A few months after the first issue of Time and Tide appeared in May 1920, a group of progressive feminists set their minds to addressing a chronic lack of housing for independent women. The launch of Women’s Pioneer Housing in October 1920 was an important, though little known, event in the United Kingdom’s twentieth century feminist history.
The 1910s saw major breakthroughs in women’s rights, with the 1918 Representation of the People Act and the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. Yet women continued to face numerous barriers in the right for equality in their everyday lives. Working women were paid less than men, and struggled to find homes of their own as landlords often refused to rent to them. ‘The Housing Problem’, as it was known, troubled many women who had been involved in the suffrage movement.
One such woman resolved to take action was Etheldred Browning. Browning moved from Dublin to London sometime after World War I.
Having been active in Irish suffrage groups, Browning continued her support for women’s enfranchisement once in London; she took particular interest in housing, perhaps inspired by her own struggles as a hotel-dwelling ‘stranger in a strange town’, as she describes herself in ‘Ghosts’ (The Common Cause, 1919). It was one of several articles that she contributed to feminist magazines in the 1910s and 1920s.
‘The word “home” generally conveys the idea of a husband as being attached, but because a woman supports herself and stands more or less alone, is this any reason that she must spend her days in a hostel or a bed-sitting room, and never arrive at the dignity of a home?’ (Etheldred Browning, ‘Women and Homes’,The Vote 11th Mar 1921)
By the summer of 1920, Browning decided to make a direct intervention into the Housing Problem. Drawing on the wide circle of friends, colleagues, and associates she developed during her time with the suffrage movement and the Garden City and Town Planning Association Women’s Section, Browning arranged a meeting of like-minded women who had the skills and passion needed to tackle the issue head on.
On October 4th 1920, Women’s Pioneer Housing was officially registered as a public utility company. Its mission, the founders agreed, was ‘to cater for the housing requirements of professional and other women of moderate means who require individual homes at moderate rents’.
Women’s Pioneer Housing was made possible by networks of progressive women, many of whom were politically active and from wealthy backgrounds. Time and Tide editor Helen Archdale was an early member and a key ally of Browning’s through her – at times – fraught tenure as manager. The organisation also drew on the expertise of trailblazing women like Ray Strachey, Gertrude Leverkus, and Eleanor Shelley-Rolls. Other high profile women, including Time and Tide’s Lady Rhondda, contributed funds and helped with publicity.
Despite the immediate overwhelming demand for WPH’s services, raising capital was a constant struggle. In 1926, Browning responded to a positive appraisal of WPH in Time and Tide with a plea for its readers to consider following the example of a recent investor who pledged £1000 in return for the opportunity to nominate four tenants:
‘In this way, her £1,000 earns a good return and the housing problem is solved for four people who are in very difficult circumstances. Is this not an example to be followed?’
WPH used similar language in an advertisement that ran in Time and Tide.
The relationship between Time and Tide and WPH demonstrates the importance of interconnected feminist networks in bringing about real change for women. Their work also highlights the struggles that continued long after the fight for the vote was won.
As both WPH and Time and Tide mark their centenary years, we can reflect on the challenges and continued importance of uncovering feminist history. Publications like Time and Tide offer a vital window into the lives, concerns, and hopes of women at the centre of the early feminist movement. In Browning’s case, it is one of the few archival resources through which we get a sense of her passion and motivation in her own words. WPH’s researchers have struggled to find much information about her life outside of scant references to her early suffrage work and WPH’s official records – there isn’t even a surviving portrait of her. This is, of course, so often the case when pursuing women’s life stories.
Both projects underscore the fact that we are still living with and working through many of the same challenges faced by Etheldred Browning, Helen Archdale, and Lady Margaret Rhonda – gender biases in journalism, gendered spirals of inequality, and barriers to safe, secure and affordable housing. After a century of pioneering courage, WPH continues to build on the legacy of its inspiring founding foremothers and lead the way in women’s housing.
Lottie Whalen is the Project Lead on Pioneering Courage: the Women’s Pioneer Housing Story. It has been made possible by a National Lottery Heritage Grant and the dedicated efforts of a small team of volunteer researchers – Bonnie Emmett, Ann Sainsbury, Anne Sharpley, and Jennifer Taylor. Please visit our website to see the project’s introductory film and find updates about our forthcoming online exhibition.
 Etheldred Browning, ‘Correspondence’, Time and Tide, 23 April 1926.