90 Years Of Women’s Emancipation – And Feminism
Just 90 years ago on this date was the first time any woman in the UK was ‘allowed’ to vote. Some people still alive now were born when women’s emancipation did not exist; and even in 1918 the Representation of the People Act permitted only specified women over 30 this privilege. It was to be another ten years before women gained equal voting rights with men.
From the time of the Representation of the People Act of 6 February 1918 until the Equal Franchise Act of 2 July 1928, despite this and other first and desperately hard-fought victories, democratic voting rights were still not equal between men and women.
But that was by no means the end of the fight for formal equality. It was, extraordinarily, not until 30 April 1958 – a date still easily within the memory of many people – that the Life Peerages Act enabled just four women gained entry to the House of Lords.
Not there yet
So progress has indeed been made towards women’s equality in the past century. No longer are women paid less in, or indeed debarred if they marry from, professions like teaching; no longer does the law formally and overtly permit differences in the way women and men stand before it.
But still much remains to be done. As Katherine Rake, Director of the Fawcett Society, says in her Guardian interview this week:
We have done as much as we can levering women into a system designed by men for men. Now we have to work for a society where the rules are fitted for everybody…. There has been a huge change in women’s lives, but very little in men’s. [To make further progress] we have got to look at what happens in men’s lives…..
Even now, these battles continue, worldwide….
So I make no apology for being a long-time committed feminist. Half a century after women’s first step towards full emancipation, the feminist agenda of 1968 was a turning point as I entered adulthood. But the year 2008 still sees a long road ahead.
In my lifetime much has changed; but not enough.
Whilst, for example, the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act brought about a fairer situation for women requiring maternity leave (and , thereby, their partners and families) – though it was too late for some of my friends and me.
Still unequal in work and in power
But gender equality in the workplace is even now nowhere near achieved. British women in full time work are still paid on average 17% less than men similarly employed; and when part-time the difference between men and women is 36%.
And in national politics, where the big decisions are made, women remain even now a minority. The 2005 General Election saw 128 women elected in an assembly of 644, most of them – as Theresa May, a leading Conservative, herself acknowledged, from the Labour Party. (As at the end of 2006, of 712 Lords, 139 were women.)
Gender fatigue there may well be; but this is no time for inaction.
A way to shape the future
There remain enormous gaps, for both men and women, in parts of our lives which, whatever the legal frameworks, still have to be addressed. Men and women remain unequal, for each of them in different ways. (And so as we know do people of different sexualities, of different colour or age, of different beliefs and with different abilities.)
You don’t, actually, need to be a woman to want to seek equality, to hold that feminism is a sensible and decent way to see the world. You just have to be a fair-minded person.
Read more about Gender & Women.