Downton-Era Women in the Workplace

Alexandra White | February 23, 2015

In the season finale, Daisy has a crisis of self. Her job feels like a prison and life seems meaningless. After a tour with Molesley and Baxter, she decides that she should live in London and get a job there. She hands in her notice to Mrs. Patmore who insists that it won’t be possible.

If Daisy does indeed move to London, what opportunities will she have? During World War I, many opportunities opened up for women as the men were off to war. The Downton Era was a part of the “interwar years,” where women were fighting for equal rights across the board, including opportunity for employment. It was also a time for high unemployment across England for both genders, with rates reaching almost 20% of the population.

“Equal” opportunity for employment

The Sex Disqualification Act of 1919 (SDRA) made it easier for women to go to a university and get professional jobs as teachers and nurses. Women also began employment in the civil service, at mostly the clerical and administrative level rather than in technical or professional positions. As long as they weren’t married, women of the middle class were able to seek employment.

In the meantime, trade unions were concerned that women would be employed as cheap labor. During the interwar years, they called for a stricter implementation or introduction of the “marriage bar” across industries which would prohibit married women from employment and remove women who married while employed from their positions. Often, women would hide their marital status in order to keep their jobs. Once women became pregnant or had children, it was almost certain they would have to quit or be fired. There was no such thing as maternity leave, and it was expected these women would not return to the workforce.

Although wages rose to almost equal status for men and women during World War I, by 1931 the pre-war wage gap was re-instated. Even if women could find employment, they would struggle to make ends meet. The 1921 UK census revealed that there was a lower percentage of females working than there had been in 1911, most likely due to the implementation of the marriage bar.

Where did women work?

If a woman was seeking employment and lucky enough to get a job, she was most likely employed in personal service (one-third of all employed women in 1921), the textile industry, shopkeeping, or administrative work. Personal service includes domestic servants, nannies, housekeepers, laundry workers, office cleaners, and waitresses/barmaids. The home was still considered solely the female’s domain, and it was much easier for a woman to receive a position caring for another’s house or children than in a professional industry.

A Nippy, in her iconic uniform, serves afternoon tea at J. Lyons & Co.

A Nippy, in her iconic uniform, serves afternoon tea at J. Lyons & Co.

Women in London were most likely to find employment as a waitress/barmaid, weaver/dressmaker, telephone operator, or assistants to innkeepers. One particular job that was fashionable in the 1920s was to be a “Nippy,” i.e. a waitress, at J. Lyons & Co. tea shops and cafes, the market-dominant British restaurant chain. Nippies were known as such as they “nipped” around tea-shops, similar to the American “soda jerk.” They wore distinctive maid-like uniforms and matching hats, appearing as advertising on product packaging and promotional items. The Nippy became a national icon, as someone who was accessible and close to home. Nippies were not allowed to be married, and had to adhere to strict cleanliness standards, and maintain a “wholesome” image.

Outside of London, there were women employed in small numbers mining for coal or working as day laborers on farms. Women were frequently employed in the rubber and paper industry, a probable result of their employment during World War I. Women were also the primary creators of tobacco products.

Notable working women of the 1920s

Irene Barclay was the first woman in England to qualify as a chartered surveyor, and became a leader in founding numerous housing associations in the 1920s and 1930s. She had a general surveying practice but is best known for the work she did for the Pancras House Improvements Society — her housing surveys of the 1920s drew attention to the plight of those living in slums.

Helena Florence Normanton became the first woman to practice as a barrister in England, the first woman to obtain a divorce for a client, first to lead the prosecution in a murder trial, and the first woman to represent cases at the High Court and the Old Bailey, among many other firsts. She was a champion for women’s suffrage, actively campaigning for divorce reform. Other officials regarded her as “anti-man,” resigning over her memorandum of evidence to the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce.

Amy Johnson was able to receive a Bachelor of Arts in economics thanks to the SDRA, gaining her pilot’s “A” License in 1929 at the London Aeroplane Club. That same year, she became the first British woman to obtain a ground engineer’s “C” licence. She’s best known for being the first female pilot to fly solo from England to Australia in 1930. In recognition of this achievement, she received the Harmon Trophy for the World’s Most Outstanding Aviator.

Jennie Lee graduated from the University of Edinburgh in the early 1920s and worked as a teacher in Cowdenbeath. She was a candidate for the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and won the 1929 by-election and subsequent general election, becoming the youngest member of the House of Commons at twenty-five years old. Lee’s first speech was an attack on Winston Churchill’s budget proposals, which was met with his approval and congratulations. She was known as a left-winger with socialist inclinations. Though she lost her seat in 1931, she remained active in the ILP and was finally awarded a seat again in the Commons in 1945.

The key to Daisy’s success

If Daisy is going to find employment outside of the personal service industry, she’s going to have to keep studying. Even then, it doesn’t guarantee she will find employment. She’ll need a lot of tenacity and dedication to a profession, or luck in getting a factory job.

Where do you think Daisy will end up next season?

Get a roundup of broadcast and digital premieres, special offers, and events with our weekly newsletter.