How was women’s leisure depicted on screen in the first half of the twentieth century?


The term ‘leisure’ was developed after 1950; in the absence of the concept of leisure prior to that, it is more applicable to discuss how women chose to spend their ‘spare time’, or to identify what activities were conducted for pure female enjoyment.[1] The films I have chosen to discuss largely focus on working class women, therefore, this is the direction my essay will also take. During a period of strict gender divisions, I will use Holiday Camp (1947) to examine what was deemed either an exclusively male or female leisure pursuit, and how this relates to Darwinist ideas – particularly in the depiction of sport. To focus this essay solely on women would not provide a complete history, therefore a contrast must be given for us to understand similarities and differences. In doing this, this allows me to discuss a combined leisure activity of men and women – dating. A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), and Millions Like Us (1943), use leisure venues, such as the cinema and dance halls, as a location for courting, whether this is shown on screen as a scene or merely a verbal suggestion from one character to another. Finally, I will consider the lack of leisure time depicted in In Which We Serve (1942) (in addition to the three films previously mentioned), to be relevant to this essay, as this proves the argument that the concept of leisure was absent from women’s lives during the inter-war and post-war periods. I note that this is largely due to them ensuring that their husbands have time for leisure activities on their return from work. My essay therefore, takes the stance that women’s leisure is largely depicted across films as being dictated by male leisure.

Main Text

Gender ideals dominated the first half of the twentieth century; with regards to leisure, this was particularly predominant in sporting activities. In the film Holiday Camp, after their son declines the offer of being taught how to play snooker, Mrs Huggett asks her husband, Joe, if he would teach her instead. Joe scoffs at the idea, stating that he ‘wouldn’t know where to start’. This statement seems ridiculous to us as a modern audience, particularly as he obviously does know how to teach someone how to play snooker, having just offered his services to his son. However, because he declares snooker to be ‘a man’s game’, it’s clear he doesn’t believe his wife possesses the capabilities to learn as his son would.[2] Whilst this would be considered an incredibly sexist comment today, it’s unsurprising that these attitudes towards women and snooker are portrayed in the film. Tables for snooker and pool, and darts boards are typically located in pubs which were largely gender segregated areas where mostly men would gather to drink and bond over such games, until the 1970’s when pubs began to introduce restaurants to cater for the whole family.[3]

It’s likely that Mrs Huggett was asking her husband to teach her the game in the hope of spending some time alone with her husband to rekindle the flirtation and romance present during the first few months of their marriage (which they frequently reminisce about), rather than a serious desire of wanting to learn the sport. I suggest this due to the portrayal of the aerobics scene, in which, women are either unwilling to engage with physical activity, or are struggling to reach the standard demonstrated by the men. Most deviant is the character Patsy Crawford who persistently pinches Harry Huggett’s bottom every time she swings her arms around.[4] Again, this could reflect the writer, Godfrey Winn, and director, Ken Annakin’s opinion that women are not supposed to participate in strenuous activities. That said, whilst sport was a large part of masculine identity during this period. A ‘cult of athleticism’ arose from Darwinist ideals, extending the desire of a healthy race to women; this widened their leisure spheres to include archery, tennis, swimming and cycling which could explain why women were seen to engage in physical activity to some degree of ability throughout the film.[5] Although women’s participation in the sporting world was considered socially acceptable during their time at school and less so on reaching adulthood and increasing responsibilities, girls frequently dropped out of PE classes due to their distaste in the dress, discipline, and physicality.[6] Whether the portrayal of sport for women, in this instance, can be considered a leisure activity is questionable given the struggle and lack of enthusiasm displayed in Holiday Camp, as leisure should be something one enjoys doing rather than being forced to participate.

Unlike sport, the cinema and dance hall were for the enjoyment of both men and women, often attending together as a venue for courting. A. J. P. Taylor states that the cinema was the ‘essential social habit’ of the inter-war period, hence why film-makers unsurprisingly chose to depict it as a popular activity.[7] The cinema is suggested for this purpose by Fred to Cecelia in Millions Like Us.[8] Likewise, In A Cottage on Dartmoor, Sally and Harry attend a ‘talkie’ screening, with their evening ending with a proposal of marriage.[9] The picture house was a typical scene for young couples during the first half of the twentieth century due to its accessibility and it’s public setting.[10] One cinema goer in 1929 complained of ‘lolling lovers’ which undoubtedly would have distracted their attention from screen.[11] Thus, both films I have made reference to, clearly, are representative in their depiction of motives for cinema going amongst young people. A Cottage on Dartmoor also shows two elderly women attending the same film, with one evidently hard of hearing, struggling to understand the new ‘talkie’ without a hefty hearing aid.[12] The inclusion of these older women is in keeping with the opinion that women are more attuned to film culture and often pursue leisure activities with a designated ‘leisure partner’, however, they contradict the argument of the elderly being less inclined to attend the cinema.[13]

