What do working women need?

Forty years ago a campaign for a Working Women’s Charter called for sweeping reforms. Today many of those reforms are still not in place, and a new campaign is being mounted. Dr Lucy Delap and Professor Pamela Cox assess the evidence.

Picture credit: FaceMePLS

2014 closes with the depressing prospect of an economic recovery that leaves significant sections of the British population behind. The low paid or ‘working poor’ are seeing little of the benefits of the upturn, and many are trapped into poverty by agency working and zero-hours contracts. Women are enormously over-represented in this group. Yet there seems to be little debate about why poverty is so feminised, and what could be done about it.

This is not a new state of affairs – it was outrage at women’s poverty and labour market exclusion that caused a grassroots movement for change to issue its demands in 1974, in the form of a Working Women’s Charter.

Though the Equal Pay Act had been passed in 1970, its provisions did little to help women who were ghettoised into sectors of the labour market where few men worked. Trades unionists and activists of trades councils and the Women’s Liberation Movement called urgently for equal pay, more women in positions of public power, free contraception, better access to abortion, and more generous family allowances.

The excitement generated was enormous. But what was so revolutionary? By linking women’s experiences of employment to their personal lives – to contraception, childcare and child benefit – the 1974 charter exemplified the feminist insight that ‘the personal is political’. It promised to link the power of the trade union movement to the demands of women’s liberation. It felt to the many local ‘charter groups’ that sprung up in its wake that change was close at hand.

Trade Unionist Chris Coates was closely involved in drawing up the 1974 charter, and recalls “It was a different time, anything seemed possible, and it seemed really possible that we could achieve all those things in a short space of time. I know part of that was the optimism of youth, but the strength of the trade union movement made a huge difference.”

The grassroots optimism was misplaced. Despite some progress – on reproductive rights, on maternity leave, and equal legal status for men and women – the trade union movement did not put its considerable weight behind the charter. Perhaps fearful of grassroots activists, the TUC rejected the 1974 charter the following year. The Women’s Liberation Movement moved towards an increasing focus on sexual politics, and no longer perceived the trade union movement as a key partner. Trade unions went on to be decimated by the sharp downturn of the early 1980s, and the punitive approach taken to them by Conservative governments between 1979 and 1997.

Nonetheless, it was during the Thatcher years that a ruling of the European Court of Justice in 1983 forced equal pay tribunals to assess the value of women’s work. This new stress on comparable rather than identical work made it more realistic to insist on pay equality in a labour market where men and women very rarely did the same jobs. However, the high hopes generated by early successful tribunal rulings [http://www.unionhistory.info/equalpay/voices.php] have not been borne out in later trends. Equal pay regulations have been hard to enforce, and it was not until the introduction of the minimum wage in 1999 that the pay gap between low paid men and women was substantially narrowed.

The damage wrought by the financial crisis since 2008 has pushed women’s employment inequality back onto the policy agenda. A recent conference convened by Pam Cox (University of Essex) and History & Policy at King’s College London looked back to the 1974 Charter.

Participants ranging from undergraduate historians to activists who had participated in the 1974 Charter movement drew up a compelling new version for 2015.

Some demands remain unchanged from 1974; affordable childcare, for example. British childcare costs remain the most expensive in Europe. In 2014 as much as in 1974, reproductive freedoms still need to be defended, and extended to women in Northern Ireland. Preventing women from terminating unwanted pregnancies, even in cases of rape and incest, remains virtually the only issue on which the Northern Irish political parties have found a consensus since the law changed for English and Welsh women in 1967. Caring still needs to be valued and integrated better into our working lives. Public life still needs to reflect the diverse talent of the British population – women make up shockingly low numbers of MPs, cabinet ministers and board members. The 2015 Charter insists that more action is taken to track this issue, and penalise those who do not actively promote women’s inclusion. If the slow pace of change continues, quotas may be the only effective solution.

40 years on, there are some new issues and approaches in the new charter that reflect new ways of campaigning.

The campaign for a living wage is reflected in the 2015 Charter – in a world where trade unions are less powerful, it may be moral purchase of social campaigns that can challenge the low pay practices of some employers, and help solve the over-representation of women amongst the ‘working poor’.

A ban is called on zero hours contracts, which have proved to be a powerful new method of marginalising low paid workers.

And the 2015 Charter stresses the need for transparency, audit and enforcement. Much recent legislation has imposed duties on public bodies to maintain gender equity; but it does not always amount to much in practice. We still know shockingly little about the pay structures of both public and private sector bodies. The Fawcett Society’s challenge to George Osborne to provide a gender audit of those hardest hit by his austerity budget suggested in 2010, audits can be powerful tools to make policymaking more contestable and accountable.

Finally, sexual harassment has emerged as major issue for twenty first century feminists, with projects such as Everyday Sexism and No More Page 3  capturing the enthusiasm of a new generation of young women. Sexual harassment and bullying remain major problems for women at work, and the 2015 Charter calls for stronger action on this issue.

Why is this so important now? Urgent intervention is needed to stop the most vulnerable within the labour market from bearing an unfair burden of austerity.

The wage gap which has long characterised the British labour market had been closing in recent decades for women in full time employment, though 2013 saw it increase for the first time in 2012-3 to 16%.

More worryingly, the numbers of women taking up full time employment have been fairly static since 1974. Large numbers of women are concentrated in low pay, part time work, in the cleaning, catering and retail sectors.

The gap between men’s women’s pay is substantial, and widened in 2013. The gender pay gap between full time men and part time women can approach a shocking 32%. Many part time workers are mothers, which is why the links made in 1974 between paid employment and ‘domestic’ arrangements are still key to women’s resilience in the labour market.

The Working Women’s Charter in 1974 generated huge hopes for quick change. The successes in relation to women’s educational achievements and wider professional opportunities show that change can happen. What is needed now is the political will to make the feminist issue of low paid workers a key issue for the 2015 general election.


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