Exactly 100 years ago, the world was a very different place for women. As of 1918, in the UK, some women were allowed to vote (those over 30 who had particular property rights), meaning for the first time 8.5 million women could vote. The first female MP took her seat in the House of Commons in 1919. In 1928, everyone over 21 was allowed to vote. These are the landmark victories of the early feminist movements. Finally, the road to political equality was being paved.
One cannot ignore the role of war in the expanded rights of women. By the end of the second world war, 460,000 women worked in the military and over 6 and a half million women were in civilian war work. The influx of women in the workforce, due to conscription of men into the army, meant that women were taken a lot more seriously. They were no longer seen as purely decorative or maternal, but as a viable workforce.
However, in spite of this advancement, women are still not paid the same. At Durham University, the median hourly gender pay gap for 2018/19 was 27.9% (the highest of any Russell Group University). However, this issue is more complex than merely the exploitation of female labor, as you might expect. It is illegal to pay women less than men for equal work, thanks to the Equality Act 2010. The issue of pay inequality is a lot broader and more deeply entrenched in our society. The expectation of women to prioritise their families over their careers, women being less likely to ask or push for a promotion, the disparity between part and full-time work as well as maternity/paternity leave issues are just a few of the factors that can explain this. Until women feel equally valued in the workplace and are encouraged to aim for higher paid, more senior roles, we will continue to see this inequality.
When in 1991, the first man was convicted of rape of his wife, the House of Lords refused his appeal, citing a treatise published by Sir Matthew Hale in 1736 stating that “the husband of a woman cannot himself be guilty of an actual rape upon his wife, on account of the matrimonial consent which she has given”. It was only in 2003 that marital rape was outlawed officially. It is astounding that marriage may continue to be seen as male ownership of women, of women as an object possessed by their husbands and to be used as they see fit. A YouGov survey of 4000 Britons found that more than a third of over- 65s believed that forced sex within a marriage does not constitute rape, and that 16% of people aged 16- 24 also believed this. These results do indicate the improvement in the view of violence towards women between the generations, but are still deeply frightening figures.
When one looks at the advancements in women’s rights over the last century, it is easy to be amazed by how far we have come. However, we must not let the horrors of the past distract from the shortcomings of the present. In a world that has come so far, we still have some distance to go. We must push towards a future in which women around the world are safe from gendered violence, are educated, empowered and seen as valuable for more than their reproductive capacity and their appearance. If the last hundred years have proved anything for women, it is that we can achieve anything if we fight for it boldly enough.
Image: Emmadukew via CreativeCommons