A similar approach is taken to portray the dance hall in Holiday Camp; from this it is evident that dancing was an activity typically carried out with a partner during this period, usually a male suitor but it was not uncommon for girls to dance with each other in the absence of a male partner. Post-war, there was an increasing popularity in dance and its glamourous escapism, in addition to the potential opportunity to find romance.[14] We can assume from the masses of youth dancing versus the abstinence of the married or middle-aged women, namely Mrs Huggett and Esther Harman, that the purpose of dancing was to find a man to marry. The reason I draw attention to the cinema and dance hall scenes in these films, with regards to relations between young men and women is due to the depiction of consequences that the participation in these activities result in. Particularly in the case of Mrs Huggett, we can infer that the freedom to dance is lost after marriage, as if a husband is unwilling to dance with his wife, she should not be participating in the activity with another man.[15] It’s ironic that the film highlights this contrast between the generations of women and their engagement with dancing, as it suggests that pursing dance in an attempt to secure marriage ultimately puts a stop to your engagement in the activity. This supports Langhamer’s view that women’s leisure ended when they began to construct their family.[16]

This brings me to my final point: that women’s leisure appears to be lost at the expense of their husband’s satisfaction. In the film In Which We Serve, Shorty’s mum instantly makes tea and starts fussing over her son on his return. Likewise, the wives concern themselves with their children and husband’s evening meal and routine on a day-to-day basis. Notably, one of these wives is clearing away her husband’s breakfast as he enjoys a period of leisure reading the paper.[17] Thus, male leisure is depicted as existing through the domesticity of their wives and mothers.[18] Whether women are even able to experience leisure time during family holidays is explored in Holiday Camp as Mrs Huggett has the added responsibility of packing and unpacking for the family. Furthermore, she and her adult daughter are seen to constantly fuss over the baby’s welfare.[19] This film, therefore, highlights that the role of women as main carers doesn’t diminish because they’re on holiday, in fact, their role becomes more burdensome in the unfamiliar setting.[20] Susan Barton therefore argues that this demonstrates there was no significant change in routine for women when on holiday, they merely ‘exchanged one kitchen sink for another’.[21] Overall, the lack of leisure time for women in these films highlights the contemporary attitude that leisure time was the binary opposite to paid work, during which time one was to reward themselves with a chosen activity.[22] However, as housework wasn’t seen as an occupation due to the absence of income, women of the time would feel guilty if they were to put their pleasure before the welfare of the family. On the other hand, Holiday Camp does show that there was an increase in women’s leisure time during post-war holidays, as food and childcare facilities were provided.[23] Regarding childcare, one must question whether women felt this an obligation or a source of enjoyment.[24] Particularly in In Which We Serve, the mother of young children and her husband are seen to enjoy a picnic outing together.[25] The same can be asked of the knitting conducted by many women in Millions Like Us, who seem to enjoy spending time on the task whilst talking to each other inside the family home.[26] Whilst these activities could be considered leisure, they could also be considered as necessary to creating or mending clothing provisions for the family during a time of rationing, further blurring the distinction between leisure and housework in this film.[27]

If we wish to continue questioning the categorisation of women’s leisure across film, we need only look towards the beauty contest scene of Holiday Camp. Whilst the women in the film appear to be enjoying the act of beauty enhancing and parading around, they are clearly being depicted as objects of the male gaze, a common feature of cinema.[28] Dennis Houlston states in an interview that beautiful actresses attracted him to the film due to the state of their undress.[29] This, in relation to the beauty contest on screen, and the reaction of cinema audiences, suggests that what has been advertised as women’s entertainment is really also for the men’s enjoyment. This can be supported by the announcer in the film encouraging ‘gentlemen [to] get a hold of those luscious limbs!’[30] Furthermore, the depiction of beauty pageants as a female leisure activity is questionable due to the time-consuming nature of making oneself ‘up’; typically, such acts are conducted in the hope of attracting male attention by pleasing what their eyes see.[31] Thus, this portrayal contributes further to the argument that women’s leisure revolves around the convenience and pleasure of men both on screen and in the audience.


