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
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.
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
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'.
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
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