There is no doubt that activists and activist agencies have played a role in shaping the history of women, and a large amount of the historiography of women's history has given excessive attention to the role of activists. Popular history tends to take a Rankeian view of events, focussing instead on the role of the individual, rather than the deeper underlying social, political and economic causes of history.
The traditional Liberal view of the struggle to obtain the franchise is that the suffragettes, via their militant tactics and under the leadership of the Pankhursts ensured that women were granted the vote, and that this solved all the injustices between the sexes. This simplistic view of events however ignores the wider changes that were taking place in the economy and society, as well as placing a larger emphasis on certain activists, rather than looking at the broader picture.
The militant activities of the suffragettes were never sufficient enough to frighten the government or the wider public into extending the franchise to women, their acts of violence towards property were often small scale and petty. It also ignores the role of the suffragists led by Millicent Fawcett, who were far more significant in obtaining the vote for women, for they were the ones who reasoned rather than fought with men and showed that women could deal with political matters.
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Activists continued to use similar tactics in the 1970s to demand changes in the law, such as free nursery places (as removed from local councils responsibilities under the 1980 Education Act) and better maternity benefits. The real changes came about however, not due to the prominent high profile activists, but to the grass roots campaign where women won seats on town and city councils. Historians can often look for the big story to write about, sometimes however the big story is made up of lots of little ones. Women's position in the economy changed prior to the war as well.
Industrialisation brought about the end of small scale family run workshops and there has been a transition to large workshops. The sexual division of labour in mills and factories was seen as a natural occurrence and women did not object to being paid less and exploited more than male workers. Trade unions did not favour equal roles in industry for women out of the fear that it would take men's jobs from them. The benefits in industry that women gained during WWI were temporary, and as soon as men returned from the war women were forced back out of their jobs.
One view of the effects of WWI is that giving the vote to women was a reward for their hard work during the war, in the munitions and armaments factories. At the same period as activists had allegedly gained a better position for women via the vote, laws such as the Restoration of Pre-war Practices Act (1919) which enacted the agreements between the government and trade unions that women's war work was only temporary. Various activist agencies organised resistance to this, however they proved futile.
The changing role of women economically in the latter part of the c20 was not due to activists but due to the wider structural changes the war effected on the country by World War 2. Following the Second World War the changing nature of commerce in the UK made it uneconomical to prevent women from working and by 1947 there were more women workers than in 1939 (Bruley). The deindustrialisation of the UK between 1979-1990 saw a large increase in the numbers of women in employment. Margaret Thatcher's economic reforms created huge unemployment, although when employment levels started to recede, women were back into employment quicker than men.
This was due to skilled secondary industry jobs being replaced with low skilled tertiary jobs which could get away with paying women less and reducing employees rights due to the reforms Thatcher introduced. In 1990 60% of low paid full time workers were women and Carole Buswell found that in the same year large proportions of women were earning less than the EU recommended minimum wage in tertiary industries, even in jobs such as banking and insurance 40% of the workers fitted this category.
This is because even in well paid jobs, such as banking and insuarance, women were restricted from progressing high up the career ladder by having to take maternity leave to bring up children, if they were even considered for promotion in the first place as many of these companies were strongly male dominated. The Women's self image has changed a great deal since the beginning of the c20, when women saw themselves primarily as mothers and wives, though in working class environments this attitude persisted for a lot longer than in wealthier and better educated social groups.
Sue Sharpe found in her 1976 book "Just like a girl" that working class girls in Ealing in the 70's still expected to marry a husband who would take care of them financially and that they would be responsible for childrearing. Women's level of deference has decreased greatly from the beginning of the century when they were almost voiceless, to the present day where girls have become at least as vocal as men, if not more.
Deep running social trends such as this cannot be changed over night by activists and this lack of change in the working classes could be interpreted as evidence that women's liberation movements have largely been for and by the white middle classes Many women in the 1970s though who had started to redefine their own roles started to live in new ways, such as communally with other women. A large amount of feminist activists adopted Marxist ideology and blamed the oppression of women on the capitalist exploitation of women as a labour force as well as for the unpaid labour they do domestically.
In the 1980s, with its ethos of the individual, women started to appear slowly in positions of power, however their high profile was due to their unusualness. However many women were shocked and against this attitude and the 80s saw many women reject the materialist society and take up campaigns against issues like nuclear disarmament such as the women at Greenham Common. Activists continued to play a role through the 70's and 80s although as in previous times they were often the central figureheads of larger movements based on mass upheavals.
As the UK became an increasingly egalitarian society into the 1960s due to the increasing levels of education and the secularisation of society, women started to realise that the restrictions on career options were chiefly the traditional roles of women and a lack of education. Large amounts of feminists were students and so they had the opportunities to study the past and see the oppression that women had faced and also how little women appeared in history. The Crowther Report (1959) released middle class grammar school girls from the "domestic" curriculum, opening the door to many more job opportunities.
However women were still restricted in the workplace by having to be responsible for rearing children as well as attempting to have a career. Viola Klien argued in "Women's two roles" (1956) that modern societies were unable to afford to not have women working, this capitalised on fears that the UK would fall economically behind the USSR where nearly all women worked. Although activists led the women's liberation movement and campaigned against articles such as Miss World and unequal pay, mainly the reforms came from elsewhere.
Equal pay was finally made a reality when the Fawcett Society (a group of feminists) took the government to the EU court to enforce the Equal Value Amendment. How much has changed for women in the last 100 years is debateable. Certainly there have been many legal improvements and women are no longer the second class citizens they were at the beginning of the century. However according to some feminists, women are still oppressed by society as whole, being expected to take care of children and do housework as well as to have a job.
Opponents to this argue that women are the natural carers of children and that there are no real obstacles in the way for women to have both a job and family if the women works hard enough and balances her time. This group of opponents is not exclusively male. Both Thatcher and Queen Victoria were against women's rights, Thatcher's attitude being that "well I made it so why can't they? " and latter believing in the traditional division of the sexes based upon religion and tradition. Men still continue to run the top jobs, with Angela Coyle finding in 1988 that at the very top of companies women made up only 5%.
Until 1997 the maximum proportion of women MPs had been approximately 10%. This number was only increased in the 1997 election when Tony Blair supported positive discrimination by adopting an "Emily's List" policy. This meant that in safe seats women be put forward as candidates, the result was >100 women MPs, however this policy was later declared illegal. As women are still expected to take care of children, maternity leave and career breaks for the bringing up of children harm their promotion prospects, resulting in a "glass ceiling" that often needs the sacrifice of family life in order to break through.
Although women appeared to become visible in the media, this is often because the ones who did make it to the top were so unusual that they were worthy of media interest. Solutions to the problem are hard, some feminists argue that the only way the position of women will change is if men think differently too, however this is idealistic to say the least. Bruley reaches the conclusion that women are still disadvantaged because although women now have the franchise and careers, they still have to bear the brunt of childbearing, caring and networking.
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