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Women since WWII: The illusion of radical change

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Women since WWII: The illusion of radical change Empty Women since WWII: The illusion of radical change

Post by Tashski Sat Sep 07, 2013 1:32 am

Whilst at university I was fortunate enough to have studied a module entitled ‘Women in History’. Although, it is fair to say I didn’t think I was fortunate at the time, upon reflection I can say it was one of the more interesting (and certainly entertaining) modules I had the privilege of studying. The module covered the role of women in history from the days of witchcraft right through up until the present day and as part of the module we had to write two essays on the topic. One of the titles I picked was about the perception that since the end of World War II there has been a radical change for women in society. Which seemed pretty straight forward on initial inspection in the sense of women went from being housewives to workers and moving forward to the present day there is more equality than ever before. However, as I delved deeper I found myself  really questioning the validity of my initial assumptions. So I wrote the assignment, handed it in and forgot about it completely until recently when I had a discussion with a friend about gender inequality in sport. And it got me thinking about that essay I wrote way back in 2009. So I hunted around and eventually found it. After reading it I realised that I really should have learnt to proof read my work as opposed to choosing not to and therefore leaving an extra ten minutes for me to spend in the pub! But some of the points I raised are relevant and I thought would make an interesting piece for this blog.

Immediately after the war there were still definitive spheres for men and women. Men were the breadwinners and women were left in domestic roles. But this was set to change, women had become a prominent part of the workforce during the war and to expect them to return to male sub-ordinance was unrealistic. Divorce rates after the war were on the increase, women had held the family together while the men were fighting and when the men returned they could not simply return to being the head of the household. The working class, particularly women, benefited from the introduction of the National Health Service and Family Allowance. The middle and upper classes, however, saw improvements in the sense that there was more accessibility to holidays, fashionable clothes and consumer good. In brief, the 1950s was the low point of women’s rights, the 1960s saw limited improvements for women such as the pill and legalised abortion but it was the 1970s that saw a boom in feminism. Women’s history began to be studied by historians for the first time and the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in 1975. But the 1980s raised more questions. Women’s participation in sport was increasing and this was a cross class participation. But women involved in sport stereotypically had a butch, manly appearance and this caused controversy because of the links with lesbianism, which was still taboo in society. This continued into the 1990s, but although female sports have become increasingly popular the male/female sport division in some ways still exist even in 2013. The fifty years after WWII saw many changes for women in status, opportunity and lifestyle of all classes but the perception of it being radical is rather illusory because the change is still not complete in all areas of society and the changes were slow in terms of their development.

In the immediate aftermath of the war there were still definitive class divisions and divisions between men and women. During the war women had become an integral part of the workforce and a return to male sub-ordination was unlikely to happen-women had held the family together in the absence of their husbands. Divorce rates increased post war, owed in part to the increased status of women. The mobilisation of the female workforce during the war empowered women of all classes and in 1947 the government targeted women in the 35-50 age bracket for work. This shows that the war signalled to the government that women could be useful in the workplace and it also shows that their status and opportunities were improving. But it is important to note that in majority of cases women in the 35-50 age bracket had grown up children therefore the government still regarded women’s primary role as one of motherhood. The demand for women workers was not born out of apathy for women’s rights but more out of economic necessity; “First, the demand for female workers increased after World War II, in part as a consequence of population growth.”[1] The increase in population left a requirement for more nurses and teachers. This suggests the change for women was not a radical change, it was a necessity for the government to utilise the female workforce in a time when it was needed. Moreover, this applied to all classes with exception to maybe the upper class. The middle class had to do without servants and during the 1950s there was the appearance of manuals designed to educate middle class women on how to clean their homes, presentation of ones home was still as important in relation to social standing as it had been before and the emphasis was still on the woman to keep the home tidy. The introduction of the NHS and Family Allowances most certainly benefited the working class most of all. Before working class women often went without treatment for illnesses because they couldn’t afford to treat themselves because they had to save the money for when the man needed the doctor because he had to be kept healthy so he could work and earn for the family. The Family Allowance was designed to help families with expenses for their children but most important part of this was that it was paid to the mother, which for the first time gave her responsibility for some of the family’s money. These two significant changes were a big step for women at this time although it would be over stretched to say it was radical. However, for young girls of all classes the avenue for change was opening up. In 1944 the government introduced the Education Act which gave children of all classes a chance to go to grammar school. But it is fair to point out that many poor families could not afford to send their children to grammar school and that it was aimed more at boys than girls. The curriculum for girls was different to that of boys, girls were taught craft lessons such as sewing to prepare them for becoming a wife and mother, Jane Lewis says; “As late as 1948, John Newsom, in what R.A Butler (sponsor of the 1944 Education Act), described as ‘wise and humorous recommendations for girls’ schools’, favoured a separate curriculum for girls-grounded in domestic subjects-as any advocated by early twentieth century eugenicists.”[2] The reality was at this time that women could not survive on their own, with reference in particular to the lower classes, they needed a husband to support them, a female wage was not enough to supplement a living. There was no real radical change at this time.

