How the progress of women movements affects London working women in 1960s, 1970s and now.16 minute read

Introduction

For decades, women have been fighting for gender equality. More women nowadays enjoy the right to receive education and gain entry into professions just like the opposite sex. There is no doubt that life chances for working women have improved significantly compared to the previous generations. However, many are still treated unequally today especially in workplace. Indeed, full-time employed women earn only 80% of their male colleagues and the inequality is even worse for women in part-time employment (McDowell et al, 2015, p.447). Despite the fact that women are as equally trained, educated and have the same experience as men, unequal pay still exist in most cases. Moreover, women are still responsible for majority of housework and child care duty at home, which are barriers for women to fully participate in the workforce and limit their career opportunity. It is clear that women deserve the right to have equal treatment and opportunity. Women in London has been engaging in women movement activities in the past generations to fight for income equality and equal opportunity in workplace. In this essay, I am going to discuss how gender equality movement influence working women in London over time. With the use of archive materials in the catalogue ‘Women and Work’ from the LSE women’s library, I am going to first study London working women that participated in the Ford Strike against gender inequality in the late 1960s. I will then analysis other struggles that working women in London as well as other parts of Britain were facing in the 1970s after the Equal Pay Act with the use of a pamphlet produced that time. Finally, I will look into the situation of contemporary working women in London and gender inequality in workplace by reviewing newspaper articles and official website of a women organisation. By comparing working women in three different periods, it would allow me to examine the progress in women movement as well as their effectiveness over the decades.

Unequal Pay and Grading- Working Women in the late 1960s

To begin with, I will take London as a starting point of my analysis with the Ford women’s strike case. The Ford sewing machinists strike of 1968 is a significant women movement in British history which has been dramatized as musical and film named ‘Made in Dagenham’. I consider this case to be crucial when analysing working women in London that time since it is considered to be the trigger reason for the introduction of Equal Pay Act. The archive I have used, ‘Ford women’s strike 1968 from news clips’, is a document that consists of chronology and selections of news about the strike at Ford Dagenham 1968.  According to the archive (p. A/b/1), a new grading system was introduced in 1967 that includes discriminatory scheme such as women in any grade would be paid 85% of the rate of their male colleagues in the same grade. Moreover, women in general were placed in a lower grade to men doing identical work, which was the main reason for women at Ford Dagenham to protest and strike against discrimination and inequality. This suggests that working women that time not only received less pay than men for the same job but they were also being regarded as less capable because of their gender. As mentioned by Snell (1979, p.40), the reason why women in the 1960s were paid less than men ‘was not necessarily related to their job or their level of skill but was simply was a result of their sex’. Indeed, sewing car-seat covers requires speed, accuracy as well as hand and eye coordination and workers in Ford were required to pass a test before being employed. (Cohen, 2012, p.53) This proves that female workers were being graded in a lower level not because of their capability so they should also be recognised as skilled workers just like the opposite sex. The female workers in Ford Dagenham was a pioneer group of women to prove their worth by industrial action.

By reading the news which is included in the archive (p. A/b/1-3), it reveals the importance of women workers to Ford.  A news article from Financial Times (15 June 1968) reports that ‘Car production has been drastically curtailed because the strike has stopped suppliers of car interior linings as seats’. It indicates the importance of working women in Ford that the entire production was stopped by the strike because the company could not sell cars without seats. The Guardian (28 June 1968) also reveals that ‘the cancellation of over £8m of export orders for the Corina and estimated that the long-term damage to its sales position in the US in the region of £30m’. This suggests how significance women working class were, not only to Ford but also to the whole British economy. Women were often considered as weaker and less capable worker in the 1960s. The industrial action taken by working women in Dagenham had shown their determination to challenge the accepted norm, which successfully showed the public that they were a significant sector of the economy.  The strong impact of Ford women’s strike has proven the fact that women can be as equally skilful or even better than men in workplace. It had also shaken other working women in the country as it rose public awareness of the importance of female workers. The strike is considered to have provided an early role model for the future women movement (Stevenson, 2016, p 743) that encouraged and motivated working women outside Ford Dagenham or even outside London to fight against gender inequality.

Many people view the Ford women strike as an industrial action for equal pay.  Indeed, the strike paved the way for the enactment of Equal Pay Act in 1970, which narrowed the gap between men’s and women’s pay by 8% over the following years (Cohen, 2012, p.57).  However, this was not a major progress the female strikers had wanted. An interview with a female striker Rose Boland is included in the archive (p. A/b/4). She mentioned in the interview that ‘I know we were given a 7d rise after the strike, but it’s not the money we want. We are after proper status as skilled workers’ This emphasised that their aim was to fight against injustice and exploitation. Working women in Ford Dagenham was not only striking for being paid the same for doing the same work as men, but they wanted to be recognised as skilled and being treated equally as their male colleagues. They did not accept the fact that they were put in a lower grade than men doing identical work and saw it as an injustice (Cohen, 2012, p.65).  The problem that working women in 1960s were facing was not mainly unequal pay but gender discrimination. Although women in Ford Dagenham received same pay as men in same grade after the Equal Pay Act, the grading system itself was discriminated and did not recognise women’s abilities at work and also deprived the right for them to be treated fairly. The public still viewed them as less capable that deprive their right and opportunity at work. This indicates that the Equal Pay Act was not helpful to working women and its ineffectiveness could continuously be shown in the next centuries.


