The announcement late last month of an Equality Bill was met with reports of alarm in some quarters that the bill would result in reverse discrimination, with white men becoming the new losers. But the draft law proposes no such thing. It is a measured (and in parts too mild) approach to addressing the stubborn problem of women achieving full and equal citizenship.
The announcement came almost 80 years to the day that the Equal Franchise Act was passed on 2 July 1928. That was the final victory in the long battle for women’s votes and was heralded by those in the suffrage movement as the key that would unlock wide-ranging improvements in women’s status in society.
Millicent Fawcett, who led the peaceful campaign for the vote, commented: “We did not, except as a symbol of free citizenship, value it as a good in itself; we valued it . . . for the sake of equal laws, the enlarged opportunities, the improved status for women which we knew it involved.”
Yet the bill and the responses it evoked vividly remind us how controversial equality remains and how far there is still to travel.
Winning the vote and the legislative protection that followed did contribute to profound change. We can celebrate girls’ high academic achievements, the entry of large numbers of women into the professions and a sense of entitlement among younger women. There have also been changes in social attitudes and many of the barriers to women’s advancement that existed within living memory are now laughable.
In 1955, for example, the Fawcett Society asked why a post in the House of Commons Library specified that only men need apply; the reply came that the job involved climbing ladders, leaving it unclear whether this was because it was assumed that women would be overcome with dizziness or just that skirts were deemed unsuitable attire.
And yet, 80 years on, it is apparent that full and equal citizenship has been slower in coming than the suffrage campaigners anticipated. It wasn’t until the 1990s that women won the right to independent taxation, legal protection against rape within marriage and the rights to go to sea with the Royal Navy and be admitted to the male bastions of cricket (the MCC) and the Church of England (the priesthood).
Thus, in 2008, it is mainly men who make the decisions about what appears on the front pages of newspapers, men who cast eight out of every ten votes in the House of Commons, and men who control the boardrooms of our biggest companies.
Equal voting rights have not translated into equal power. In the workplace, women remain clustered in the lowest-paid occupations and continue to be subject to discrimination. At least 30,000 women a year lose their job simply because they are pregnant. This means that most women face the stark reality of trading job prospects for motherhood.
Progress in some areas has gone hand-in-hand with backsliding or stagnation in others. Rape conviction rates are now lower than in the 1970s; movement on the pay gap is so slow that it has to be measured in tenths of a percentage point, whilst the 1997 success in increasing the number of female MPs has not been matched in any election since. Recent debates about abortion and whether it is acceptable to discount “women of childbearing age” from a pool of job applicants remind us how often the same arguments have to be made and fought for each new generation.
Although there has been progress in the economic and political spheres, two insidious and powerful forces undermining women’s citizenship have gained momentum over the past decade. The first gazes at us from billboards in every town and city across the UK, is present on our television screens and spread across the pages of newspapers and magazines. We are all, men and women, subjected daily to a barrage of messages, images and words presenting women and girls in highly sexualised ways. Ros Gill, an academic at the London School of Economics, has named this the “super-sexualise me” culture, and its imagery is now deeply ingrained in our culture and targeted at ever younger audiences.
The sex industry has experienced phenomenal growth in the past decade. Before 1995, there were no lap dancing clubs in the UK; we now have more than 300 across the country. The estimated revenue for pornography worldwide is $97bn (£49bn) and the average age at which children are first exposed to internet pornography is just 11. Behind these startling figures lies a no less startling truth: the sex industry so affects mainstream culture that its images of women are everywhere. In consequence, all women’s bodies are a legitimate target for public comment and debate – from tales of celebrity weight loss and gain to Jacqui Smith’s cleavage.
Anyone who raises objections is dismissed as simply not having got the post-feminist joke or not understanding how raunch is the new tool of female empowerment. But look a minute at the message behind these images. It is clear and it is consistent. Women’s worth resides in how they look; buying and selling of women’s bodies is normal. This has a profound effect on women and men, girls and boys. In the absence of meaningful sex education, it is the sole road map on how to conduct relationships between the sexes.
A second, equally virulent, attack on women’s citizenship starts in childhood. The world our children inhabit is not only increasingly commercialised, it is intensely divided. We channel boys and girls into distinct roles from a very early age, sending them strong signals about what constitutes normal behaviour. Take children’s television. Cynthia Carter from the University of Cardiff found that almost two-thirds of the characters on children’s television were male and that strong female characters were a rarity.
In the world of children’s toys and clothes, girls are bombarded by a sea of froth, frills, princesses and fairies, all in sickeningly sweet shades of purple and pink. Meanwhile, the world of boys is filled with action toys, pirates, knights and castles. Even products as mundane as children’s toothbrushes and armbands are issued in pink or blue. The messages are simple: girls are passive, best at building relationships and showing empathy, whereas boys are active. “Girl” is recognised as an insult in most playgrounds.
This mutually exclusive, crude, blue and pink differentiation between boys and girls translates in later life into segregation in education and the labour market. There is a “pink-collar” ghetto of low-paid occupations, revolving around the caring professions. For new parents, the message is that the seemingly natural division is for mothers to bear the prime responsibility for caring for children while men become prime breadwinners. Brave souls who transgress these boundaries pay a penalty, be it the sense of isolation of the sole man at the mother-and-toddler group or the sexist banter meted out to women on the trading floor or building site.
Biological differences between the sexes are incontrovertible, but what they come to mean and how they determine our path through life depends on all of us. Gender stereotyping has a powerful impact on how women and girls see themselves and their place in society. Ultimately, it affects their sense of entitlement to full and equal citizenship. How can women feel fully at home in the public realm when daily they receive messages that their worth resides not in who they are, but in how they look? How can women be fully empowered when, from an early age, they are encouraged to be spectators rather than shapers of their own destiny? It is little wonder that women who have made it into powerful positions frequently express the feeling of being there by permission and a lingering sense that one day soon they will be uncovered as impostors.
Eighty years after women achieved equality of voting rights, it is apparent that there is still a long journey to be travelled. Shoehorning women into a labour market or political system that was designed by and for men has brought important but ultimately limited returns. The challenge now is much greater and requires resetting the rules of engagement to suit both men and women and to challenge misogynist attitudes and culture.
Even though legislation is never completely the answer, it can be part of the solution. The Fawcett Society’s campaign to tighten the licensing regime for lap dancing clubs is one such example. This has tapped into a vein of concern about the proliferation of lap dancing. If the campaign is successful it will give power back to local communities to decide whether they want clubs in their area. Most importantly, it has started a debate about the impact of the “super-sexualise me” culture on us all.
If women are to take their place as full and equal citizens, we need bold legislation, active promotion of women into positions of power and a lively debate about how to create a society that treats women with respect and dignity.
In celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act, we would do well to remember Millicent Fawcett’s wise words: “Men cannot be truly free so long as women are held in public subjugation.”
Katherine Rake is director of the Fawcett Society and a leading commentator on women’s rights