Looking back at the Women’s Liberation Movement

Looking back at the Women’s Liberation Movement

Stevi Jackson

I was recently asked to contribute to a panel on ‘50 years of feminism’, which prompted me to reflect on the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) of the 1970s and consider what progress feminism has made, in the UK, since then. To give you an idea of what feminists were up against in the early days of the WLM, let me take you back to life in 1970s Britain. As an educated young white woman, and thus relatively privileged, I still met with very overt discrimination. I was told, in feedback after a job interview, that I was the best candidate but that they had offered the post to someone else because ‘he has a wife and child to support’. I was also told, when I sought credit to purchase domestic appliances for my home, that I could not do so without a male guarantor. As feminist activists, we encountered disbelief about what are now seen as real problems. When a group of us began campaigning for a local Women’s Aid refuge we were told ‘we have no battered wives here, this is a respectable town’. What I, we and many women were constantly told was that we should know our place, as men’s dependants and should not make a fuss about women’s ‘personal problems’.

Such reminisces tell us something about how far we have come in a single adult lifetime and may also help explain the issues on which the WLM in Britain initially focused. My examples are mainly related to two of the seven demands formulated by the WLM at its national conferences held from 1970 to 1978 – for equal opportunities and legal and financial independence. Four demands were mooted at the first national conference: equal pay; equal educational and job opportunities; free contraception and abortion on demand and free 24 hour nurseries. These continued to be debated along with the three others introduced at later conferences: legal and financial independence for all women; the right to a self-defined sexuality and an end to discrimination against lesbians; and finally, an end to violence against women. This mixture of reformist and more radical demands encompassed much – but not all – of what concerned feminists in the 1970s. One obvious omission, which preoccupied many feminists and remains a problem today, is the unequal division of domestic labour. Also not included was another focus of campaigning – sexism in the media, particularly in advertising.

What has been won?
Looking at the original demands it is clear that much has been gained in the UK in the last 40 years or more, at least in terms of formal rights, but that some goals still look unattainable in the immediate future.  In the pursuit of equality in education and employment – the first two demands – there has been clear progress. In the 1970s we were worrying about girls and women under-achieving in education – now there is concern about boys under-achieving, although subjects studied are still strongly gendered. The first step towards equality in the Labour Market, the Equal Pay Act, was passed in 1970 but not implemented until 1975. Since that time more women have entered paid employment, now comprising nearly half of the labour force, and equalities legislation has been progressively tightened. The gender pay gap persists, though it is narrower than it once was. The current overall gap for full time workers in late 2016, according to the Fawcett, society was 13.9%. Women, however, are more than twice as likely as men to work part time, where wages are often considerably lower. This is clearly related to the unequal responsibility for housework and childcare.

The third demand, for 24 hour nurseries might have looked achievable in the 1970s, since, at that time, such provision did exist in some countries in the Soviet bloc. Now it seems like a utopian dream. Last year, the government announced that 30 hours free child-care for 3-4 year olds will be available to working parents in late 2017, but even before it comes into effect, difficulties in implementing this new provision are emerging. In any case, it would not be sufficient to allow women continuous full-time employment – it does not allow for younger children or for care outside school hours.

Free contraception is now a reality. The situation with abortion is more complex. The 1967 Abortion Act decriminalised abortion only on certain grounds and does not apply in Northern Ireland. In the 1970s and 1980s there were a number of attempts to restrict abortion further, against which feminists organised successful campaigns through the National Abortion Campaign. Since then the grounds for termination have been more liberally interpreted and abortion is now more widely available, but it is not always free and is not technically available ‘on demand’.  Legal and financial independence has certainly been advanced through equalities legislation and changes to family law, but it is questionable whether it is a reality for all women while wages for many remain low and many are still at least partially dependant on either a male partner or the state.

The demand for the right to define one’s sexuality and for an end to discrimination against lesbians was seen as a radical demand in the 1970s. Lesbians were still losing custody of their children in 1980s and into the 1990s, simply because of their sexuality.  The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 specified that the provision of assisted conception should take account of the child’s ‘need’ for a father, while in the infamous Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act local authorities were forbidden to ‘promote’ homosexuality as a ‘pretended family relationship’. Now lesbians have rights to adopt, to assisted conception, to civil partnership and marriage, and there is now legal protection against discrimination. While these represent some very real gains, the ways in which rights for same sex couples have been implemented may not be in keeping with the more radical sexual freedoms envisaged in the 1970s.

An end to violence against women is nowhere in sight. This has been a focus of feminist campaigns since the 1970s when Women’s Aid and Rape Crisis were established and the first Reclaim the Night marches were held. Yet violence is a persistent and intractable problem and remains a focus of campaigning for new generations of feminists. (See the Spring, 2017 edition of the British Sociological Association’s Network for more on this issue by Jackson and Robinson).

The WLM of the 1970s was fuelled by a huge amount of energy and enthusiasm and can, I think, be credited with setting in train preconditions for later advances in women’s rights. There were, however, problems within the movement, not least its domination by white, middle-class educated women and lack of attention to racism (there was rather more attention to class given the presence of Marxist and socialist feminists). Ideological differences ultimately lead to irreparable rifts, which contributed to the demise of national WLM conferences after 1978 – though by no means an end to feminist activism. Some of the ideological divisions from the early days remain with us, especially around issues of sexuality.

There are also other problems with the situation in which we find ourselves today. Advances in rights seem to have done little to erode the gender divide itself or the idea of ‘natural’ differences between men and women. In many respects, within a highly sexualized and aestheticized culture there are more pressures on women to conform to ideals of femininity. In the context of a neo-liberal social order there is also, in some quarters, a tendency to see feminism as simply a matter of individual choice and freedom rather than thinking in terms of systematic inequalities. This matters since gender intersects with other divisions and inequalities in a world where racism remains a potent force and where economic inequalities are widening. Even in countries such as the UK where feminism has made an impact on women’s lives, not all women benefit equally.

Globally feminist goals have received endorsement, a testament to feminism’s influence and the struggles of women worldwide. Gender equality is on the agenda of much of the world, enshrined in the UN’s development goals and in CEDAW (The UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women), but this is a long way from solving the problems of women globally. There are countries/regions in which the most basic rights of self-determination and freedom of movement are denied to women and where poverty and inequality exacerbate, and are exacerbated by, male dominance; in the world’s conflict zones women face the risks of kidnap and rape in addition to other privations of war; and there are many countries in which women risk arrest, persecution or even death if they dare to protest about the conditions of their lives. While celebrating the advances feminism has made, we certainly cannot afford to be complacent.


Stevi Jackson is Professor of Women’s Studies at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York, UK. Her research areas are currently: theorising sexuality, especially heterosexuality; theories of self and subjectivity; modernity, gender and intimacy in Asia and Europe. She has published widely in these areas.