Unequal opportunity and welfare benefit-  Working Women in the 1970s

figure one, cover image of work pamphlet.
Figure 1: Cover image of ‘Work! Women and Unemployment’ pamphlet

After the legislation of equal pay act in 1970, men and women receive same wage for the same job and the number of working women continue to rise. However, there were still many struggles that working women in London as well as other parts of Britain were facing and these can be shown in the archive titled ‘Work! Women and Unemployment’. It is a pamphlet produced by Claimants’ Union in early 1970s, which was an organisation across UK that support those in need to make successful claims for welfare benefits whilst women movement was a vital part of the union in 1970s (Yamamori, 2014, p5). The pamphlet was distributed in a Claimants’ Union conference on unemployment women to discuss about problems working women were facing that time despite the existence of the equal pay act and what they were demanding. The cover image of this pamphlet (see fig.1) is a pregnant woman with all six hands carrying different tools such as wrench, iron and other cleaning equipment. This drawing represents that beside their job outside home, female workers in 1970s were also responsible for housekeeping and childcare. The six hands suggest that working women that time had so much duty that having two hands like a normal person was not enough. Moreover, parts of the woman body are replaced with gear wheel that suggest working women are being treated like a machine and her facial impression shows that she is suffering. The disturbing image was used as the cover image as they had to work like a dog both at home and at work. This also expresses their dissatisfaction on the traditional female roles.

 

Regarding to the content of this pamphlet, first person narrative is used to provides a direct insight into how working women were treated unequally and other difficulties they were facing as being female. Identifying these problems in a working women perspective can easily visualise in a more realistic and detailed way, which can also garner empathy from readers. Firstly, the pamphlet identifies some restrictions of the equal pay act, which can be seen in ‘Women’s work is already described by employers as ‘different’ work not ‘equal’ work. No matter how skilled the job done by a woman, she won’t get equal pay unless the same job is done by men.’ (p.2) This indicates that there were many loopholes in the Equal Pay Act, which could not benefit most working women that time. For instance, employers tended to tighten women’s piecework rates in order to counteract rises of their basic pay, consequently, women would have to work longer and produce more for earning the same amount of pay before the act (Snell, 1979, p.41). Moreover, some strong languages are used in this pamphlet to emphasise the significant of the situation and urge to address inequality. For instance, from ‘WOMEN ARE CHEAP. WOMEN ARE DOCILE. WOMEN ARE SLAVES. ’ (p.1), rude and offensive words are used to describe how unfair and discriminatory women were viewed and treated by employers. It reveals that even though working women had engaged in various movement to prove their worth over the past decades, employers still treated them the same. The fundamental problem of gender inequality could not be addressed just by the implementation of Equal Pay Act alone but also how the public view the capability of working women. Stereotype regrading on women’s responsibilities at home and their productivity was a significant concern in the 1970s that can reflect from government’s public welfare system. It is stated in the pamphlet that ‘We get less unemployment and sickness benefit, pensions for women are less than men’s. Married women aren’t even entitled to unemployment benefit if their husband’s working.’ (p.1) This suggests that gender discrimination existed in benefits claiming system that women were considered to be responsible for domestic obligations so even though they were out of work outside home they were not considered unemployed. The small amount of benefits women can receive in comparison to men suggests that working women that time were not being valued and respected in the society. General public had an assumption that women’s work was less valued in comparison to men. This pamphlet in general emphasised that despite the existence of Equal Pay Act, women in the 1970s were still strongly discriminated in workplace and also in society. All these inequalities and mistreat were written in this pamphlet to evokes resonance among female readers. At the end of the pamphlet (p.5), it states that ‘THERE’S NO STOPPING US NOW’ which emphasises the needs to fight against inequality while encouraging more women to unite and join the movement. This shows women’s determination to end inequality and not to be viewed as housewives or cheap labour anymore. However, after all the women movement work in the past decades, the situation continues nowadays in some extent.

 

Gender inequality in modern days- Working Women in contemporary

Working women in London nowadays enjoys more rights and opportunities than the past. London is now a service-dominated economy especially specifies in financial service sector, which therefore has risen the demand for highly paid salaried professionals (McDowell et al, 2015, p.443), meanwhile, there is also a significant increase in higher educational opportunities for women over the past decades (McDowell et al, 2015, p.446). These factors have enabled working women in London to have a more secure and well-paid career. Furthermore, increase in welfare provision such as work-life balance policies and childcare support have allowed more women to participate in the workforce (McDowell et al, 2015, p.447). However, has the women movement really achieved significant progress in gender equality at work?

figure two, march of the mummies.
Figure 2: ‘March of the Mummies’ in London, 30 Oct 2017
(March of The Mummies, 2017).

