ArrowrIcon Home icon

Women's Issues and Childcare UK: early-mid 20th C


Gender inequality and sexual harassment, mid-20th century, UK

Woman power and the swinging 60s

The Swinging 60s was a time that is associated with the arrival of the birth control pill and 'free love' - which of course meant worry-free sex. Sex no longer had to carry the fear of pregnancy, so it could be a 'free-for-all' among those women who wanted it and those men who expected it. The older methods of birth control which were notoriously unreliable and unpleasant in a range of ways had largely had their day. Women could control their own bodies, irrespective of what demands men made of them.

balance of genders

By the time of the Swinging 60s, I was happily married and 'free love' passed me by. However there was another side of the emerging 'woman power', and that did not pass me by. In order to understand it, you first have to understand how men and women implicitly interacted before the 1960s.

Implicit sexism before the 1960s

It is only now, looking back to the 1950s and 1960s, that I see so many of the then accepted norms of behaviour as sexism or even sexual harassment. It did not seem so at the time. My generation had been brought up to these norms and with few exceptions simply accepted them without question. Yes, there were notable exceptions, but relatively speaking they were few.

Many girls were brought up to consider themselves as the servants of men and inferior to them. For example, when I asked my mother how she was going to vote, her answer was always, "Whatever your father tells me to". In fact this was understandable as she grew up on a time when British women did not have the vote. British women did get the vote in 1918 but only once they reached the age of 30.

Also, men always 'knew best' in ordinary families and women did not argue with them. Again perhaps this was understandable because most people at that time were church-goers and the Bible says 'Wives must accept the authority of [their] husbands' (1 Peter 3:1, New Living Translation). Even the Church of England marriage ceremony required women to promise to obey their husbands. I am not saying that all women accepted this; I am saying that it was a major view of the expected norm, at least as far as a public front was concerned.

Women were widely referred to as 'girls' long after they ceased to be children; eventually they became 'ladies' not 'women' - but men in the UK were never 'boys'.

It was almost unknown for a woman not to take her husband's surname on marriage. Then her Mrs title indicated that she was married and no longer a single Miss. Men, however, were designated as Mr irrespective of whether or not they were married.

As any publication from the time will show, whereas a female would be referred to as 'she' and a man as 'he', someone whose gender was unknown or immaterial like the proverbial 'person in the street' was also referred to as 'he'. (Nowadays it seems to be 'they', even when singular.)

Sexism, gender inequality in the workplace, early 1960s

Because of how I had been conditioned in my early years, when I started work I unquestioningly accepted sexism in the workplace - although it was only later that I saw it as having that name. The same was true for the majority of women of my generation, and of course for older women too.

I started recognising the sexism for what it was in meetings. Men dominated. They shouted over one another and interrupted one another; they always seemed to get preferential treatment from the chairman while we women always seemed to have our comments and suggestions ignored or dismissed as unworkable or irrelevant. Later if a man made the same intervention, it was treated seriously.

Then I began to notice how few women were in senior management. This fact became known as 'the glass ceiling' because the 'ceiling' for promotion was certainly there but it was undocumented, so couldn't be seen to be verified, and it was a rare woman who ever rose above it.

It also struck me that men seemed to think it acceptable to make jokes about women's abilities. A common one was, "Woman driver, ha has!" with a look of invitation for other men to find it amusing and agree.

Also women were paid less than men for the same jobs, my mother's view being that it was fair because men had families to support. That was indoctrination!

Sexual harassment in the workplace

What I now know as sexual harassment was common. We younger women learnt to deal with our bottoms being smacked by passing males along with their lewd comments.

In fact it annoys me greatly when women of today try to sue for treatment that was commonplace in my day. When we did not welcome the attention, we learnt to smile patronisingly and walk away. We never thought of it as sexual harassment and never, never complained! The men soon got the message and there was no bad feeling. I suppose there must have been exceptions but I never knew or heard of it of any.

I well remember one man saying, when he was accosted about a lewd comment to a woman, "I thought she wanted it!". This bears thinking about in terms of how women dress in the workplace and how they interact with the men there.

