The Marriage Bar

The Marriage Bar sounds like a ’90s nightclub where you could have a cocktail and check out future partners: sadly not. It might seem incredible to anyone starting work now but it was the practice of forcing women out of paid employment when they got married, sometimes by sacking them, sometimes by ‘encouraging’ them to resign, and of barring married women from applying for jobs. The Foreign Office still operated a marriage bar as late as 1973. So while some men were pretending not be married to get laid, women were doing it to continue getting paid.

There were three broad reasons why the idea of married women working was, from a societal context, an anathema:

  • Once women got married, they had a new job: looking after their husband and, soon enough, raising children. If they were carrying out paid work, they could not fulfil their wifely responsibilities. And given domestic responsibilities clearly would, and should, take precedence over paid work, a married woman was likely to be unreliable.
  • A married woman who continued to work was depriving someone else of a job who needed it more: a man (implicitly assumed to have dependents); or, because some types of jobs / job grades were only open to other women, an unmarried woman or a widow who did not have a partner to provide for them. This became particularly pertinent when economic times were tough.
  • If a married woman carried on working she was signalling that her husband was not capable of supporting her and this undermined his traditional societal role of provider.
‘The Wedding Morning’ (1892) by John Henry Frederick Bacon (1866-1913)

A printing company carried out a survey in the early 1900s to understand more about the twelve married women working there, 14% of the total number of women employed. This survey revealed that five of the twelve were widows, with no further details given about them as widows had a good reason to be working. The situations of the remaining seven were described as follows:

1. Has a husband, a bookbinder in good work, but they are extravagant.
2. Has a husband in work.
3. Has a husband in work. Has been summoned for boys not attending school.
4. Has a husband who drinks. Looks after her children and goes home at dinner time.
5. Has a husband in work.
6. Has a husband irregularly employed. Very poor and slatternly.
7. Has a husband who drinks.

In other words, at the turn of the last century, married women who were working were viewed as spendthrifts, bad mothers or married to layabout drunks, suggesting social disapproval would be enough of a disincentive for continuing in paid employment for many married women.

The Post Office was one of the first to put in place formal measures to prevent married women from working. From 1870, women were employed in a range of positions, initially as telegraphists and then in a wider range of clerical roles. By 1899, it was estimated that over 30,000 women were working across the Post Office, making up 20% of the total workforce. Of these, 1,320 were engaged in ‘higher order’ clerical work. They would all have been single: a Marriage Bar had been instituted back in 1876 and was only removed as part of the wider Civil Service reforms in 1946. Even in the 1950s, the Union of Post Office Workers were holding votes to force its reinstatement.

However, the majority of formal measures to force married women out of paid employment came after the First World War, when more women had tasted economic freedom by taking on a wide range of jobs while men were away fighting. Post war legislative changes gave with one hand but took away with the other. We celebrate some women getting the vote at the start of 1918 and the opportunities in the professions opened up by the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919, but pay less attention to the impact of Marriage Bars and the ineffectiveness of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act in offering recourse to married women who were dismissed from their jobs so that men returning from the battlefields could once again take on the role of primary breadwinner.

The decisions of local authorities had the biggest impact for women who were teaching. Due to devolved decision making, many married women were teaching in local authorities at the end of the First World War but were at the mercy of changes in policy. Fifty-eight women in Glamorgan sued Rhondda Urban Council for terminating their jobs in 1920 but a judge finally ruled in 1923 that he could not hold that a local authority would be committing a breach of the Sex Disqualification Removal Act ‘merely because for certain appointments it preferred applicants of one sex.’ (Western Evening News 3/5/1923). Let’s all mull that statement over for a bit……. No, it still doesn’t seem to make any sense.

Leaflet, 1935, TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University

In Birmingham, 106 married women were still teaching in primary schools in 1923 and the decision was that they could not be compelled to resign but ‘further persuasion should be exercised.’

A campaign in London to remove the Marriage Bar there was was finally successful in 1935 but was not seen as a good decision by some, given the ‘inescapable fact that no woman who takes her married life seriously can give more than moiety of her time and thought to a profession..[but] if she gives the best of herself to her work and let her home and husband “go hang”, her marriage is a misfortune for the community as well as a private disaster’. (Truth 24/7/1935)

Nationally, the Marriage Bar for teachers was only ended by the 1944 Education Act.