Although women nowadays have benefited from training and qualifications that allows them to participate in more secured jobs, a gender pay gap still remains in the labour market and more importantly, maternity and child care responsibilities still limit work opportunities for women. ‘Pregnant Then Screwed’ (PTS) is a UK organisation that protects and promotes the rights of working mothers. It provides a platform for working women to anonymously express their concern about work discrimination, concurrently with free legal support. (Pregnant Then Screwed, 2017) The existence of PTS points out the fact that work opportunity for women is still limited due to maternity. Although people might argue that there are more flexibility and maternity leave nowadays, there is no doubt that employers especially in the financial sector favour male workers and might intentionally promote them instead as they do not have to take a long rest from work. Real life stories of working women are posted on the PTS website to describe how employers uses pregnancy or maternity leave as excesses for redundancy. This shows that working women nowadays are more willing to share their discriminative experience to demand justice. Indeed, the founder of PTS expresses her aim is not only helping working women but also to ‘change common preconceptions about pregnant women whilst campaigning for more effective laws to protect them.’ (Brearley, 2015) Apart from offering help, PTS also organised the ‘March of the Mummies’ event in Halloween in six cities across UK, which is a protest for the rights of working mothers. (Polianskaya, 2017) Mothers dressed as bandaged mummies not only to draw public attention in Halloween, but it is also a metaphor of them being treated like dead and useless once they are pregnant. Banner like ‘Don’t be a dummy I can work and be a mummy’ (see fig 2) was used to highlight the discriminative assumptions in workplace that women’s productivity will be affected when they become mothers. We can see that working women now are more engrossed in fighting civil right and uses more creative ideas to draw public awareness than the past. Women organisations also become more effective and well-planned. They concern both urgent problems working women facing as well as continuous improvement on government’s discrimination scheme. For instance, the PTS offers instant support and protection for women while fighting hard against gender inequality for the long term impact. This indicates that working women nowadays are getting more support not only from the government but from community Interest organisation founded by other women. Although gender inequality is still a fundamental struggle in workplaces, working women nowadays are more capable in fighting for their rights and helping others than the past.


Conclusion

With the use of archives, working women in London were represented as a highly discriminated sector in the workplace. From the Ford Dagenham strike of 1968, it is shown that the female machinists could not endure the public regarded them as less capable just because of their gender. The strike is an industrial action that allow them to be seen as a significant part of the country and has proven that people underestimated their power. And even after the introduction of Equal Pay Act in 1970, situation of women was not improving. The pamphlet from Claimants’ Union indicates that working women were still being considered as cheap labour and being a woman excluded them from many opportunities, rights and social welfare. This made working women more desiring and urge to prove their worth by fighting against inequality. After decades of women movement, women nowadays have more rights and opportunity especially in education and being employed in professional jobs. Unfortunately, gender inequality remains especially in workplace that become barriers for women in work. However, no one can deny the fact that inequality has been diminishing over the past decades.

Working women have been seeking civil right for years and from viewing materials in three different periods, we can see that working women are becoming increasing determined in fighting against inequality and expressing their concerns. The journey goes from just some female machinist in London striking for equality in 1960s; to engaging all other female member across UK to unite in 1970s; and now support and protecting other working women. Working women have become increasingly ambitious and fearless in fighting civil right. Even though it has been a really slow progress, working women in this generation have benefit a lot due to the great perseverance of working women in the past. And with women movement continues, gender equality will surely be achieved in the future.       

 

Lakeisha Arias De Los Santos

                        


References

Cohen, S (2012) ‘Equal pay – or what? Economics, politics and the 1968 Ford sewing machinists’ strike’ pp.53, 57, 65

McDowell, L, Perrons, D, Fagan, C, Ray, K (2005) ‘The contradictions and intersections of class and gender in a global city: placing working women’s lives on the research agenda’ pp.443, 443, 447,448

Snell, M (1979) The Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts: their impact in the workplace pp. 40, 41

Yamamori, T (2014) ‘A Feminist Way to Unconditional Basic Income: Claimants Unions and Women’s Liberation Movements in 1970s Britain’ pp.5

Brearley, J (2015) ‘Pregnant but screwed: the truth about workplace discrimination’ [online] The Guardian Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2015/may/12/pregnant-but-screwed-the-truth-about-workplace-discrimination

[Accessed 1 December, 2017]

Polianskaya, A (2017) ‘March of the Mummies: a Halloween protest to help working mothers’[online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/womens-blog/2017/oct/27/march-mummies-halloween-protest-working-mothers-pregnant-then-screwed

[Accessed 1 December, 2017]

Pregnant Then Screwed. (2017).  [online] Available at: http://pregnantthenscrewed.com/about-maternity-discrimination/ [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Figure 2:

March of The Mummies (2017).  [online] Available at: https://www.marchofthemummies.com/photos/vvuxb7qxxkzwr6p8k1ky4b1j3dad8c [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017].

Archival Sources References:

The LSE women’s library Archives

  1. 7EAW/C/03 ‘Work and Women’ folder 1

[Ford women’s strike 1968 from news clips] chronology and selections of news, 1968

  1. 7EAW/C/03‘Work and Women’ folder 2

[Work! Women and Unemployment] Pamphlet of Claimants’ Union conference, approx. early 1970

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.