How far did British society change, 1939-1975 (WOMEN)

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Women and the second world war

During the second world war, women made a significant crontribution to the success of Britain throughout it's time of need. They took over the jobs while men were away at war and worked in factories, agriculture and transport. By 1939 women were encouraged to volunteer to work and in 1941, all single women (aged 19-30) were conscripted -  later extended to married women. The war had some positive and negative impacts on women's lives; 


Ban on married women teaching and working in civil service was lifted in 1958, women joined trade unions who tried their hardest to safeguard their interests, government set up training courses for women to re-train for peacetime work after the war, by 1951 22% of women were working than the previous 10%, medical schools were encouraged to take on women. 


Inequal pay was still a huge issue and following the Equal Pay Act of 1943 proving to be ineffective, this hightlight the issues amongst women and men regarding inequality. After the war, men generally took back "their" jobs. Despite medical schools taking on women, they only had to take on 1 women for every 5 men. Nursing still had a ban on married women. 

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Work, opportunities and pay for women

- 1951 women made up 31% of the labour force and this increased to 38% by 1971. 

- The 1944 Education Act made it compulsory for both males and females to have secondary education and this meant that women were no longer in competition with men over education as they each got equal oppourtunities, however girls still had a curriculum based around domestic work. 

- Once the marriage bar was lifted, 49% of married women worked by 1971 and this only encouaraged married women to step out of the stereotypical values placed onto them by their husbands in regards to not working/serving the household - women were never seen as the families' main breadwinner and the Beveridge Report was based around a family unit compromising of a mother who was unemployed and spent all her time at home. 

- The conservative government agreed to give equal pay to men and women working in public sectors such as teaching and civil servants, however this did not passed until 1970 and was only really put into action in 1975, the end of the time period. Although a major step forward, it did little to help women gain entitlement over anything until quite late in the era. 

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Contraception, Abortion, Divorce

  • In 1957 the 1st oral contraceptive was made and in Dec 1961, Enoch Powell announced that the new pill could be prescribed on the NHS at a subsidised price. These new rights of birth control had a huge effect on women as it gave them more control over their own lives rather than the stronghold men had over them in prior years. It meant that they could focus on things such as education and employment before starting a family, and this therefore increased their income levels and opportunities. 
  • The early 1960's saw approx. 200,000 illegal abortions per year. In Oct 1967, the Labour government passed the Abortion Act and abortion became legal in 1968, providing women with an increasingly stringent level of control over themselves. This transformed their lives as it provided them with the means necessary to become their own people rather than belonging to what societal standards forced them to be. 
  • 1969 Parliamnet passed the divorce reform act, which came into full swing in January 1971. Couples no longer had to prove an offence of their partner and could request a divorce on the grounds of adultery, cruelty, desertion for at least 2 years or by mutual consent. The rate in divorces steadily increased and women felt more free and not so heavily burnened by the thought of being trapped in a marriage. The matrimonial act of 1970 gave women the right to a share of assets built up during marriage, which only further amplified their feeling of freedom. 
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Sex Discrimination

  • The sex discrimination act of 1975 provided males and females with the same lawful terms. A person may not be traeted differenlty due to their gender and it protected both men and women from discrimination on the grounds of their gender. Due to the equal pay act coming into practice 5 years earlier, the act went a long way in contributing to the furthermore equality of women among british society, however late it did come into practice. The act mainly applied to employment, harassment, education and the provision of goods and services. This was seen as the final ingredient in a very rewarding period for women, during which times their lives were made considerably better. 
  • However, despite the advantages, sex discrimination was very hard to prove in 1950 Britain and the act could not immediately change this, hence why it was put into action so much later on. The top positions in businesses were also still generally held by men. 
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The women's movement and changing expectations

During the 1960s the main areas of concern were legal equalities such as equal pay and divorce, but it was also strongly centered around unofficial inequality in, for example, education and employment. Although the 1944 education act had been put into place, female education was still biased towards domestic activities and were still being treated unequally to that of their male counterparts, especially due to the fact that equal pay had not been put into place during this time. In 1970, however, the women's liberation movement was launched and demanded for things such as; 

  • equal pay
  • equal education 
  • 24 hour nurseries 
  • free contraception and abortion on demand 

They were encouraged by feminists such as Germaine Greer who, in 1969, wrote the book 'The female eun*ch' which gathered momentum for the women's lib movement. By the mid to late 1960's there was a significant increase in women 'fighting for their rights' and making their opinions known against the differentials they found themselves subjected to within society. 

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The Cult of domesticity and changes in education

1. Women were still seen as belonging in the home over this period and, infact, still are to some extent viewed as such today. The 1950s, much like the 1930s, saw a pervasive cult of domesticity with the traditional view of woman as home-makers proving to be remarkably resilient, a view encouraged by much commercial advertising. Although seen as a rewarding era for women in regards to new opportunities and legalisations making their way into British society, women were still seen as the inferior sex and were oppressed by their male counterparts. This is especially in accordance with the fact that the sex discrimination act was not put into action until 1975, at the end of the period, which shows a slow and rather small-scaled change for women during this time period. 

2. The 1944 education act was significant in changing the lives of women as it outlawed the sacking of female teachers who were married, while the provision of good-quality education, especially in grammar schools, widened women's horizons in regards to the level of education and further employment they could go on to; opportunities were wider than they ever had been before. Although girls' education was still largely centered around domestic housework in school, nearly a third of undergraduates were female by early 1960 and this was only further increasing. 

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Wage comparison with men

The growth of part time work and employment-based oppotunities for women after the second world war offered material gains for owmen, but in many other spheres they significantly lagged behind their male equivalents. This became particularly apparent in terms of wage differential between men and women, with a large gap coming in 1940 when women were seen to earn 42% of what men did. It was proved that the average wage difference between the two during the 1920s to the 1970s was fairly consistent at 50%. This only put into play the extremeties at which not only the inequality was, but also the sex discrimination sought amongst British society. 

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