Women's Rights

Work, medicine and suffrage
By Claudia Jessop

Lady Barrett was a keen supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, but opposed the methods of militant suffragettes. One of her major concerns throughout her career was that women’s employment rights should be put on an equal footing with those of their male counterparts. She campaigned for the amendment of the 1919 Convention of the International Labour Organisation, which made it illegal for women to perform industrial work during the night. In December 1930 she was a signatory to another letter to The Times on this subject – fellow signatories this time included Lady Balfour, Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby and Charles Petrie.

For much of the 20th century, one of the major obstacles to a woman’s participation in any profession was the fact that, more often than not, marriage meant automatic dismissal from her job. The prejudice against professional women was fiercest with regard to those women who also had the more ‘natural’ and suitable role of looking after a husband and future children. (This, and the large number of women whose prospects of marriage were destroyed by the death toll of the First World War, explains for example the stereotype of the ‘spinster’ school teacher.) In 1921, the Corporation of Glasgow and the London Borough Council of St Pancras banned the employment of female doctors if they were married (unless their husbands were unemployed). The medical officer for St Pancras Borough Council was a woman, and upon her marriage, she was sacked. Lady Barrett expressed outrage at this in another letter to The Times; under the heading Married Medical Women: Their Right to Equal Treatment, she declared that the policy “interferes with the private affairs of individuals in a way which would not be tolerated in the case of men”. However she conceded that perhaps were the sacked medical officer to become pregnant and request what would now be called ‘maternity leave’ (then an unknown concept), the Council would have the right to consider terminating her contract.

In 1935, she co-signed another letter to The Times appealing for the Unemployment Assistance Scheme to be modified so that equal rates of benefits were paid to men and women (the amounts for women were significantly lower). Again, the other signatories included Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby.

Lady Barrett’s welfare concerns extended beyond the United Kingdom – she was a member of the Soroptimist Club of Greater London, the local branch of Soroptimist International.*

The Annual Reports regularly allude to the detrimental role played by alcohol in the local community, and Lady Barrett was convinced of the harmful effects of alcohol on mothers. The British Journal of Nursing for 23 December 1913 records her address to a meeting of nurses in which she described alcohol as “a sort of liar … She urged nurses to discourage its use by nursing mothers, and its indiscriminate use in cases of emergency.”

This page was added by Lisa Rigg on 21/12/2009.

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