As Told By Downton Abbey: A Brief History Of Women’s Rights
Last month, the curtains were drawn on Downton Abbey—for American fans at least (British viewers and internet streamers said good bye last December). By its third season, Downton Abbey had become one of the most watched series in the world, with approximately 120 million global viewers . What about this British period drama captured the attention of such a widespread audience?
Perhaps it was its rich history: set between 1912-1925, the series incorporates historical events like World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish flu pandemic and the Anglo-Irish War. There is the display of (diminishing) wealth: Downton Abbey is set in the last days of British elite living in castles and eating multi-course dinners in white tie regalia. The “upstairs-downstairs” dynamic of the series also made for great story lines: the aristocrats and their servants had developed storylines on the show. What kept me hooked on the series though, was its exploration of gender: Downton Abbey was a mini women’s history course for me. Throughout the series, I was fascinated by how far women have come, but also reminded of how far we have to go. While I am sad to see the show end, I am grateful for every one-line zinger it gave me, and for every scene that took me to school. From birth control to fashion, here are 7 times Downton Abbey had me taking notes about women’s rights:
1. Property Rights: That Time Lady Mary Had To Seduce Cousin Matthew
Downton Abbey begins with a predicament: the Titanic has sunk, and the Earl of Grantham’s heir (who also happens to be his cousin and soon to be son-in-law) has sunk with it. Lord Grantham has no sons, and an “entail” prevents any of his three daughters from inheriting his property. Specifically, Lord Grantham is bound by a“fee tail male”—a legal restriction that means his wealth and his mansion (Downton Abbey), can only be inherited by a male heir. [Sidebar: Finally, my property law courses have a purpose]. Lord Grantham had initially made a tidy arrangement for his heir to marry his eldest daughter, Lady Mary, which would have kept his estate and his wife’s dowry in-house. Unfortunately, the Titanic tanks this plan. Lord Grantham is forced to locate his nearest kin: the middle class Matthew, who is his third cousin once removed. A good part of Seasons 1 shows Mary (and her family) scheming and attempting to seduce Cousin Matthew, with the hopes that he will marry her.
While this plot and the property laws that gave rise to it might seem archaic, a recent World Bank report found that in 35 of the 173 economies studied, female surviving spouses do not have the same inheritance rights as their male counterparts.
2. Voting Rights: That Time Lady Sybil (Almost) Became A Suffragette
Lady Sybil is Lord Grantham’s youngest daughter. She is also Downton Abbey’s resident rebel. Sybil creates minor scandals like wearing trousers to a family dinner, and major ones like falling in love with her family’s Irish chauffeur.
Lady Sybil is also a champion of women’s rights. In the early 20th century, women were beginning to organize and fight for their right to vote in the UK. Some of the members of the movement used militant tactics, and were known as suffragettes. While Lady Sybil never becomes an official suffragette, she is passionate about women’s right to vote, and endangers her life attending a related meeting.
It’s humbling to remember that rights I sometimes take for granted, such as the right to vote, were dreams for women like the suffragettes. Approximately 1,000 suffragettes were imprisoned in England. Many suffragettes went on hunger strikes, and at least one died. The history of women’s suffrage is not that distant. Consider this: women in Switzerland only received the right to vote in federal elections in 1971. Also, this: voting rights only became a reality for Saudi Arabian women in 2015.
3. Fashion Liberation: The Times Lady Edith Pulled Off Bohemian Chic
With increasing freedoms for the Downton Abbey women Post World War I, came increasingly liberated fashion. It was fascinating to watch the Downton Abbey women transition from wearing heavy Edwardian gowns and crowns, to 1920s flapper dresses and headbands. This progression is portrayed beautifully with the fashion of Lord Grantham’s second daughter, Lady Edith. In Season 1, Lady Edith cautions her sister Sybil about challenging corsets. By the final season though, Edith is a vision of full-fledged-London-bohemian-chic.
4. Maternal Health: That Time Lady Sybil Died
One of Downton Abbey’s biggest shockers was the death of Lady Sybil in Season 3. She died during childbirth due to a condition known as eclampsia—the medical term for seizures during pregnancy.
