ELIZABETH II was crowned Queen in a man’s world, but just how much has the UK changed for women during her 70-year reign?
"My dad had to be there when I opened a bank account at 20", says Freda Davis.
Freda, 80, is a retired teacher who lives with husband Peter, 74, a retired lecturer in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire.
They have one grown-up son Tom, and a four-year-old granddaughter.
“I first realised that society viewed boys and girls differently when I was around seven and someone told me I couldn’t play with Meccano because it was ‘for boys’.
"A few years later, my older sister informed me that – as a female – I would need to marry to be able to buy or rent a home.
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"But I became truly aware of discrimination when I was 14 and a woman and her baby came to live with us.
"My mother Connie had offered to take in unmarried mothers, and she explained to me how they were looked down on and ostracised by society, which seemed very unfair.
"University wasn’t encouraged for women – we were steered towards being nuns, mothers, teachers or nurses – so I ended up at teaching college in 1960.
"Three years later, when I started my first teaching job in Folkestone, my father Louis had to come with me so I could open a bank account.
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"I met my husband Peter in 1968 and we married the following year.
"I was 26 and he was 22, and we married so quickly because we knew that landladies wouldn’t allow us to sleep together in a house if we weren’t married!
"In the early ’70s, at the time the Equal Pay Act came in, I began to really engage with feminism.
"I had finally been allowed to study for a degree in English and I’d become involved with a women’s action group, campaigning for the female cleaners at the university to get better wages.
"In 1974, I had a miscarriage, and two years later my baby daughter Jennifer died just one day after she was born.
"There was very little support for women in those situations back then.
"In fact, I recall one male consultant saying to me: ‘Well, you should have had your babies when you were 21.’ Our son Tom was born three years after Jennifer died.
"I’ve been involved in politics or campaigning for most of my life, helping vulnerable women and children, most recently with the Women’s Rights Network.
"Of course, there has been progress in terms of opportunities for women in all kinds of work – one of my nieces is studying engineering – and there has been a real shift in attitudes to equality.
"But that all seems to be undermined by the notion that men [who identify as female] can now declare themselves women.
"I never thought that at the age of 80 I’d be arguing over what being a woman actually means.”
"We are still fighting against sex discrimination"
When Princess Elizabeth took to the throne, aged 25, it was a post-war Britain, where the odds were stacked firmly in favour of men.
Despite having secured equal voting rights more than 20 years previously, women were still very much seen as second-class citizens.
This was a country where they were not able to take out a mortgage on their own, where girls were prepared for lives of domesticity and where husbands could legally rape their wives.
Indeed, marital rape would not be outlawed until 1992, following the landmark RvR case, which ruled that the marriage contract did not mean “conjugal rights” trumped consent.
There have undoubtedly been huge strides in the 70 years since Elizabeth was crowned Queen – women have far greater legal protections and vastly more opportunities now.
Nicola Williams, director of Fair Play for Women, a group campaigning to protect the rights of women and girls in the UK, says: “The idea that women shouldn’t drive or go out to work – all of those gender stereotypes have been abolished, thank goodness.
"The generations before us did a great job giving women today the freedom to do what we want, without the same restrictions of gender stereotyping, and our lives are better for it.”
One major breakthrough came in 1961, when the contraceptive pill was made available on the NHS.
The generations before us did a great job giving women today the freedom to do what we want, without the same restrictions of gender stereotyping, and our lives are better for it.
The move was – and still is – seen as one of the most revolutionary medical advances of the 20th century, although it was initially only allowed to be given to married women.
By 1967, availability was finally extended to the unmarried, too, and today it’s estimated that 70% of women in Britain have used it at some stage in our lives.
That same year saw the introduction of the Abortion Act, which legalised terminations in the UK, except in Northern Ireland where, unless the pregnancy posed a direct threat to the mother’s life, it remained illegal until 2020.
But it was the ’70s when we really started to see tangible change, as the newly formed Women’s Liberation Movement gave rise to second-wave feminism and campaigners chalked up a series of watershed moments.
Selina Todd, professor of modern history at Oxford University, says that the work of women during the ’70s – many of whom are still at the forefront of the feminist movement today – should never be underestimated.