Taking into account that the definition of the term ‘leisure’ means a noticeable break in routine, from which one can choose an activity they enjoy spending their spare time doing, it can be argued that the four films I have made reference to, appear to portray the restriction on women’s leisure. Women’s leisure was commonly depicted as being determined by their male partner’s activities and attitudes. In some cases, this was a result of the period’s gender ideals and segregation with regards to what was and wasn’t considered an acceptable activity or venue for women to attend; even leisure activities which are promoted as being for the enjoyment of women, such as the beauty pageants, are ultimately portrayed as being for the pleasure of the male spectators. On another level, the lack of women’s leisure depicted stems from the storylines relating to the pursuit of marriage which ultimately limited women’s leisure time, as this sparks the onset of new responsibilities in the household and signifies the eve of starting a family – as demonstrated by the older generations carrying out chores to please the husband. The lack of available time for women to conduct activities for pleasure is evident across all films as the women are shown to be more concerned about completing the next household task than sitting down for a break. Whether some ‘leisure’ activities such as sports and knitting can be considered as such, largely depends on the perceived enjoyment of the activity. With regards to the aerobics in Holiday Camp, I see this more as being an obligation rather than choice, whereas the knitting conducted in Millions like us, whilst potentially a necessary task, appeared to be a relaxing and social activity for the women. Likewise, whilst children could be perceived as a burden in that they require constant attention which falls on the duty of the mother, it’s conceivable that mothers found a source of enjoyment in entertaining their children. Ultimately, to consider how women’s leisure was depicted in film, we must compare this to the readiness of men’s leisure, and conclude that the absence of leisure for women was more frequently depicted in film than the engagement with enjoyable activities.



Barton, Susan. Working-Class Organisations and Popular Tourism, 1840-1970 (Manchester University Press, 2005)

Francis, Martin. ‘Leisure and Popular Culture’ in Zweininger-Bargielowska, Ina. ed., Women in Twentieth Century Britain: Social, Cultural and Political Change, ed. by Ina (Longman Publishing Group, 2001)

Hill, Jeffrey. Sport, Leisure and Culture in Twentieth-Century Britain, (Palgrave, 2002)

Kuhn, Annette. ‘Memories of Cinema-Going in the 1930’s’, Journal of Popular British Cinema vol.2 (1999)

Langhamer, Claire. Women’s Leisure in England 1920-60 (Manchester University Press, 2001) 

Stevenson, John. British Society 1914-45, (Penguin Books, 1999)


A Cottage on Dartmoor, dir. Anthony Asquith (British Instructional Films, 1929) [on DVD]

Holiday Camp, dir. Ken Annakin (Gainsborough Pictures, General Film Distributors, 1947) [on DVD]

In Which We Serve, dir. Noël Coward and David Lean (British Lion Film, UK, 1942) [DVD]

Millions Like Us, dir. Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (Gainsborough Pictures, 1943) [on DVD]

[1] Claire Langhamer, Women’s Leisure in England 1920-60 (Manchester University Press, 2001) pp.20-21

[2] Holiday Camp, dir. Ken Annakin (Gainsborough Pictures, General Film Distributors, 1947) [on DVD]

[3] Martin Francis, ‘Leisure and Popular Culture’ in Women in Twentieth Century Britain: Social, Cultural and Political Change, ed. by Ina Zweininger-Bargielowska (Longman Publishing Group, 2001) pp.229-243 (p.236); John Stevenson, British Society 1914-45, (Penguin Books, 1999) p.385

[4] Holiday Camp

[5] Stevenson,p.392

[6] Francis, pp.236-237; Jeffrey Hill, Sport, Leisure and Culture in Twentieth-Century Britain, (Palgrave, 2002) p.122

[7] Hill, p.61

[8] Millions Like us, dir. Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder (Gainsborough Pictures, 1943) [on DVD]

[9] A Cottage on Dartmoor, dir. Anthony Asquith (British Instructional Films, 1929) [on DVD]

[10] Langhamer, p.120

[11] Hill, p.60

[12] A Cottage on Dartmoor

[13] Hill, p.62

[14] Langhamer, pp.64-5

[15] Ibid. p.137

[16] Ibid. p.50

[17] In Which We Serve, dir. Noël Coward and David Lean (British Lion Film, UK, 1942) [DVD]

[18] Hill, p.8

[19] Holiday Camp

[20] Susan Barton, Working-Class Organisations and Popular Tourism, 1840-1970 (Manchester University Press, 2005), p.18; Langhamer, p.39

[21] Hill, p.76, p.91

[22] Ibid, p.6

[23] Holiday Camp

[24] Barton, p.18

[25] In Which We Serve

[26] Millions Like Us

[27] Francis, p.230

[28] Ibid, p.238

[29] Annette Kuhn, ‘Memories of Cinema-Going in the 1930’s’, Journal of Popular British Cinema vol.2 (1999)

[30] Holiday Camp

[31] Langhamer, p.43

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