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Exploring the Social Life of Women in Saffron Walden in the 1890’s
Elsie May Cox was born at the start of a dramatic period of change in British society, as women balked against Victorian gender roles and as geopolitics forced the country to start the process of accepting women as equals, politically and in the workplace.
An Overview of the Social Life of Women at the time of Elsie May Cox’s Birth in 1893
The era of Queen Victoria’s reign ended in 1901, and it marked a major shift in women’s rights in Great Britain. Prior to this, women had little to no say in politics or society, but the 1890s saw a growing movement for suffrage and equality. By the end of Queen Victoria’s rule, the fight for women’s suffrage had gained significant traction. At the time of Elsie May Cox’s birth in Saffron Walden in 18931-2, the life of women in Britain was an interesting mix of traditional and modern elements. In rural market towns such as Saffron Walden, women had to adhere to strict social conventions and norms. They were expected to play a subservient role in society and were often restricted from participating in public activities. However, there were also signs of progress, with some women venturing into new areas such as education, politics, and the arts.
The Role and Status of Women in Saffron Walden During the 1890s
The role and status of women in Saffron Walden during the 1890s was a reflection of the gender roles prevalent in Victorian England. Women were expected to be subservient to their husbands, and were largely confined to their homes. This division increased during Victorian England as cities and towns grew and more men began to commute to factories, shops, and offices. Women also had limited access to education, and just like Elsie’s mother Susan Annie Cox3, their primary role was that of housewife and mother. In the rural market town, women often worked as domestic servants or in local factories or shops. Despite these restrictions, some women managed to find ways to make a living outside of traditional gender roles by working as teachers, nurses, or shopkeepers.
During the Victorian Period, numerous women’s organizations were founded to further women’s rights and challenge traditional gender roles. One of the most notable was the Woman’s Liberal Federation, founded in 1893, the same year that Elsie May Cox was born1-2. The federation was founded by middle-class working women who sought to reform the social hierarchy. They believed that they could only achieve equal rights within a patriarchal society through concerted action.
At the turn of the late 1890s, women had to face a unique set of challenges when it came to pregnancy and maternity. With limited access to medical care and limited rights for women, Susan Annie Cox’s family would have had to rely on their own resources and knowledge when it came to caring for themselves and their unborn children. Some progress was made in the 1890s when the Infectious Disease (Notification) Act 1889 and 1899 made reporting of a range of infectious diseases compulsory, first in London (1889) and then across the UK (1899).
Women’s Suffrage at the End of the Victorian Era
Around this period, the women’s rights campaign began to pick up steam. In 1897, Millicent Fawcett founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage to advocate for women’s voting rights via peaceful demonstrations and rational reasoning. Despite her hard work, the progress was slow-moving and certain activists wanted quicker results. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters – Christabel and Sylvia – established the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), with the mission of supporting women’s rights. The suffragettes from the WSPU used combative tactics to make their voices heard, in contrast to the more peaceful protests of the NUWS. The protesters resorted to aggressive tactics such as breaking shop windows, raiding Parliament, burning churches, and attacking politicians in order to draw attention to their cause.
In 1906, the first suffrage society in northwest Essex was formed. Miss Mitchell, of Saffron Walden Training College, became the honorary secretary of a Saffron Walden branch of the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. This was an important milestone in the fight for women’s rights and marked the beginning of a wave of activism that would ultimately lead to women being granted the right to vote in 1918.
Daily Activities & Hobbies Enjoyed By Women at The Time
During the 19th century, women had limited access to leisure activities due to societal expectations. However, many women still found ways to enjoy their free time by engaging in various hobbies and activities. From activities such as embroidery and sewing, to reading books and playing the piano, there was a variety of ways for women to spend their free time in the 1890s. These hobbies provided an escape from the everyday stresses of life and allowed them to express themselves creatively. Through the Victorian period, some women were able to establish themselves as renowned artists, including Annie May Youngman who was born in Saffron Walden in 1895, and had her paintings exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair – the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, the same year that our Elsie May Cox was born.
1. Ancestry.com, “England & Wales, FreeBMD Birth Index, 1837-1915,” Database, , Ancestry.com (https://Ancestry.com : accessed 31 January 2023), entry for birth of Elsie May Cox; citing Saffron Walden, Essex, England, Q2, 1841, Vol.4: 705
2. Ancestry.com, “1939 England & Wales Register,”, database, Ancestry.com (https://Ancestry.com : accessed 5 February 2023), entry for Elsie May Molineux [Muller/Cox] (age 44) Tunbridge Wells, Kent, citing Ancestry.com Class: Kent, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Diqb, Schedule: 332, Sub Schedule: 2, Line Number 31, and “33 Stephen’s Road”.
3. Ancestry.com, “1901 England Census.,”, database, Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 25 January 2023), entry for Elsie May Cox (age 7) Saffron Walden, Essex, citing The National Archives Class: RG13, Piece: 1735, Folio: 86, and Page: 48 “11 Alpha Place”. 2015.