Great progress has been made in the field of maternal health. According to the United Nations (UN), since 1990 alone, the world has seen a 44% decline in the maternal death ratio. Nevertheless, the USA’s Center for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 10 women still develop the less serious preeclampsia; and 1 in 100 women still develop eclampsia. Notably, reality TV mogul Kim Kardashian has publicly shared her struggle with preeclampsia. Yet, first world women often have access to medical care that prevents death or long-lasting consequences.
Globally, approximately 830 die daily from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth. This means that one woman dies every two minutes from a childbirth related complication that most likely could have been prevented. Put differently: by the time you are done reading this paragraph, some woman, somewhere, would have died giving birth to a child—and chances are she didn’t have to.
5. Reproductive Rights: That Time Anna Bought Birth Control
In early twentieth England, the idea that sex between married couples should serve a purpose beyond procreation was still somewhat scandalous. Even more scandalous? Birth control. In Season 5 of the series, Lady Mary sends Anna (her lady’s maid) to purchase birth control on her behalf, after reading Marie Stopes’ Married Love. Published in 1918, Married Love was a very controversial and influential book on family planning. Even though Anna is married, she is scared out of her mind to be seen purchasing contraception. At the pharmacy, the female pharmacist grills Anna about the purchase, stating Anna could always practice abstinence if she and her husband were done having children. Only when Anna lies about not wanting to take risks due to a medical condition, does the pharmacist acquiesce. When Anna receives the birth control device (most likely a cervical cap) in a brown paper bag, she is distressed about even touching it.
Family planning is definitely more acceptable in today’s world, but there is still a lot of stigma surrounding in it. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that some 225 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are using unsafe and/or ineffective birth control methods for reasons ranging from lack of access to misinformation. Most of the women who lack adequate family planning access live in the 69 poorest countries of the earth.
6. Working Rights: That Time Lady Edith Became A Boss
From being teased about her looks, to being jilted at the altar, Lady Edith is one of the more unlucky Downton Abbey characters. Every now and then though, the scriptwriters throw scraps of just desserts her way. For example, towards the end of the series, Edith inherits a magazine from (…gasp!) her dead lover. She initially experiences great difficulty running the magazine because her editor simply cannot stand the idea of working for a woman. Edith eventually works up the nerve to fire him, and to co-edit the magazine with another young woman she hires. Considering that Lady Edith’s grandmother was so far removed from the concept of work that she had never heard of the term “weekend”—Lady Edith’s boss move was significant for a person of her class and a gender.
Attitudes towards working women have definitely progressed since the early 1900s, but there is still much more work to be done. It has almost become cliché to iterate that women in the USA earn about 75 to 80 cents to the dollar men earn (the figures are often worse for women of color). Again, the figures are grimmer beyond first-word shores. For example, in 100 economies, women face gender-based job restrictions; and in 18 economies, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working. According to the World Economic Forum, no country in the world has achieved gender equality economically.
7. Women's Individuality: Every Time Dowager Countess Spewed Wit & Wisdom
Dowager Countess (Lord Grantham's Mother/the matriarch of the Crawley Family) is without a doubt what I will miss most about Downton Abbey. There will never again be a character quite like her. Played by the legendary Maggie Smith, the Dowager Countess is always well calculated, and well prepared to serve classy shade (because "vulgarity is no substitute for wit").
One of the things I love most about Dowager Countess is her complexity and unpredictability, delivered with humour every single time. She might seem contradictory, but a woman of her age is allowed her multitudes. Or as the Dowager once told Lady Mary: "I'm a woman...I can be as contrary as I choose."
I can’t think of a better way to conclude this post, than by sharing some of my favorite quotes by the Contrary Countess:
On a woman being entitled to her opinions: “No! She isn’t until she is married. Then her husband will tell her what her opinions are.”
On hiding information from her son: “He's a man. Men don't have rights.”
On going behind a husband’s back: “That is a scruple no successful wife can afford."
On relationships: “In my day a lady was incapable of feeling physical attraction until she had been instructed to do so, by her mama.”
On weddings: “One way or another, every woman goes down the aisle with half the story hidden.”
On marriage: I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.”
Thank you Downton Abbey!