50 Years Of Women’s Lib In Britain: A History Lesson

By Christobel Hastings

Every morning at 10 am — for as long as I can remember — I’ve tuned into BBC Woman’s Hour. It’s partly tradition, dating back to when I was a knee-high tot and would stand listening by my mother’s skirt folds, partly an interest that developed of its own accord as my teenage years passed by, and most recently, an avid pursuit of anything with a decidedly feminist agenda.

Woman’s Hour was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the UK, a channel noted for its spoken-word programs. It first aired on October 7, 1946, some 70 years ago, and since then, the airwaves have been filled with snippets of social commentary and pithy interviews, encouraging lively debate on everything from abortion laws and the eccentricities of style legend Iris Apfel, to the enduring appeal of Agatha Christie and the fight against FGM; long-time presenters Jane Garvey and Jenni Murray make deft segues through the landscape of women’s rights.

Recently, whilst bargain-hunting in a Dr. Barnados charity shop, I happened across a Woman’s Hour annual from 1996, a volume published to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first broadcast of Woman’s Hour in 1946. The book hailed from around the same time that, as a toddler, I’d have just begun listening to the program beside my mother as she worked. For the grand sum of £1, I was presented with detailed chronicles of the history of women in Britain over a 50-year period as they voyaged through austerity, navigated work-life balance, and fought for reproductive rights.

I began to wonder: What had life been like for women in those years of change and upheaval? Where had women’s progress got to by the mid-nineties? And more importantly, how far had women’s liberation evolved in the 20 years since?


Pack Up Your Troubles

When Woman’s Hour was first broadcast 70 years ago, the societal landscape was one which most women now would — happily — find unrecognizable. For many at that time, the new program served as a “breastfeeding accompaniment,” but that wasn’t its defining feature.

It was a program made exclusively and unapologetically for women, something that one Woman’s Hour listener declared to be “quite extraordinary.” It was conceived in an age when many women were mired down with post-wartime rationing, coupons, and reconstituted dried egg. Babies slept in bottom drawers and vitamins for pregnant women had to be obtained by the Ministry of Food. Change was in the air, however.

The onset of WWII had drawn attention to the prior exclusion of women from many areas of society, and proved that women didn’t have to be dependent on men for subsistence; in fact, they could cope perfectly well holding down labor-intensive jobs in munitions factories, so long as childcare provision was plentiful.

Women’s war contributions had proven to be crucial, and now, shoehorning them back into antiquated gendered roles couldn’t be justified. Progress was being made in helping women with childcare, as the Family Allowance was introduced on August 6, 1946, the result of tireless efforts from Liverpool Independent MP Eleanor Rathbone, who fought hard for a decent financial stipend to be given universally to families with children.

It transitioned to Child Benefit in 1976, proving to be a success in stabilizing many struggling households. So too was the 1975 Social Security Pensions Act pushed through parliament on account of a determined policy-maker, Barbara Castle, who aspired to change the outdated viewpoint that women only worked for “pin-money.”

Despite the advances made in women’s financial gains, welfare hadn’t arrived “with the benefit of women as individuals in mind.” Staggeringly, it took until 1993 for a married woman to be given the right to claim half of a couple’s social security money in her own right. Even then, the majority of women still found themselves trapped between a partner or the state.

Role Call


Meanwhile, for those attempting to get an education in post-war Britain, only traditionally feminine subjects were available to the “fairer sex.” The Norwood Report, published in 1943, stated that the education of young women need only concern itself with the “essential elements of needlework, cookery and laundry work” — hardly the stuff of dreams. The possibilities in the years after the war were limited, as girls were targeted with soft subjects that would inevitably propel them towards domesticity, or shuttle “brighter” students into docile labor pools.

Young women who wanted to push the boundaries of traditional subjects and study in higher education largely failed in the years immediately after the war, due to a lack of infrastructural support and an undeniable shortage of visible female role models who broke the mould of conventional domesticity. Worse yet, discrimination was rife. Girls were routinely denied places in grammar schools, while boys with lower marks took their places. A good education became dependent on gender.

The substandard higher education for girls wasn’t simply a question of gendered inequality through studied subjects. Academics routinely claimed that education was a corrupting influence on girls that stymied the marriage market, creating a shortage of potential suitors for young bachelors.

