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Women in the 1960s Essay

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The “swinging sixties” can be seen as a political, economical and social breakthrough for women in Great Britain.

A British woman’s position in the 1960s was greatly improved by the Pill as it could be said that women were put in a position of superiority over men because, for probably the first time they were able to have unprecedented control over fertility. Unlike sexual intercourse which at times could be forced and unwanted.

There are many reasons as to why I would call it a breakthrough for British women.

One of them is the oral contraceptive otherwise commonly known as “The Pill”. It was approved by the FPA and had become available on the National Health Service in 1961. The Family Planning Act, made by Labour, enabled local authorities to provide advisory services on birth control. The Pill was called reliable, convenient and ironically a godsend to British women. Only the medical establishment wasn’t ready for free love in 1961, as the Pill was only prescribed to married women. For the unmarried and young, information about the Pill was hard to obtain and fear of pregnancy still dominated intimate relations between some couples, this did not change until 1967. Also there was the argument that knowledge of contraceptives encouraged promiscuity and unsafe sex, so maybe that was why only married woman were allowed the contraceptive.

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The Coal Is Our Life, a Yorkshire mining community, had reported that some women were scared of using the Pill incase it offended their husbands. One woman didn’t even know of the Pill’s existence until she overheard a conversation from two women talking about birth control at work.

Another issue which was against the contraceptive was the religious figures and institutions. Obviously they were not very happy and debated the proper role of sexuality and its relationship to creation. The Roman Catholic Church in particular, after studying the facts of oral contraceptives and re-emphasized traditional Catholic teaching on birth control in the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae. This went back to the traditional Catholic teaching that artificial contraception ruined the nature and the whole purpose of sex.

Even so the Pill was still generally welcomed and evidence of side effects was mostly ignored. Doctors regarded it as completely safe, adding to its appeal. It was highly successful, by 1964 half a million British women were actually taking the Pill and the birth rate began to fall. Fear of unwanted pregnancy was abolished and adoption or abortion wasn’t necessary any more as you had the Pill.

There are other factors which helped women to make progress in political, economic and social fields.

Socially, in the mid 1960s a sociological pessimism about family disintegration was being replaced with a new optimism. The decline of the father’s authority and the growth of more democratic and equal relationships were cheerfully interpreted as improvements. Welfare services were commonly regarded as a means of strengthening this kind of family life by enabling working-class parents to spend more time with their children. Instead of enforcing order, the role of the modern family was to be a unit of stability and in words of sociologists Hannah Gavron, to give “more recognition to the individual as a self sufficient independent person”. Hannah’s book The Captive Wife (1966)

was one of the several influential sociological studies which challenges the earlier orthodoxy that working mothers damaged their children. She put the emphasis instead upon the damage to mothers caused by isolation in the home. Deprivation was redefined to mean the lack of a social environment for children, questioning theories about the constant presence of the birth mother. Society still responded to women for what they were rather than what they did, but this conflicted with the “socializing processes” in the family and the school.

Mothers were held in low esteem and one reason for this could be is that their own status of a mother. The style of the sixties was more appealing to the younger generation than the older. Mini skirts and big extreme lashes were not very suitable for a housewife. Young women were especially likely to spend on clothes and cosmetics as 50% of all outwear was being purchased by the age group 15-19.

In 1963, food critic from trendy Queen Magazine, Quentin Crewe, introduced Princess Margaret to Cleo Laine, a black singer from Southhall. The 1960s were fluid and deference was definitely on the wave. This did not mean they were completely classless. Not only did inequality persist, Barbara Marsh, who came to Britain in 1962 in Jamaica, watched the barriers of the both class and race in England. She worked in Midlands, in factories, doing light-engineering work first, and then when she was starting a family she moved to London. “Office people would come in the office and see you and never say “Good Morning” to you because you were the cleaner…they think they are nice and you are only the cleaner”. When it came to race, there was little pretence even of equality. Racism was accelerating for there were too many immigrants too ignore.