During the 1950s and 1960s women’s liberation and feminism took an almost back seat position. Although there were limited successes for women in these decades, particularly in the 1960s. The pill became readily available to women and abortion was legalised. This gave women control over their sexuality like never before. A woman now had the power to decide whether she wanted to keep her child or not and she could use contraception which meant that she had control over sex in the sense that sex could be enjoyed more without the chance that she may become pregnant. Women were now in control of their bodies not their husbands and this applied across the classes. In education, new universities were springing up that allowed women the chance to go and study unlike before, this allowed women to have a greater role in society because they could read about history and politics, things that were largely considered male dominated interest areas. Fashion was increasingly becoming a part of life, particularly for the middle and upper classes. After the war rationing was still continuing but by the 1960s it had ended and people began to enjoy more consumer goods. Clothes were more styled and could be accessorised with hats and jewellery like never before, there was far more choice for middle and upper class women who had the money to be able to buy the latest fashions. This improved the lifestyle of women, they had freedom of choice and could be more indulgent than previously. But this is more applicable to the middle and upper classes more so than the lower classes who were unlikely to be able to afford such luxuries. Women however, were still in charge of cleaning the home and looking after the children and this determined how much leisure time they got; “In adulthood, women of both classes held primary responsibility for household labour and childcare, and this, as we have seen, was the most significant factor in structuring experiences of-and notions of entitlement to-leisure.”[3] This suggests that although leisure and lifestyle improvements were available to women at this time it was their home life that determined how much they got and what they got out of it. Moreover, it shows that during the 1950s and 1960s women were still in domestic roles and that in these two decades the change was most certainly not radical it was quite dormant even though there were improvements in lifestyle for women.

The 1970s is often heralded as the most radical and important time for women’s rights. Historians began to really look at women’s history for the first time. This meant that women had a voice in history,  whereas before it had been all about men. Sheila Rowbotham asked a group at Manchester University if they were interested in women’s history and she was effectively laughed at. She went onto write a pamphlet entitled “Women’s Liberation and the New Politics” in which relates socialism and feminism together. But the feminist movement did suffer fragmentation into three groups, the radical, socialists and the black. This was largely because of the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975. Whilst the Act was the first radical change since the war because it outlawed discrimination against anyone based on their gender and meant employers could not advertise jobs solely for men or women[4], it did not immediately break down the attitudes of society towards women. Moreover,  although women had improved social status, they could earn a wage in their own right and this lead to opportunities in terms of pay rises and promotion some employers still tried to find ways around the new laws. It is fair to say the Act was certainly the first real radical moment for women in the years since WWII because it did put women on an equal footing with men, by law, when competing for a job. Though it could be argued that this did not apply to sport. During 1970s and 1980s women became more actively involved in sport, especially the Olympics. But there was, and in many respects still isn’t equality. It took until 2006 for women to be paid the same as men in Tennis but for more ‘masculine’ sports such as football women in the UK are not paid anywhere near the same as their male counterparts nor are women given the same media coverage afforded to men. Although with the introduction of the Women’s Super League ESPN now provide coverage for most of the matches.[5]

During the 1980s women in sport brought more controversy and posed more questions for the feminist movement. Women in sport are traditionally seen as possessing butch, male-like qualities and therefore people associate women in sport as being lesbians. Even sports governing bodies in the 1980s moved to stop their respective sports becoming a target for lesbian rumour, the Ladies Professional Golf Association or LPGA is an example; “In 1989 the LPGA launched a new “sexy” marketing strategy with a photo spread in Fairways, the official LPGA publication.”[6] The photo was of ‘sexier’ players in bikinis and swimwear. It was designed to show the game in a more positive light and to quell any lesbian rumours. This shows that although many changes had taken place sport still remained during the 1980s, and still remains today in many ways unequal for women. In Tennis, Martina Navratilova broke the mould by being the first woman in sport to break the mould and publicly talk about her lesbianism in 1990. This opened the door for many other female sports stars to do the same. Although with regards to men in sport, it is still largely taboo for a man to admit his homosexuality but it is more acceptable for a woman sports star to admit to being gay. Moving into the 1990s and up to present day  sport is still unequal on many levels for women and is still rooted in stereotypes. Women who play more masculine sports are still accused and referred to as lesbians simply for the sport they play, particularly football, but in more feminine sports women can be merely seen for their eye candy more so than their playing abilities. There was no radical change in the fifty years since WWII, sport is more accessible to all classes of women but it certainly is not equal.

In conclusion, since WWII there have been many changes for women across the classes. The introduction of the NHS and Family Allowances benefited the working class immensely, it meant that women could have treatment for illnesses that they wouldn’t have afforded before and they had some control over the income into the household. The 1950’s and 1960’s the improvements for women were rather dormant although the introduction of the Pill and abortion meant that women had control over their sexuality like never before, they had control over their body not their husband. Education for women improved also and they had access to higher education. The changes were not radical because they took so long to implement and there is still much inequality, particularly in sport as the examples of the LPGA and Martina Navratilova show. Women are not paid on the same par as men in sport even though it is a job the same as any other so this is where the change for women stops. There are more opportunities and definitely an improved status and the lifestyle for a woman is far better than it ever has been but there is still inequality in some areas of life even today in 2013.


[1] Scott, J., Tilly, L., Women, Work and Family, (London, 1987) p. 217

[2] Lewis, J., Women in England, (Sussex, 1984) p. 101

[3] Langhammer, C., Women’s Leisure in England 1920-1960, (Manchester, 2000) p. 188

[4] http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1975/65

[5] espnmediazone3.com/wpmu/uk/?p=1166

[6] Cahn, S., Coming on strong: Gender and Sexuality in twentieth century women’s sport, (New York, 1984) p. 266

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Join date : 2013-08-27
Age : 34
Location : Cornwall


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