Femininity was the ideal for young girls, and could be cultivated through pursuing the right recreational activities — dancing lessons, dinners, socials at the town hall. In contrast, girls who pursued a high education were seen as undesirable, entitled, dictatorial — in essence, destined for both the social and sexual scrapheap. This train of thought was persistently circulated as late as the 1980s; newspaper headlines perpetuated the myth that the marriage market was falling out from under college educated career girls.

If women did pursue careers beyond that of the family and home, they were mostly in teaching or nursing, widely believed to be “the finest professions open to girls.” Not only did gender bias filter its way through school curriculums, but it often characterised books, toys, and activities too. Take, for instance, the classic Ladybird books Peter and Jane or Janet and John, which saw the husband and son get excited about the new car, while the little girls would dutifully assist their mothers — where else — in the kitchen.

The 1980s and 1990s saw girls’ prospects improve as curriculum choices broadened. The later decades of the century spawned a wealth of positive action programs aimed at equalling girls education, specifically in STEM subjects; with schemes such as GIST (Girls into Science and Technology) and WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) gaining traction. The initiatives worked — girls began outperforming boys academically. Yet in terms of their confidence and self-esteem, they were still woefully lacking.

Working Nine To Five


One major shift in women’s liberation came directly as a result of WWII, and ensured that women would never again go back to a life of domesticity as a one-size-fits-all future. The female contribution to the war effort had proved invaluable; the idea that women were incapable of juggling a family and a career could no longer be used to discredit them as they pursued new horizons.

Society at large however, was reluctant to welcome women into the working fold — unless of course, their labor came at a fraction of the price of men’s. Childcare provision evaporated overnight after the armistice was declared, and society reverted back to traditionalist values. Attitudes towards female re-employment were hostile, and women found themselves being pushed out of the very industries they’d worked hard and successfully to sustain.

By 1947 female employment had fallen from eight million to six million. Those who remained in work had a tough time holding on to their jobs, as political will once more failed to safeguard the independence of women, and recognize them as individuals with career aspirations. It wasn’t until 1954 that equal pay would be introduced in the civil service, followed by the teaching profession a year later and the NHS — then the gas and electricity industries. Dishearteningly, women in other professions would have to wait another 20 years for that “privilege.”

A climate of change seemed to come along in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1968 the now-famous strike of the female Ford sewing machinists in Dagenham, Essex, reinvigorated the question of the gender pay gap, as the women demanded to be paid the same as the men working in the car factory plants. In 1970, the Equal Pay Act came to the House of Commons alongside the Sex Discrimination Bill; but despite the new legislation, it didn’t deliver the change it was hoped it would bring.

It was in 1990 that Lady Howe identified a “glass ceiling,” an invisible and unacknowledged barrier to a woman’s advancement in their career, further substantiated by the dispiriting information that in 1995, women’s pay was found to be, on average, 80% of men’s.

The Dawn Of Choice


But perhaps the most hotly contested rights that women have fought for during the 50-year period in question is the power to exercise choice over their bodies. It wasn’t until the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948 that any spotlight was put on the health of women and their specific needs, though.

Sex education was virtually non-existent except for formidable word-of-mouth rumors about the workings of the body, leaving generations of women naïve as to the actualities of sex, pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing. Obtaining contraceptive advice was nearly impossible for married women, and the Family Planning Association wouldn’t even contemplate prescribing it to unmarried women. Childbirth methods were prescriptive and painful, whilst babies were separated from their mothers in nurseries and kept to four-hourly feeding cycles.

In 1956 The Natural Childbirth Association of Great Britain (which became The National Childbirth Trust in 1961) was formed with the intention of giving soon-to-be mothers a different experience of birth, and more importantly, extend the freedom of choice to expectant mothers as to how they brought their children into the world. In the 1960s and 1970s organisations like AIMS and the National Childbirth Trust fought to make healthcare inclusive of women’s personal preferences.

But what of the flipside to the fight for reproductive rights — for those women who chose not to have babies? Abortion carried the sentence of life imprisonment until 1960 in Britain, leaving generations of women at the mercy of backstreet operations and quack doctors willing to capitalise on a woman’s dire situation for a quick income. The legislation so desperately needed to protect women eventually came into place in 1967, with the introduction of the Abortion Law Reform Association.

