Today is the one hundredth International Women’s Day.
Whilst I can’t speak for the first half of the past century, I recall fairly clearly most of the second half.
And strangely – given that my early years were of necessity geographically and socially constrained, and (in the parlance of the era) very much respectable lower middle class – I have been conscious of gender issues almost from the start of that time. What, I remember wondering as a small girl in the early 1950s, did it actually, physically feel like to be a boy? Was ‘being comfortable in your skin’ different for lads than for little ladies?
Unsurprisingly, these musings became more complex and even more unfathomable as my teenage friends and I attempted to unravel and reconstruct the universe, whilst concurrently Mary Quant and her cohort achieved that same end rather more convincingly. By the later 1960s skirts were short, feminism had a name, and full ‘rights’ for women were reckoned to be simply a matter of time…
Come the legislation, most of us, as first generation young women students, believed, and all would be resolved. The redoubtable Barbara Castle MP would get it sorted for us, when her 1970 Equal Pay and 1975 Sex Discrimination Acts finally became law.
Well, Barbara Castle certainly did her best, but there remains a very long way to go; and the path may once more I fear soon take us backwards not forward.
Women of all ages now have entitlements beyond the most ambitious expectations of their (great) grandmothers, as World War II ended and they were forced to relinquish their jobs to men returning from the trenches. Rosie the Riveter and her States-side and UK sisters may have been miffed to lose their employment in the late 1940s, but they were by the incontestable norms of the day then allocated instead domestic roles, as dutiful wives and full-time new mothers.
No need at that new dawn, as the Welfare State and the NHS emerged, for special legislation to protect women’s rights at work, or to ensure maternity leave. The chaps were back and married women knew their duty – go forth and produce the first baby boom generation, my generation, the one now deemed by some with ahistorical audacity to be callously robbing present-day post-millennial young people of their futures.
No age three to five nursery entitlements in the late 1940s / 1950s, no proper maternity rights, no reproductive health provision, no legal protection against sexism, scant if any awareness of violence against women, no expectation that ‘ordinary’ women could succeed in the heady world of male power… indeed, only recently at that point in the UK had women not been required to give up public sector jobs on marriage; and for their mothers, just a decade or two before that, full and equal electoral enfranchisement had still been a wonderful novelty.
Looked at in this light the past half century has seen incredible progress.
Social and cultural factors continue for many women to be enormous obstacles to genuine gender equity, but that concept is now embedded in national and international legislation. For most younger people, women and men alike, the challenges which Barbara Castle addressed are now almost literally unthinkable. The folk memory of that sort of repression and inequity has gone.
Even so, in my more pessimistic moments I fear still for the future.
It’s inevitable that every generation of women (like others who are disenfranchised) should reinvent the past and seek differently to shape their expectations and ambitions. But progress is not guaranteed.
Our world is one of inexorably increasing population and inevitably depleted environmental resource. Add in the spectre of politically imposed widespread financial hardship and fewer jobs, and prospects for greater gender equality begin to look grim – especially for those women who currently have little economic power or civic influence.
The UK Coalition Government’s politically imposed austerity, serving the interests of the privileged at the expense of those who have little, is a route to disruption and distrust; and it will produce demands for time and effort which fall inequitably.
The Big Society may prove to be not a blessing so much as a massive burden for women even more than men.
Volunteers and families will be called upon to deliver not just ‘minding’ vunerable community members, but rather communal miracles, as public sector support for the young, the infirm and the elderly disappears.
It’s no accident that so many top portfolios in the ConDem administration are held by men. That is, whatever their fine words, an inevitable consequence of their fundamental assumptions about how society works.
And that, I guess, is also why those of us who find this world view so vexing must ensure that next year’s 101st International Women’s Day will be as focused as the first must have been, on gender equity as a requirement for a decent society.
We can factor in the history, or we can effect to discard the struggles, achievements and lessons of the past. Either way, equality for women in the future is still not assured.