At a women's march in London in 2017 a woman holds a placard which speaks for all weary women. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0
Womens March 2017 London

IT HAS been a long, hard road for women fighting to free themselves from the oppression of men, and it is far from over. I have been surprised and shocked over the last few weeks to hear men claiming to be socialists denying that women are still oppressed and a couple even saying women have it better than men in the West. We don’t and we have had to fight for every concession and will continue to fight.

In this article I am looking only at the UK, because the story differs from country to country, and there is certainly a huge difference between, for example, Western countries and Middle Eastern ones. It took more than eighty years from the first petition of the women’s suffrage movement to be presented in parliament in 1832, when they only petitioned for women to have a voice in the election of MPs, until we were granted the right to vote in 1918. Just ponder that for a moment. The women involved in that struggle were not alive to see their gender get the right to vote. And not all of us had the right. The Representation of the People Bill applied only to women over the age of 30 who were either married or were members of the Local Government Register.

It was 34 years after that 1832 petition that John Stuart Mill presented the first women’s suffrage petition on the right to vote to the House of Commons. It contained 1,500 signatures, a number we would scoff at now, but the bravery of these women, spinsters, should not be minimised. It simply was not the thing for women, especially those ‘without’ a husband, to speak up, but in 1902 women were finding their voices, and the petition demanding votes for women contained 37,000 signatures. 

The Local Government Act in 1894 allowed women, married and single, to vote in elections for county and borough councils, but they still had no parliamentary voice. It took action, direct action, to effect a change. Action which saw women marching, resorting to smashing windows and even arson, tying themselves to railings and being imprisoned, before the men in power listened and The Representation of the People Act was passed in 1928, entitling everyone over the age of 21 to vote.

In 1929 women finally voted in their first election, just the beginning of a struggle which continues today. In both World Wars, but especially the Second, women did jobs that had been traditionally done by men, but of course they were not paid the same as men and, when the war ended, they were expected to return to the household. Fast forward to the 1960s and the Dagenham car factory strike, where women machinists walked out after discovering they were paid 15% less than men. The strike ended after three weeks when their pay was increased to 8% below that of men, but it took another strike by the women in 1984 for them to finally be awarded equal pay.

It was not just about getting the vote and equal pay; until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act was passed in 1919, women could still not do many jobs, including practising as solicitors or barristers. And there are still jobs today which are seen as traditionally men’s or women’s, despite our equality laws. 94 years after we first voted, women have gained many rights in law, but these do not necessarily translate to real equality. Putting aside sexual abuses (as that deserves an article all of its own), there is still a gender pay gap. Here, in the UK, the top 10% of male earners take home 16.1% more than the top 10% of female earners. And generally we are still paid 8.3% less than men.

There are many such stories of struggles and of battles won, finally, by women, but why is it still necessary? Why are we still fighting almost a hundred years later? It is because of the roles traditionally assigned to women, roles which are not ‘natural’ but are socially constructed. Just as many men may wish to stay at home and care for their families, so do many women wish to take up jobs in trades such as plumbing, carpentry, mechanics etc. Women still account for over three quarters of all jobs in the health and social work sector. Is this because they want those jobs or because they are seen to be ‘women’s work’?

Employed women with dependent children also appear to be deemed more responsible than men for the care of their children, spending more time on unpaid childcare than employed men with dependent children.

Although women’s roles in the labour market have increased over the last few years – an employment rate of 72.2%, as opposed to men’s at 78.8%, as of October 2021 – women are still far more likely than men to be working part time, almost 30% more. This may be because women with children need flexible working hours or simply because the jobs are available. One thing the Covid pandemic has shown us is that flexible hours and remote working are possible, and indeed desired by many, so perhaps we will see an increase in this for both women and men.

The pandemic also shone a light on the inequalities that still exist, as it saw women more likely to be furloughed, women more likely to lose their jobs and women more likely to be tasked with home schooling and more domestic chores. A Mumsnet poll carried out for International Women’s Day in 2021 showed almost half of those surveyed expected gender equality to go into reverse over the next few years. I know other women and I have discussed this very thing, that we feel as though our rights will be slowly rolled back.

There is also the matter of how our work is valued. Jobs which are profitable for capital, such as working in the finance sector, are seen as worthy of high pay, while care work remains undervalued and very much underpaid, if paid at all. Yet we have a growing elderly population who need to be cared for, and who will make up this workforce of carers? Women at present dominate this sector, so it is very much a gender issue and one which must be addressed. It is time we valued work for its social value and not for the profit generated for individuals and companies that are already wealthy.

In 1918 Helena Normanton, who fought for the right to practise law and was the first woman to be admitted to an Inn of Court in 1919 and called to the Bar in 1922, said, “I am perfectly certain that it is high time that women’s interests were in the hands of their own sex.” This is undoubtedly true, yet, as of December last year, only 35% of our MPs were women.

Women are still undervalued, underrepresented in most walks of life, and underpaid. We are still oppressed.

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