My mother was born in the year that women won the right to vote - 1918. But though they had that all important right to vote, and to stand for parliament, there remained many restraints on their lives.
The right to vote and to be MPs was the tool that women needed to change so much else in their lives. And with that right to vote and with women in Parliament there would be progress for women.
The story up to 1918 was of the struggle to get the vote. And how the demand was met with abuse, violence and imprisonment. The century since then has been marked by the struggle for further progress and for equality at home and at work
Though my mother could vote, her generation was far from equal. They were expected to play a subordinate role to men. Their most important role was as wife and heaven help the woman who was a spinster, “left on the shelf”. The married woman lived with the husband who was head of the household. In her marriage vows she promised to obey him.
The women’s movement which swept through this country in the 1960s and ’70s reframed the demands and renewed the impetus for change and it was an exciting movement to be part of.
The women’s movement demanded equal pay - a revolutionary and subversive notion which challenged the idea that as the breadwinner, the man’s pay was all-important. Pressing for equal pay for women was seen as a diversion which would undermine the man’s quest for the “family wage”. Yet Barbara Castle introduced the Equal Pay Act in 1970.
The women’s movement challenged the accepted notion that it was perfectly acceptable for a man to hit his wife - after all it was his responsibility to “keep her in order”. And if he overdid it and blacked her eyes and broke her ribs then most likely it was her fault and she’d probably brought it on herself. Challenging a man’s right to “reasonably chastise” his wife was seen as undermining the family and his role as its head. Yet Erin Pizzey set up Chiswick Women’s Aid - the first refuge for women fleeing a violent husband.
And one of the biggest changes was women’s refusal to accept that they could either work or have children but not do both.
We’ve changed the mood but now we’ve got to change the reality. We have to move from denouncing equal pay to ending it, from abhorring domestic violence to actually cutting its death toll.
So in the decades after the 1960s, women campaigned for equal pay, worked together to get nurseries for the children of working mothers, to extend maternity rights and bring in paternity leave. We backed “zero tolerance” of domestic violence and set up refuges all around the country.
Attitudes now are light years away from what they were when I was growing up. The old prejudices are, largely, a thing of the past, but much of the reality remains unchanged. Few would argue now that it’s acceptable for a man to beat his wife. But still there’s a weekly toll of injury and death. The gap between what men and women earn shows that pay discrimination is still flourishing. Good quality childcare is remains unaffordable for many who want it and paternity pay is so low, few men can afford to take it. The lion’s share of responsibility for day to day care of children and older relatives falls on women. Every General Election sees more women elected and we are now a “critical mass” in parliament but we are still outnumbered by men three to one.
We’ve changed the mood and that is progress. But now we’ve got to change the reality. We have to move from denouncing equal pay to ending it, from abhorring domestic violence to actually cutting its death toll. There’s been a genuine outpouring of disgust at the decades of sexual assault by Harvey Weinstein but we know that victims of abuse still fear complaining believing that the denials of a powerful man will be believed and they will just be labelled a trouble-maker. We need to ensure that victims of abuse can be confident that their complaint will be fairly investigated and they’ll be supported.
Now women can work together through the internet. Solidarity usually only to be found at the school gates or round the kitchen table. Now women work together on Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and Instagram. But misogynists now use the internet to threaten and abuse women under the cloak of digital anonymity.
Though the quest for women’s advance is always met with resistance and a backlash it will not stop. Equality is such a powerful notion that once the genie is out of the bottle it cannot be put back in. The right to vote was an immense milestone and a stepping stone for future generations. But even 100 years later we can’t stop. The job is not yet done.
Harriet Harman is the Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham