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The role and status of women in the late 1940s and 1950s

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  • Category: 1950S

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1. Describe the role and status of women in the late 1940s and 1950s

During the Second World War women took over the jobs vacated by the men leaving for the front. This gave women a new sense of independence previously denied to them. Because they had jobs they could spend the money that they earned on luxuries such as clothes and socialising. The Beveridge Report further boosted this boom in independence in 1942. This report suggested the creation of the welfare state. This created the NHS, which for the first time gave women health insurance even if they didn’t work. Previously any women who didn’t work couldn’t pay the insurance stamp and so would have to pay for any health care they had to receive.

However, when in 1945 the war ended the problem of soldiers returning form the front with no job to go to occurred. The government policy became to give men priority for jobs over women. It was put under the spin that Women should return to the home and have families so that the nation could recuperate after the losses of the war. It meant that women no longer had the independence given to them by working. At the same time the Austerity Budget was announced. This focused on rebuilding after the war and very little money was left for the consumer luxuries that had been enjoyed by women during the war. It was a period of very low morale for women. With out the jobs they could afford less, the only jobs they could get were part-time ones because that meant they could be paid less. This distinction in pay between men and women marked women down as of a lower social status.

By the 1950s things were beginning to change. Women were slowly beginning to work again, especially in the professional sectors. It was a gradual change which reflected the change in the economy. As the nation moved away from reconstruction and into consumer goods there was more need for women in industry. Jobs such as the sectary were taken over by women who were better suited to using the typewriter. This increase of working women gave them more money and so returned to them the independence discovered in the war. As well as an increase in jobs this change in the economy led to the increase in availability of luxury items such as the washing machine and other items that made the domestic workload far smaller.

By having more time on their hands they could justify working in part time and then full time jobs. The increase in jobs also coincided with a boom in the economy that created the jobs to be filled. As there were more jobs there were fewer grounds on which men object to women working; it was no longer the case that they were driving soldiers, who had given so much during the war, out of work. They weren’t neglecting their duties at home by working as they could do the chores in far less time. It could also no longer be argued that they weren’t capable of the jobs, with increases in the numbers of women with university degrees.

This increase in work meant that women were able to prove themselves as equals to men. However, this opportunity wasn’t truly grasped until the 60s and 70s. Before that women seemed happy to work as subordinates to men, getting less money for often similar work.

2. What made the 60s and 70s a period of social change?

During the 1960s and 70s the economy was changing. It had grown out of the reconstruction and austerity period into consumer products. This rapid development in all areas led to the claim that ‘You’ve never had it so good!’ people’s disposable incomes were growing and more part-time jobs were becoming available for the post war generation youth. This weekend work gave them more influence and buying which can be seen expressed in the changes in music and fashion.

The post war generation hadn’t had to live through the shortages of the war and the Austerity period and so took the peacetime abundances for granted and naturally asked for more. They had very different expectations of the world and they were being given the power to demand what they wanted.

Greater education in the young and different medicines such as the pill gave women more freedom in their relationships and experimentation, however it also added more pressure from men as they could push a women more with the removal of the threat of a child. These led to the growth of the confidence in the younger generations.

These many growths in expectations and confidence were expressed in the search for equality. With the power given to them by having money the post war generation and especially the normal for-runners to change, the students were able to apply pressure on the government.

Such movements as the feminism movement could be seen to display these desires for political change in matters about which they believed. The feminism movement developed from many different roots. One of these was the desperation felt by many educated women because they couldn’t gain acceptance or promotion to a level which they felt they could achieve. It also grew out of women who were starting to work realizing the limits applied to their lives as they started to work. These women started to draw together in the form a local groups such as the Peckham Rye Group. The third influence was the reassessment of the female image. Many feminist writers criticized the description of girls in children’s reading books and textbooks. They also disagreed with competitions such as the Miss World.

We can see this in the new legislation, which started coming through. The Equal Pay Act, Discrimination Act and Matrimonial changes all were vital.

