 19 May 1881
  • [14] Birmingham Daily Mail and Edinburgh Evening News 23 May 1881
  • [15] Athletic News, 25 May 1881
  • [16] Athletic News, 8 June 1881
  • [17] The Leeds Times, 18 June 1881
  • [18] Athletic News, 22 June 1881
  • [19] The Manchester Courier, And Lancashire General Advertiser, 22 June 1881
  • [20] The Huddersfield Chronicle, 23 June 1881
  • [21] The Manchester Evening News, 27 June 1881
  • [22] The Liverpool Mercury 28 June 1881