Politically, women were allowed to become an MP and take a role in government. Labour’s Harold Wilson (1964) encouraged to work with and promoted women in his government. Jennie Lee, Shirley Williams, Judith Hart and Margaret Herbison were all prominent in his Labour. Barbara Castle was making policies reality as a Cabinet Minister for Overseas Development. Her belief was that “it is hard for anyone, male or female, to fulfil themselves if they are poor, ill-housed, ill-educated and struggling with ill-health”. Barbara’s approach, consequently, was to tackle women’ needs as part of general social issues.

Labour did not make a complete break with Tory policy, for they had been clearing slums and building hospitals too. Barbara Castle did not see equality simply in terms of opportunities to rise to high positions. She was convinced that the chance for women to find out who they are and what they want to be and given the backing of society to lead the lives they want to leave. Barbara moved from the Overseas Department to Transport and finally to Industry, which was a stormy position in the late 1960s because Labour was trying to convince unions to accept wage restraint.

In 1967 welfare cuts were taking place, free milk for secondary schools were ended and a charge for NHS prescriptions was put on. Margaret Herbison resigned in a protest against the cuts. It took the strike of the Ford’s sewing machinists, combined with the threat of Labour women MP’s voting against the government, to enable Barbara Castle to insist in 1968 that equal pay should be phased in through incomes legislation.

Also in 1967 the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, legalized abortion if two doctors consented that it was needed on medical or psychological grounds. Reform of the Divorce law in 1969 meant that a divorce could be issued but only on the grounds if the marriage broke down after two years of separation if both husband and wife wanted the divorce otherwise if it was from one married partner then it the person would have to wait five years. There was also the Matrimonial Property Act which secured the wife an equal share in family assets.

Whereas the Conservative Party, led by the Edward Heath who actually went with some of these reforms. Sara Morrison was given the job of shifting the Tory women’s organization away from social panics about law and order towards local participation in voluntary bodies and acceptance of moderate change. She supported equal opportunities but most active Tory women were housewives and were used to this which made them homemakers. One woman eventually rebelled and spoke up at a 1968 Conservative conference questioning the leadership.

1963 brought a scandal of Tory minister John Profumo’s affair with a Christine Keele. Revelations about spies and diplomats having sex with the same women, had made it difficult for the Conservative Party to become open minded like the Labour party.

Bernadette Devlin, an Irish independent republican, was selected MP for Mid-Ulster at the age of 21 in a 1969 by-election stunning the British press with her revolutionary socialist politics and her mini skirts.

The early 1960s brought economic changes. Economic restructuring meant that a new electronics industry was developing, with unorganized women workers, while in depressed regions women on low wages were the only family earners. There were a few obvious signs that by the end of the decade trade unionists would be questioning not only pay but whole position of women. 1961, women made up a third of a workforce and more than half of them were married women.

T.E Chester was telling readers of District Bank Review in 1962 that it was a “forlorn hope” to imagine jobs were to be filled “by a reserve army of devoted spinsters”. Married women were going to be the means of expansion. Families became smaller and it was easier for women to work longer. Although more and more women were going out to work, there were questions around the types of employment made available for them. Nurseries were being discussed along with the campaign of cervical-cancer screening.

In the summer of 1968, the strike of Ford’s sewing machinists put equality on the agenda. They struck for the right to be included in a higher paid grade which was all male, challenging Ford’s system. Even though the Ford sewing machinists did not win their demand to be graded equally but they did get a rise. Their strike was politically sensitive, as Labour was trying to impose an incomes policy. A quotation from Audrey Wise “Everybody thought of cars as being about the track, about engines, and metal, and here you had women working with soft materials, sewing, and they could stop a huge car factory…Women are not used to feeling powerful, so it had a very great effect on them.”

To conclude, I believe that women as a whole have struggled to reach their positions and roles in the world today. The pill was a leg up in society for women as it gave them an opinion and a voice in social, economic and political issues. The controversial introduction of the Oral Contraceptive into Great Britain, in the 1960s, had made women more exposed than ever whether they wanted the exposure or not.

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