The Equal Pay and Discrimination Acts were major landmarks in the struggle for equality. They officially recognised women as being as important as, and equal to, men. They ended the period in the law in which women had been second-class citizens to men and so were probably the most important two pieces of legislation passed in the entire growth of independence.

The Matrimonial changes extend this equality into the realm of marriage. It ended the conception that the husband was more important or superior to the wife. These changes allowed women the same freedom to sue for divorce as had been enjoyed by men. It also saw the increase in the view that children should be in the custody of the mother rather than the father. This is now a contemporary issue as to whether the shift has gone to far to ignore the input of the husband. Groups such as Fathers United are now campaigning for this to be changed in much a similar way to the methods used by the Suffragettes in the 1900s. This could be used to show the complete change in the social fabric of Britain to reach a point where the reformers are becoming the ones that are called upon to reform.

3. In what ways had women achieved equality by the end of the 20th century?

By the end of the 20th century there were many aspects in which women had achieved equality.

The first of these is the Equal Pay Act or EPA. This gave women equal pay for doing an equal job to men. Previous to this Act women would be paid less than men even if they were doing the exact same job. Equal Pay first emerged in the Civil service and in education with teachers and civil servants being paid the same amount as the men.

Another Act which came in to increase equality was the Sex Discrimination Act which stated that you cannot discriminate on the basis of Sex. This basically meant you have to give a job to the best qualified applicant, even if that was a woman. These acts led to an increase in the amount of women in jobs which had previously been considered to be too challenging to a woman, either physically or mentally. However some jobs still often remain cordoned off to women by a thing called the Glass Ceiling.

Here women would reach a point and then be prevented from rising higher. Many Jobs which had been considered to physically challenging, such as engineering, started to become taken other by women as they moved into more advanced methods which required brains rather than brawn. In many cases it was just a case of an image being broken down. For example traditionally pilots had been men and cabin crew, or “trolley dollies” as they were often known, would be women. However as time went on the numbers of women challenging these stereotypes increased. This trend was also seen in the male population as well with the number of male cabin crew increasing.

This change was also found at home. Increasing numbers of men to other the domestic front to allow their wives or partners to work. This change in attitude from men allowed women to wield greater independence. In fact now this trend is start to go so far that a “House Husband” is no longer rare, or considered weak with the increase in male role models in the field, for example Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver.

Female role models also had a great influence on changing the nations opinions. Women such as Maggie Thatcher, the first female Prime Minister, the Queen and Kate Adie proved that women could do important or dangerous jobs as well if not better than men. They helped to give women the confidence required to break the status quo, and also provided the publicity to change the laws.

The trend against sex discrimination went to a point where many women were positively discriminated towards for various reasons. Be they for good press and public relations, as in the case of “Blair’s Babes” or often be to avoid companies from being accused of sexism. However when positive discrimination occurs there will always be discrimination against someone else which is, needless to say a bad thing.

The introduction of Maternity leave recognised the importance of motherhood for the economy and so allowed career women to have families with out losing their jobs. However there wasn’t Paternity leave until much later. This was another example of women being considered only in a caring role while men were always in a working role. This can therefore be deemed as discrimination against both sexes. It was often this mentality that stood in the way of equality. This was an important step towards equality as it levelled the advantage held by men to continue to work, and so earn money and independence, whilst still having a family.

The numbers of women reaching the top jobs increased with the increase in university places available to women. It is now the case that there are more women in Higher education than men and so they can now truly claim to have equal job opportunities to men

However with this equality has come a rise in single parents and divorce. In court cases for custody women are seen as the primary carer still despite the increase in homebound men. Can it be argued that the increase in equality has destroyed family values and so is indeed an undesirable thing.

Many more clashes occur when this new equality is pressed on other cultures and religions in the Multicultural Britain. In many Muslim and Indian communities the wife is still seen to be subservient to the husband. It is possible that only the white British community truly want equality between man and women and so are we missing the point somewhere. Is equality truly an undesirable situation? Is there such a thing as true equality? Could it not be argued that to not discriminate against one person is to discriminate against another? If so surely it would be better to not try to achieve the impossible and so stop arguments that will arise from the search for equality.

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