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.
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 , 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!
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 , 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.
 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.
 These length of service based gratuities were paid upon marriage to permanent female civil servants who had worked a minimum of six (established) years.
- A History of Women in the UK Civil Service https://civilservant.org.uk/library/2015_history_of_women_in_the_civil_service.pdf
- “A perfect nuisance”: The history of women in the Civil Service https://history.blog.gov.uk/2015/05/26/a-perfect-nuisance-the-history-of-women-in-the-civil-service/
- Gladden, E. N. Civil Services of the United Kingdom, 1855-1970. London: Frank Cass and Co., 1967;
- Lambie, Morris B. The British Civil Service Personnel Administration. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1929.
- Various newspapers including The Times, 15 September 1958;
- Wikimedia Commons Images;
- Women in the Civil Service – History https://www.civilservant.org.uk/women-history.html