Local authority bans also affected women in other professions including medicine. The London County Council decision to end the Marriage Bar in 1935 also applied to women doctors. Nurses generally had to resign on marriage until 1944.

Universities / research
Whether or not married women working in the fields of academia and science kept their jobs depended on the attitude of individual employers. There were at least 100 married women working in British universities in the 1930s but while some institutions, like the London School of Economics, under William Beveridge, were supportive, others were less so. Liverpool University introduced a Marriage Bar in 1933, triggering more legal challenges.

The Civil Service
The Civil Service would not employ married women and gave them a form of redundancy payment when they got married. There were also several administrative grades that were only open to women and the best chance of promotion came when colleagues married and left the workforce. As a result, many women who worked for the Civil Service were resistant to the lifting of the Marriage Bar, but it was eventually removed in 1946.

The Foreign Office, however, was a huge laggard. Even after the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act of 1919, it refused to allow women to take up consular or diplomatic posts until 1946. Then it capped the number of women at 10% and introduced a Marriage Bar. This less-than-encouraging attitude meant that it was not until 1976 that Britain had its first female ambassador, Dame Anne Warburton, who became ambassador to Denmark.

A progressive employer in the 1920s, with many women in key positions, the BBC responded to the economic downturn of the late 1920s and a desire to be seen as a little more conventional by introducing a marriage bar in 1932. However, even when it was in place, exceptions could always be made. A Marriage Tribunal operated between 1934 and 1937 and of the twenty nine cases that went to appeal, sixteen women were allowed to retain their jobs. The Bar was removed in 1944.

Commercial enterprises
The situation in large commercial enterprises varied depending on the attitude of founders, leaders and shareholders and data is only publicly available in some cases. Some sectors, particularly advertising, journalism and publishing were generally accepting of married women. The John Lewis Partnership actively recruited married women during the 1920s, believing they would have a better understanding of customers’ needs. Some sectors like banking were more conservative. Lloyds Bank, for example, abolished the Marriage Bar for its women employees in 1949.

The net result of this moveable feast of legal restrictions and unsupportive social norms was that the percentage of married women in work fell from around 14% in the 1870s to a low point of 8.7% in 1921. It was really only after the Second World War that a significant change started to take place in the pattern of married women’s employment. Many large employers who had been employing married women during the war left them in place and changed their policies. At the same time, new arguments were put forward making the case that women themselves and society more widely benefited from married women’s ongoing participation in the labour market. By 1971, 49% of British married women were employed outside the home.

This is all useful context when considering the marital status of the women in the FT-She 100. Working married women would have been seen as relatively unusual by their family and friends and might even have been viewed with suspicion or resentment by colleagues. It is also suggests that they must generally have had supportive and progressive husbands, secure enough in their own position to be able to shrug off any slights.

The economic and social factors driving the introduction of Marriage Bars during the 1920s and 1930s are also highly relevant today. When times get tough, deep-rooted social norms re-establish themselves. Today, globally, women are bearing the economic brunt of Covid. They are more likely than men to be working in precarious economic sectors or working part-time. Women who are more likely than men to cut back on their hours as a result of increased demands of caring for school-aged children or sick family members. In the UK, mothers are 47% more likely to have lost their job or resigned. Employers may not be putting in place formal mechanisms to force women out of the workplace as they did a century ago but by failing to recognise what is happening now and taking steps to address it, the consequences of inaction will be the same.

Featured image: ‘The Wedding Morning’ (1892) by John Henry Frederick Bacon (1866-1913)
Sources: ‘Women in the Printing Trades’ ed. J Ramsay Macdonald (1904); Female entrepreneurship: business, marriage and motherhood in England and Wales, 1851–1911 by Carry van Lieshout, Harry Smith, Piero Montebruno & Robert J. Bennett (2019) Social History, Vol 44, Issue 4, P.440-468; ‘Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain 1914-1959’ by Martin Pugh (1993); A Marriage Bar of Convenience? The BBC and Married Women’s Work 1923-39 by Kate Murphy (2014) Twentieth Century British History Vol 25 Issue 4 P.533-561 Social Science and Married Women’s Employment in Post-War Britain by Helen McCarthy (2016) Past & Present, Vol 233, Issue 1 P.269–305.

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