This week (6 February) is the hundredth anniversary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which gave women, or at least some of them, the right to vote.
But the upheaval of the First World War, in which many men between the ages of 18 and 41 were absent at the front (6m were mobilised and around 700,000 were killed), not only ushered in women’s suffrage, it also changed banking. 1918 was the year that the Institute of Bankers allowed women to sit the Institute exams for the first time.
The move was controversial at first. The Institute decided in 1917 to allow women working in banks to sit the exams “after long consideration”, according to the Institute’s Journal for that year. Objections included the notion that women might not be able to deal with the “strain” of working in a bank branch, particularly if they were not used to office routine, and then there was the burden of studying for examinations on top… That said, the women did have defenders. A history of the Institute (“Debtors to Their Profession 1879-1979” by Edwin Green), notes that many of the legal departments of banks were particularly pleased with the new female clerks and secretaries they recruited from solicitors’ offices after war broke out. What had in 1914 seemed “too revolutionary for present consideration” – giving women technically challenging jobs in banks – quickly became a necessity as more men were called up. By 1917, the women had often proved themselves to be highly competent employees and there were many “appeals and requests” to allow them to take the exams not least, of course, “from the ladies themselves”.
When the vote on actual membership of the Institute was taken at the special meeting held on May 21 1918, the meeting “was unanimous in favour” of admitting women. They got full membership in March 1919. In principle, this opened the door to a career in banking for women, but as the notice in the Institute’s 1918 Journal points out, membership did not necessarily guarantee women employment in banks.
“The writers of the letters of protest seemed to confuse two separate questions. The Institute has nothing to do with the larger question of whether women shall be admitted to the permanent staff of the banks…What the Council asked the members to decide was if and when women are admitted to the staffs of the banks, shall they be given equal opportunities with the men of acquiring a technical education.”
After four years of war, the members had good reason to say “yes” to the question of whether women should be allowed a technical education. The number of men taking the Institute’s exams was over 3,000 every year from 1908 to 1914,when it reach a peak of 4,366. But in 1916, the number was 1,282 and in 1917 it was just 906. What is more, it seems that the quality of candidates may have slid along with the numbers.
In 1917, the Institute’s Journal prominently published a collection of “howlers” collected by the examiners of that year’s bookkeeping exams. The article noted that “owing probably to the extreme youth of the junior male staff of most of the banks, atrocities such as these are more numerous than usual this year”.
How atrocious? In one question, the candidates had been asked to define “royalty”. The answer expected of people sitting a bookkeeping exam was “a payment in connection with minerals, patents etc.” Some of the more unorthodox responses were: “Royalty. Some firms have to pay so much every year to the support of the throne”; “Royalty is a sum paid by a company for prompt payment for prompt cash”; “Royalty is an amount paid for the use of a certain patented invention. Thus…for every thousand stitches a machine sews you pay a farthing extra. The extra farthings are Royalty.”
An Excellent Result
When women first sat the Institute’s exams in 1918, there were 322 female candidates and 896 male candidates. Thirty-eight of the women passed all the papers at the first attempt. That was a strong showing. In the year before, out of a total of 906 (male) candidates, just 33 passed all the papers.
Though the women were often very committed to their work in banks – and not just because so many relied on the income because they had been widowed or could not marry – they frequently found themselves pushed out when men started to return from the army. Still, they had been given a chance to prove themselves as professionals, an important step towards more equal rights, and, as one pointed out in an Institute debate: “they wanted a fair field and no favour”.
Ouida Taaffe, is the Editor for the official journal of The London Institute of Banking & Finance, Financial World.