Towards reducing sexism and gender inequality in the workplace

Of course I was not the only woman to notice sexism and gender inequality in the workplace. Pockets of action sprang up widely in the 1960s:

All these were helpful, but we women still needed tools to counter the sexism that we were regularly experiencing as individuals. Consequently local groups of professional, like-minded women sprang up. I belonged to one which served me well for my later career. We met regularly to share our recent personal experiences of workplace sexism; to develop counters to it together and to counsel and support one another.

Probably we all took away different things from these groups. Let me give an example of tactics on handling mixed gender meetings in the workplace which stood me well in my later career.

The problem being considered was that in such meetings, women couldn't get a word in edgeways without joining in the free-for-all which they felt uncomfortable doing. The tactic we developed was to raise a hand when we wanted to speak. The arm needed to be slightly bent so that it was different from putting up one's hand in a school classroom. The arm raising was accompanied by staring at the chairman to catch his eye. (Yes it was always a 'he'.) He could hardly ignore this and would invariable clear space for an intervention. It was then essential to look round and wait for silence before starting to speak and then to speak slowly and confidently and to project one's voice.

Where one was interrupted while saying one's piece, as invariably happened when a man declared that he knew better, the tactic was to turn to him and if necessary then to the chair and say slowly and confidently, "I should like to finish my sentence". When I first tried this, I was met with shocked faces, but it worked.

The group which I attended disbanded in the 1970s. It had served its purpose well; its members were well-armed, and it was no longer needed.

The continuing battle against sexism and gender inequality

If you are younger than me, as you probably are, you may think that I have been exaggerating. I assure you that I have not - although I suppose that I must stress again that I have been talking of norms, of which there are always exceptions, and of the 1960s. The same issues must have existed earlier, but I was too young then to experience them.

In the developed world a lot has changed since the days when I was a young professional. Normally, but not always, men and women can now interact as equals. The exception that I still notice is with certain older men who have worked all their lives in male-dominated jobs. They know that they should treat women as equals, but are embarrassed to do so and even uncertain how to go about it. As we realised in our women's group, such men have been used to treating women as wives, mothers, sisters, secretaries and tea ladies, but not to dealing with them in the role of fellow professionals. In their experience, secretaries and wives - perhaps better phrased as 'housewives' - were definitely in the servant role.

Sexual harassment today

Sexual harassment of women does apparently still raise its ugly head today. It comes in various forms, some more worrying than others. I had thought that women in the workplace were now able to cope with it in its gentlest forms which are essentially just clumsy attempts at flirting. I explained above how we managed it.

Nowadays, though, it seems that some women are not satisfied with just being able to handle it, whatever its form. They believe that men should not be allowed even to attempt it. This is of course a point of view, but to attempt to end a man's career because, for example, he put his hand on a woman's knee is, in my view, unfair. There are kinder ways of dealing with it which are just as effective.

Where sexual harassment is more serious is where it involves alcohol, drugs and the use of power, in particular physical power and the power to affect a woman's career. This is outside my experience and it would not be fair of me to comment further.

Final comments

As should be clear from above, a lot has already been achieved in alleviating sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace. It has not been quick or easy because it has required a cultural revolution. It takes time and dedication to change attitudes, and women in today's workplace probably don't appreciate how much they owe to women of my generation. There were parallels between us and the suffragette movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, although of course we did not attempt to raise our profile unlawfully and we did not suffer physically for our cause.

The UK's ranking in sexual equality

The UK now ranks below countries including Rwanda and the Philippines in a global index of gender equality.

Britain is in 20th place on the World Economic Forum's (WEF) index of nations based on the gender gap in key areas including economy, politics, education and health. On the WEF's first index in 2006, the UK ranked ninth.

The WEF, a not-for-profit body based in Switzerland analysed data from 144 countries and said the gender gap was at its widest since 2008. The UK's ranking reflects fewer women in senior and technical positions, as well as a drop in the estimated income women earn compared with men.

The Daily Telegraph 26th October 2016

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

Text and images are copyright

sources: early 20th century material      sources: ww2 home front and other material     contact
the webmaster/author/researcher/editor     privacy policy

linkedin icon icon facebook icon