“They brought women together of all faiths, backgrounds, black and white and from across Britain. With the campaign against marital rape, they assiduously used tons of different strategies – demonstrations, lobbying politicians and working with different police forces.
"We owe them a great deal. And as someone who doesn’t come from a middle-class background, I’m very clear that I’m in the job I am because of those women,” says Selina.
In this same decade, the first Rape Crisis Centres opened, Reclaim the Night marches began in Leeds and the Equal Pay Act was passed.
The idea of women achieving things for themselves is still something many in the establishment find threatening.
The foundations for that legislation had been laid after industrial action by 850 women at the Ford car plant in Dagenham, who were on 15% less pay than their male colleagues.
The Equal Pay Act was pushed through in 1970 by legendary Labour MP Barbara Castle and inspired 2010 movie Made In Dagenham, and a raft of legislative changes. In 1975, the Sex Discrimination Act was passed and the Equal Opportunities Commission created – job advertisements would now be sexless and banks could no longer require women to provide a male guarantor when applying for a credit card or loan.
Women now had the right to take maternity leave and could not be discriminated against or made redundant for being pregnant, too.
Until the Employment Protection Act in 1975, it had been legitimate for employers to fire women for having babies or for daring to take time off work to care for them.
In 1979, Britain elected its first female prime minister in Margaret Thatcher – although she reportedly called feminism “poison”, declaring she “owed nothing to Women’s Lib”.
Women were increasingly a part of the labour force by this time and through the ’80s but, on the whole, worked in low-paid, often part-time jobs in service industries or the public sector.
One major breakthrough came in 1961, when the contraceptive pill was made available on the NHS.
When Thatcher took charge, just 1% of bank managers, 2% of accountants and 5% of architects were female.
In politics, Diane Abbott became the first black female MP elected to parliament, in 1987, while Betty Boothroyd became the first female speaker of the House of Commons in 1992.
The 1997 General Election saw New Labour sweep to power with a record-breaking 101 female MPs. That they were dubbed “Blair’s Babes” indicated the chauvinism they were up against.
“As is often the case in feminism, women work really hard for their rights, then there’s always a fella who takes credit!” says Selina.
“The idea of women achieving things for themselves is still something many in the establishment find threatening.”
Girl Power kicked off a new brand of cultural feminism when the Spice Girls burst on to the music scene in the mid-’90s, while the so-called “ladettes”, including Zoe Ball, Denise van Outen and Sara Cox, “liberated young women from the confines of a very conservative form of femininity”, according to Angela Smith, author of Naked Exhibitionism: Gender And Public Performance.
Campaigns to raise awareness of male violence against women continued and feminist law reform group Justice for Women was founded by Julie Bindel and Harriet Wistrich in 1990.
For more than 30 years, they’ve advocated for abused women who have fought back against or killed their violent partners.
They supported Sally Challen, who was freed in 2019, nine years after killing her abusive husband Richard, when a court quashed her murder conviction and changed it to manslaughter, thanks to new coercive and controlling behaviour laws.
However, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Two women a week are killed by a partner or an ex, and more than 40,000 women were victims of sexual assault in England and Wales in the year ending September 2021, an increase of 13% from the previous year and the highest ever recorded in a 12-month period.*
Today, just 1.3% of rape cases recorded by police result in a charge, women face higher rates of harassment and violence, are paid less, are under-represented in boardrooms and in public life, and they shoulder the burden of unpaid care work.
Nicola warns that any progress made over the last 70 years is in danger of rolling back, as some feminists argue the concept of gender identity is taking priority over biological sex, with transwomen claiming the right to share single-sex spaces and compete in female-only sports.
While there is much to celebrate since Elizabeth II was crowned, Selina says that there are still many battles to be fought.
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“We have major sex discrimination in the labour market, we don’t have the right to choose to have an abortion without securing the consent of two doctors, maternity care is not at the level it should be and nursery care is abysmal.”
Nicola adds: “We are still fighting against sex discrimination. We must continue to do so for the next generation of women and girls.”
- Source: *Office for National Statistics
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