Thinking about Downton Abbey’s women, let’s start with Cora because she makes it all possible. While it is obvious that Lord Grantham married her for more than her money and she accepted his proposal for more than a title, for both the package was rather attractive…and typical.
Where are we going? To the early days of feminism.
Downton Abbey clearly tells us that the aristocracy is struggling. Many of the 700 families who had controlled 80% of all acreage during the 1870s faced financial collapse 50 years later. For some, the solution lay across the ocean. Sell your paintings to Newport robber barons and marry American wealth. Including Consuela Vanderbilt with a $2.5 million dowry for the Ninth Duke of Marlborough, in 1895, nine American heiresses married British aristocracy. Just as Lord Grantham saved his estate by marrying Cora, the daughter of a Cincinnati dry goods millionaire, between 1870 and WWI, one of every 10 aristocratic marriages was to an American.
Mary and Edith
Then we have Ladies Mary and Edith. The adult daughters of the Grantham family, Mary and Edith each pursue an identity that rejects tradition. Before her marriage and then as a widow, Mary displays her willingness to move beyond traditional sexual constraints. As for Edith, after her future spouse disappears and we later learn, was murdered, she gives birth to their daughter.
More crucially though, Mary and Edith have brains. Stepping into roles that men have traditionally occupied, they encounter the resistance that typifies those who try to retain their power. With Mary, we have a woman who, running the estate, grasps finance, makes tough decisions, and saves Downton Abbey from the economic ruin endured by most of Britain’s aristocracy. Meanwhile, Edith is the intellect who takes over the magazine she inherited from her deceased lover. Entering the financial world, Mary and Edith pushed the barriers of restrictive social norms.
Moving downstairs at Downton Abbey, we see a similar shift in female power as women leave servitude for the office and the factory. During the last season of Downton Abbey, a former servant, Gwen, returns. With the good fortune of having become a secretary and then marrying into relative affluence, her social climb is higher than most. However, she was representative of the working class women who left the home for a factory job.
Our Bottom Line: 1920s Feminism
When Harvard Professor Claudia Goldin explained how evolution and then revolution transformed the role of women, she focused on horizon, identity and decision-making in the U.S. By horizon, she referred to job length and whether a woman developed her human capital for a temporary job or a lifelong career. Then, complementing a woman’s horizon, Goldin took us to individuality and the separate sense of themselves that women were evolving. But only with the third piece, with decision-making power, can we complete the picture.
You can see below that during the 1920s as the first evolutionary stage was ending, relatively few women were in the labor force:
For Dr. Goldin, the late 19th century through the 1920s represents the first evolutionary stage when women begin to recognize a different horizon and identity. Only after two more evolutionary stages (1930s-1950; 1950s-1970s), can she take us to the (“quiet”) revolution that began at the end of the 1970s.
Through Mary, Edith and Gwen, we see prototypes of the women who started it all.