LM Archives
  5:47 pm BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

Women's rights wronged

Sara Hardy disputes the idea that changes like the ordination of female vicars are 'victories' for all women

The sisters seem to have done it for themselves. Popular culture is full of stroppy, assertive women and feisty heroines. These days it takes a woman to tackle Aliens and a woman to snare Batman. Thelma, Louise and Shirley Valentine were cheered by audiences in Huddersfield as well as Hampstead. Even Barry Norman has had to remark that there is hardly a passive woman on screen.

The changes in women's status are said to have gone way beyond the cinema screen. Everybody from the Democratic Party in America to the Independent newspaper in Britain dubbed 1992 'The Year of the Woman'. Women are finally supposed to have won equality - and in some ways it seems that a lot really has changed.

A couple of years ago, notorious anti-feminist Neil Lyndon wrote that women no longer had any cause to claim they were oppressed:

'Apart from the monstrously insulting discrimination they suffer in the established churches and the fact that they cannot receive hereditary peerages in their own right, it is hard to think of one example of systemic and institutionalised discrimination against women in Britain today. When I telephoned the Equal Opportunities Commission, an official there agreed that it was hard to think of any glaring examples.' (Sunday Times Magazine, 9 December 1990)

Now even the churches, the armed forces, and the crusty old ranks of the peerage are changing.

Last year, the Church of England was thrown into turmoil when women won the right to be ordained. Supporters of women priests, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, argued that if Christ walked the earth today he would include women among his disciples. The old guard was defeated, and women will now be allowed to take holy orders.

Feminist campaigners rejoiced in what was claimed as one of the biggest ever victories for women's rights. Schisms and splits have ensued. Top Tory John Selwyn Gummer has left the General Synod; junior minister Ann Widdecombe has left the church, and the closer relationship between the Church of England and Rome has been torn asunder once more. All of this is supposed to be an indication of how women's issues now matter.

The House of Lords is shuffling towards gender equality too. It has been announced that a bill will shortly be introduced to allow hereditary peerages to pass down through the female line. Outraged members of the establishment such as the Duke of Devonshire have denounced such plans to undermine the male right of succession. The Labour Party, and in particular its women peers, have backed the campaign as another nail in the coffin for male supremacy.

Even the British armed forces are now reconsidering their policy of throwing out pregnant women. The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) is making a major campaign out of the lack of maternity leave for members of the forces, representing several women plaintiffs in the European courts.

Last redoubts

There seem to be few remaining redoubts of male chauvinism. Some London gentlemen's clubs still hold out against women, but otherwise feminism appears to be the order of the day among everybody who matters in British society. So is Lyndon right, have women made it? Do they still suffer 'systemic and institutionalised discrimination'? Or is women's oppression a thing of the past?

The reality is that, despite the sort of changes described above, the vast majority of women are having a tougher and tougher time of it these days. To restate some bald facts: women still take home 68 per cent of the wages of men - even after nearly 20 years of equal pay legislation.

Women continue to occupy the lowest-paid, lowest-status jobs, with surveys of the NHS workforce indicating that women account for 100 per cent of the lowest-graded clerical assistants, and 96 per cent of the second lowest (despite the fact that the NHS is committed to equal opportunities).

Even if women in the army get the right to maternity leave, you can bet they will find there's a huge gap between their 'rights' and reality. The Policy Studies Institute estimates that 4000 women workers are sacked annually for being pregnant - despite the fact that they are entitled to continued employment by law.

Despite the images of women on the cinema screen or in advertisements, women still take most responsibility for domestic chores. Full-time working women have 10 hours a week less leisure time than men in the same position. And still, overwhelmingly, it's women who take responsibility for childcare, with a tiny percentage of under-fives being cared for by nurseries. The largest provider of childcare for under fives is still the maternal grandmother rather than the 'nanny state'.

Very curious

If the EOC has a somewhat rose-tinted view of women's advances, it is not alone. Last November, Cosmopolitan magazine's Woman of Achievement Award for Politics and Public Service went to Jane Kershaw, director of the government's Opportunity 2000 programme. Opportunity 2000 was set up to encourage women to break through 'the glass ceiling' preventing them becoming top executives. Ms Kershaw's achievement is to have built the Opportunity 2000 programme up to become 'a major influence in British industry' representing 'some 110 companies, including some of Britain's biggest employers and containing one fifth of Britain's workforce'. Curiously, the NHS - yes, that same NHS where women occupy all the low grades - is a leading member of Opportunity 2000.

So how is that there can be such a wide consensus around the notion that women have made it?

Part of the answer is that the issue of women's equality is no longer considered to be about the systematic denial of equal rights and equal treatment in society. Instead, it is now broadly accepted that, whether you're a woman or a man, if you don't make it, you have only yourself to blame.

For instance, it is often assumed that most employers now grant women equal status because they have an equal opportunities policy. Equal opportunities posits the idea of ridding society of 'unfair' discrimination, by refusing to treat men and women any differently. Once an equal opportunities policy is in place, it is assumed that the old chauvinist attitudes have been tamed and that women will be able to enjoy equal rights.

The problem is that you cannot abolish discrimination with a paper policy, because men and women are different; society dictates that they play different roles. Women, despite openings in the church, provision for maternity leave in the armed forces, and new-found inheritance rights, are still expected to be mothers and carers first and foremost. And that is the big barrier holding them back.

Despite all of the equal opportunities legislation women are still not able to participate in society on an equal basis to men. An employer may not say to a woman worker in her twenties, 'I am not going to promote you because I think you are likely to get pregnant and take time out to bring up your children'. But that is the assumption which informs his company's treatment of her. And it's not just blind prejudice; it is based on the reality of what most young women will have to do in our society.

Women will only be socially and economically equal when they can rely on adequate childcare, care for the sick and elderly, and a way of living that does not demand that they balance responsibilities at work with heavy responsibilities in the home.

The recent 'victories' will not affect the position of most women in society. Nobody can remember the last effective campaign we had for proper nursery provision, or for equal pay and employment rights. We can remember big debates about women and theology, and women's right to succeed within the aristocracy, and women's images in films. But so what?

These things don't matter one jot to most women, and the fact that many feminist writers have tried to make out that they are important can only reinforce the view that feminism is irrelevant to the lives of most ordinary women. It is easier to change the things that don't matter. It is difficult to win important battles for facilities to free women from the onerous responsibilities of home and housework.

The establishment can afford to 'go feminist' on formal issues, so long as the real social inequalities continue and women continue to carry the burden of caring for the young, the old, the sick and the plain hungry. What's needed is an end to the euphoria about things that don't matter, and some proper campaigning on the issues that could make a difference to the majority of women in society - such as equal pay, socially provided childcare, free abortion on demand and so on.

After the past year's successes for feminism in Britain, a woman may soon have the same right as a man to spout superstitious nonsense from the pulpit on a Sunday, to lord it over the manor on a hereditary basis, and to kill foreigners for Queen and country. I can hardly contain my excitement.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 52, February 1993

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk