Lucy Skoulding 5th February 2018
Picture this. Britain is nearing the end of the Great War, a war in which the total British and Colonial soldier tragedies would amount to 888,246 by the end, and there would be many more from other nations. Most women’s suffrage organisations have suspended their campaigning, and even Emmeline Pankhurst has turned her attentions to helping the government recruit women into war work.
The involvement of women in the war effort helped to change societal perceptions of gender more than any campaign activities. Women undertook jobs which were usually only held by men, and proved they were not only useful, but they were successful. During the four years of fighting, approximately two million women replaced men in employment.
As a result, in February 1918, a hundred years ago this month, the Representation of the People Act was passed by the UK Parliament. The Act granted the right to vote to any women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification. It also gave the vote to all men over the age of 21.
Perceptions of gender had started to transform, but there was still a long way to go. Despite women proving they could do many jobs just as well as male counterparts in the same role, they were still paid significantly less.
How did this change over the next ten decades? And where did it fail to change?
Gender equality through the decades
The 1920s were a mixed decade in terms of freeing genders from their constraints. On the one hand, women were not considered “persons” in their own right until 1929, which seems ridiculous by modern standards. Excellent that it finally happened. But shocking that it took so long.
The decade was, however, revolutionary in the legal sense. Various acts were passed which allowed women access into new professions and gave them property rights. In 1928, women finally gained the same voting rights as men, and in the same year Virginia Woolf published ‘Orlando’ which was believed to be the first English novel to deal with a transgender character. The term ‘Flapper’ was also born, which became symbolic of the freer woman, dressing in short skirts, going out alone, drinking, and treating sex more casually.
The 1930s appeared to take a step backwards in terms of gender equality. High unemployment because of the Great Depression meant men took the jobs that women had handled during the First World War, and it became once again the respected norm for men to be doing the paid work and women to look after the household. Fashions also changed, with women’s dresses becoming more conservative than the ‘20s flapper dresses they had enjoyed.
One notable development of the decade was the forming of the Family Planning Association, previously called the National Birth Control Council, which encouraged the choice to use birth control if you wanted to limit family numbers.
National conscription had been in place for men during the Great War, but in the 1940s the National Service Act was passed, calling all unmarried women between 20 and 30 up for war work too. It was later extended to married women and the maximum age pushed up to 43. The decade was once again dominated by war, but the introduction of the NHS meant everyone in society had access to health care, putting all genders and classes on a par.
Post-war Britain was a confusing place. On the one hand, people wanted to get back to normal, meaning there was increasing collective anxiety over topics such as homosexuality. The fact Alan Turing, the Bletchley Park genius who played a part in Britain’s war victory, was chemically castrated because he was gay is an example of this.
The 1950s did, however, see female teachers and civil servants get equal pay to men doing the same jobs and the Life Peerages Act which entitled women to sit in the House of Lords for the first time. Even more significant was the 1956 Sexual Offences Act. It defined rape under specific criteria, and while there was more it could have included, it paved the way for later regulation.
The 1960s are commonly known as the decade when gender attitudes changed significantly. Change was more de facto. Barbara Castle became the first female minister of state in 1965 and the Women’s Abortion and Contraceptive Campaign played a major role in the passage of the Abortion Act, decriminalising abortion in Britain on certain grounds. The contraceptive pill became available through Family Planning Clinics and The NHS Act permitted health authorities to give contraceptive advice regardless of marital status.
An incredible amount of legislation was passed in the 1970s and 1980s. The Sex Discrimination Act made it illegal to discriminate against women in work, education, or training, and the Employment Protection Act introduced statutory maternity provision and made it illegal to sack women because they are pregnant.
Various organisations were established to tackle domestic violence, rape, and racist issues. Peer-reviewed journal The Feminist Review was founded in 1979, playing a key role in contemporary feminist debate. Various women took up positions of power for the first time, including Margaret Thatcher as the first female Prime Minister.
The Kiranjit Ahluwalia case helped to define the 1990s. She was originally given a life sentence for murder because she set the husband on fire who had violently abused her for years. Ahluwalia’s original conviction was then quashed and reduced to manslaughter following a campaign.
In 1994, rape in marriage was made a crime after 15 years of campaigning. In 1998, the Human Rights Act came in, giving equal rights to everyone regardless of their gender, age, race, or origin.
The noughties saw some progression in attitudes towards homosexuality. In 2001, the Mayor of London launched the London Partnerships Register, allowing lesbians, gay men, and unmarried heterosexual couples to register their partnerships. Then, in 2005 the first civil registrations of same-sex couples occurred as a result of the long-awaited Civil Partnerships Act. In March 2014, same-sex marriage was finally legalised.
What about now?
The last hundred years has seen an overwhelming amount of legal change. However, issues are still arising because legal change is not always translated into practical change and women are still suffering from sexism, unequal pay and sexual harassment.
The Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment allegations were only brought into the limelight a few months ago. It was only back on 5 October 2017 that The New York Times published their story detailing decades of allegations of sexual harassment against the Hollywood mogul. Since then, so much has happened.
Other Hollywood stars, such as Kevin Spacey and James Franco have also been accused of sexual harassment, and this may be because of a collective confidence in speaking out. There are so many reasons why sexual assault victims cannot and will not report the crimes committed against them, but when people start to come forward, more and more victims will speak out, even if the crime was many years ago.
Back in the UK, there was also the Westminster sexual harassment scandal in which MPs and government officials were accused of misconduct. Once again, this seemed to be a product of time. Actions that were viewed as acceptable, or at least no cause for complaint, in society in the past are no longer so. Times have changed.
It seems we’re reaching a real turning point, which is evident in the horror and disdain many people had when hearing about the Presidents Club dinner at the Dorchester Hotel, in which 130 specially-hired hostesses served a male-only party and were allegedly assaulted and accosted by drunk men from the top echelons of business and politics.
The next century
Strangely, as we enter the centenary of women starting to gain more legal power in Britain, it is as though we have come full circle. Just like how the women’s suffrage movement refused to accept women’s second-class citizen status for any longer, now society is refusing to accept gender inequality in whatever form it comes in. Whether that be sexual harassment, employment discrimination, or unreasonable pressures and expectations placed upon someone because of the sex they are born as.
I see the incredible power of every recent campaign that has launched against gender equality. At the very least they get people talking about the issue. The #TimesUp campaign has a particularly fitting name. It is a collective “no” in the face of gender inequality and discrimination.
Time is up now, all of this has to stop. Societies naturally learn and develop, and what has happened in the last hundred years might shock and anger some people. But Times Up tells us to look to the future. It is almost saying that past happenings make no sense now; they have no place in our society, and nor does anyone who thinks about committing them.
So while there is a lot to celebrate when it comes to the achievements of the women who came before us, we need to remember that it was down to people who refused to accept the status quo. We need to keep saying “this will not happen anymore”.
Lucy Skoulding 5th February 2018