Women post-world war two in Britain


The most immediate effect of the EPA and thus of the WL’s campaign is the rise in wages, women’s wages rose by just under 10% (in comparison to men’s wages) from 1970-77. This is of course of some importance in most immediate ways- but did it improve the position of women other than financially? We can suggest that EPA was of little consequence other than in financial terms- employers, often with the help of male TUs, restructured their employment system to decrease the value of women’s work, meaning that EPA led to further discrimination in the workplace.

The government were happy to accept the limited goals of EPA as they were able to calculate the costs, and more importantly the political worth, of the act. Thus the act may have led to the improvement of female wages in real figures, but it emphasised the difference in male/female employment, the male hierarchy in the TUs and the government’s desire to help women seemingly only when in line with their interests. The theme of male hierarchy is attacked by parts of the WL called radical feminists, who see the male ego and patriarchy as the source of female dependence.

They create a link between what we see above at the workplace, and the dependence of women at home. Although some success was had in helping house wives to become economically independent, most notably through the Child Benefit scheme, begun in 1979, the feminisation of poverty pushed women further into dependence under men or the state. A study by Graham upon a new English town in the early 1980s reveals the extent of dependence among housewives and single mothers. 90% of housewives in the study were dependent on their husbands for income, 50% of single mothers were dependent on the state for their main income.

Among the average income families, 29% of the family economies were run by the male and in the lower income families, the male dominated economy was far more common. This begins a process of male domination of the family life, and of the female in particular. Two thirds saw money as the source of tension in marriage and many said that male control of the economy led to divorce. More importantly, male domination of the economy is a symbol of male domination of the female, which can lead to violence- a study of 3,200 cases of violence in 2 Scottish cities undertaken in the late 70s showed that over 30% of cases were husband beating wife.

We can suggest tentatively that poverty, and the male domination of the family economy, leads to male domination of the female, expressed most forcefully through domestic violence. WL may have helped to campaign for Child Benefit and even attained that goal, however it could do little to prevent the freezing of benefit levels until 1990, despite some 30 pressure groups behind it. The economic downturn of the late 1970s onwards prevented further expansion and even sustaining of the welfare state- the result was often that women became more dependent on males in the form of either husbands or employers.

However, dependence on the male, as employer and husband, was lessened; domestic violence was attacked by both the state and proactive groups. In 1976 the WL helped to set up the first rape crisis centre, a symbol of the collective power of women to gain independence from men. The Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act of the same year attacked male domination in the family too; it recognised the problems of male violence and sought to correct it by making restraining orders more accessible.

These two events in 1976 highlight that women were not equal, but sought to give women as much protection and safety as men. This reformation of the legal system was an attempt to emancipate women and make them equally independent; the WL did much at the grass-roots to set up the rape crisis centres and brought the issue of domestic violence into political commentary. WL can claim much success in the protection of women and the resultant gains in independence and emancipation.

However, we have already noted that the cause of the domestic violence is, in some part, the result of the domestic hierarchy and the role of the male economic superiority in the family, especially among lower income families. Thus if the WL were truly to solve the problems of domestic violence and female dependence, they would have to attack the role of the male in the family. This would involve both an attitudinal and a structural shift- the women would have to be allowed out of the house and into work on a level basis, and the man would have to accept some domestic work.

A failure to create either one of these changes would lead to a failure to undermine the basis of male domination which leads to domestic violence and female dependence. Indeed, we can see that the limited structural changes do not undermine the system of male hierarchy; the Sex Discrimination Act and the Employment Protection Act of 1975 both go some way to changing the situation in the work place, but no substantial structural change occurs. The employment act gives maternity leave as a statutory right and protects the right of women to come back to work after pregnancy.

However, it protects only those in full time employment thus not getting to the root of the problem for the domestic housewife, who is often only in temporary employment. Moreover, any claims to be made are through a complicated legal process, which although accepting emancipation and equality in theory, is just another structural barrier for women, making access to equal employment and legal status more difficult. We see above then that attempts by the WL to effect change in the legal status of women do not come to fruition and that they do not get to the root the problem of domestic violence and male domination.

The use of the Employment Protection Act a case study for this failure also draws our attention to the attempts to gain equal opportunities in education. The act itself provides some retraining classes for older women and those wanting to come back to work after child raising. However, it is symptomatic of the failure of the WL to change attitudes- mostly the act provides training in clerical skills and does not allow for expansion into so called ‘higher professions’.

Margaret Thatcher is another symbol, ironically, of such failure- during her time as Secretary of Education, she ensured that a government green paper on equal opportunities did not expand into her realm. Indeed it seems that the WL had set up their own co-operative schemes in terms of education, for the government was unlikely to be affected by their campaigning. This highlights the most significant issue in the success of WL campaigns to transform the lives of women- how sympathetic was the government of the time?

Sympathy seems to come from 4 factors; the skill of the campaigners in the WL, the expediency of what they are asking for, the government’s potential to gain from the changes desired, and the power of pressure groups opposed to structural change. Out of these four factors, the potency of the WL campaigners is the most difficult to weigh up- but certainly they were less potent than large groups of employers who made party contributions and national ones, through taxation.

The WL had more success when they backed or allied with other interest groups; this is most obviously seen when they joined with the TUC in campaigning to retain the abortion act which came under attack several times in the 70s and 80s. Matters of abortion and contraception were actively campaigned for by the WL and seem to be one of their greatest successes, because their implementation was campaigned against by large pressure groups, was not necessarily expedient, and was not likely to win the government many votes, as women more than likely saw the lack of contraceptives as the failure of the government.

Therefore the only criteria of our four that this campaign fills is the skill of the WL, which seemingly convinced the government to make a moral decision on contraceptives and ending the lack of female independence over their own fertility. Independence was not gained in all spheres, we see the failure of the EPA to affect real change in the position of women, perhaps it even confirms the male hierarchy, and in the failure to change the domestic situation for women.

Myrdal and Klein complain that attitudinal change was not enough without structural change, but perhaps we should argue that substantial structural change was not possible without real attitudinal change- and, from the government at least, this did not occur. The WL faced too great a battle to convert government’s in a period where the cold war and the welfare state were greater issues, and where, by the 1980s, economic problems cast a shadow over the failure to gain female independence and equality; and thus their attempts to transform women’s lives could only have limited success in the form of limited parliamentary and public acts.