Birth control became available to women in that same year — regardless of marital status — although it wasn’t properly democratized until 1974, when it finally became free to obtain. The oral contraceptive pill by all accounts revolutionized female reproductive choice as well when it arrived in 1961, cementing the idea that “informed choice became the watchdog of medical treatment.” It became the most widely used form of contraception during the 1960s, overtaking the condom and the cap, and by 1970, 18% of women in their fertile years were using it.

The ’60s also welcomed in the first fertility drugs and screening programmes for cervical cancer — treatment that would give some women the much-longed for chance to welcoming new life into the world, and for others, a fair shot at living a long and fulfilling one without the threat of illness.

A Change Is Gonna Come

abortion (1)
Flickr / Loz Pycock

It’s plain to see that at the time of The Woman’s Hour’s publication, the shape of women’s liberation had changed radically. Where once single mothers, the unmarried, and illegitimate children had carried a dark cloak of social stigma, the moral climate significantly changed midway through the century, and unconventional family structures became more socially acceptable. Career prospects and education improved exponentially, giving young women the level playing field they needed to compete in professional circles and achieve their white-collar dreams.

The female body continued to be a fierce source of contention for campaigners of reproductive rights, although women gained the legal freedom to do as they pleased with their bodies, and could no longer be prohibited from making choices about their health.

Yes, developments came fast as we passed through the decades of the later half of the century. Yet according to a 1996 Social Trend Report, the majority of household tasks were still performed by women, who were spending eight hours more on cooking and cleaning and had their free time reduced 20% by the presence of children in the house, as opposed to 10% for men. Furthermore, The Woman’s Hour forecasted that women and their children would not “achieve the stability and equality they crave without significant changes in the attitudes of men,” and predicted that women must remain vigilant about protecting the rights they had fought so hard to obtain during the women’s liberation.

Here We Are

Flickr / JPAG

It’s undeniable that there were multiple victories for women’s rights in 2015, from the election of the youngest MP since the 17th century, Mhairi Black, to the fact that FTSE 320 boards (basically the British stock market) have more women on them than ever before — double the number reported in 2011. Shared parental leave was introduced, and all medical, social, and teaching professions here in the UK now have to report all known cases of FGM to the police. Meanwhile, a recent petition asking Secretary of State for Education Nicky Morgan MP to include more female thinkers on the Politics A-level syllabus has been successful.

But as we look out on 2016, new challenges have emerged that could jeopardize the leaps and bounds made in the far-reaching field of women’s rights, as The Woman’s Hour foreshadowed 20 years ago.

Old issues like the gender pay gap still loom large — it’s estimated that for every pound a UK man earns, a woman doing the same job earns 80p — despite it being illegal (since 1970!) to pay men and women differently. Women are disproportionately downtrodden by austerity measures in Britain; the freezing of child benefits and tax credits are guaranteed to resign them to poverty.

Women seeking family planning counsel or abortion advice have faced recent vilification despite freedom of choice having been written into law for years. Incredibly, abortion is yet to be decriminalized in Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, the immense power of the digital age has thrown women’s ongoing struggle with body image into sharp relief as celebrities are ruthlessly compared on sidebars of shame; scrutinizing every pixel of a female body has become commonplace, every wrinkle magnified, every ounce of flesh circled, labeled, and accounted for. The glossy magazines still normalize and perpetuate the objectification, exploitation, and misrepresentation of women while tube posters aggressively question women on their morning commute if they’re “beach body ready.”

Then there are the whopping estimated 1.6 million people in the UK who suffer from an eating disorder. According to a survey carried out by the Health and Social Care Information Centre in 2014, 92% of those admitted to hospital in 2013 were female — the average age just 15 years old. A plethora of issues such as domestic violence, catcalling, stalking, harassment, and the criminally low conviction rate for rape and poor parliamentary representation also remain relatively unaddressed.

In truth, we’re poised in a position that echoes the annals of what the female experience has always been. We’re walking forward — doggedly and with victories under our belt — but mountains still loom.

Tomorrow — and every day — I will tune in to The Woman’s Hour to trace our success, and inevitable slips, in scaling these obstacles.


Featured Image: Flickr / People’s History Museum/ Sunny Ripert

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