Why we need a new Working Women’s Charter
2014 marks the 40th anniversary of the Working Women’s Charter – a landmark list of 10 demands aiming to create a more equal world for women. The Charter linked trade unionism to feminism and other kinds of activism. It connected women’s social, economic, and sexual rights in new and powerful ways.
Forty years on, many of these rights have been won but deep inequalities persist around pay, opportunities, pensions, caring responsibilities and much more. What should a Working Women’s Charter for the 21st century include? What should women demand of political parties in the 2015 election?
In 1974, I was four. Things were on the up for my family. My own mother was picking up her career in the health service, having had ten years out with three children. She was able to do this for two reasons. First, her mother – my grandmother – had come to live with us and to look after me and my sisters. Second, my dad was very hands on. All this allowed my mum to combine home with full-time work as well as finding time to study as a mature student.
My mum – and many women like her – were part of a quiet but powerful revolution in British life. Today we’re all very familiar with the working mum. But she is a relatively new ‘returner’ to the labour market – with most only taking up paid work in large numbers from the 1960s onwards.
As soon as they did that, they had to find ways to juggle the demands of work and family. And in that moment, a new political agenda was born. It’s one we still struggle with today.
The first Working Women’s Charter – back in 1974 – was an early response to that struggle. At that point, that women’s movement was still gathering momentum. Its landmark moments were still fresh. In 1968, sewing machinists at Ford’s Dagenham car plant had won a major victory on the road to recognition– a story played out today on the West End stage in Made in Dagenham. They helped pave the way for the 1970 Equal Pay Act – passed in the same year that the first National Women’s Liberation conference was held. But the women at that conference and on the Dagenham assembly line knew then – as women know now – that legislation alone wouldn’t be enough.
The 1974 Charter was drawn up by women in trades unions and trades councils. It set out to change culture, not just change the law. From the start, it tried to bring the very different needs of very different groups of women workers under one banner: the needs of the minority heading into the higher professions and the needs of the majority employed in the mass labour market – women in shops, offices, assembly lines and more.
It was influenced by an earlier Australian feminist initiative. In 1943 Australian Women’s Charter was drawn up at the Australian Women’s Conference for Victory in War and Victory in Peace. It called for a wide-ranging program of reforms – from women’s right to paid work and child care to the particular needs of rural and Aboriginal women.
The 1974 Working Women’s Charter demanded equality in pay, opportunities, education, working conditions and legal rights. It demanded free childcare, free contraception and abortion, increased maternity leave and family allowances, job security for women returning from maternity leave. Finally, it called for more women in public and political life.
It was a classic statement of the women’s movement – insisting that the personal was political, that what happened in the workplace and public life could not be separated from what happened at home and in hearts, minds and bodies.
The Charter was much debated. Its cause wasn’t helped, however, by its rejection by the TUC – the Trades Union Congress – at its 1975 conference. TUC delegates opposed the idea of a women’s minimum wage as a route to equal pay and did not want to address abortion. They also argued that the TUC’s own 12 point charter covered much of the same ground. By contrast, the earlier Australian Women’s Charter seems to have been more influential in shaping postwar reconstruction plans.
Today, interest in the 1974 Charter stems from a concern with how far we have come since then. Forty years on – how many of those 10 demands have been met?
I’d say that a just four out of the 10 demands have been met over the last four decades. Women now have broadly equal access to (1) education and (2) legal rights. Most have much improved access to (3) contraception and abortion. There have been increases in (4) family allowances although recent reforms have undermined that gain.
We are still chasing the other six demands: (1) access to free or affordable childcare, (2) equal pay, (3) equal opportunities, (4) equal working conditions, (5) job security for women returning from maternity leave and (6) more women in public and political life.
In all these areas, there’s a long haul ahead. In 2013, Price Waterhouse Coopers ranked the UK a shocking 18th out of 27 OECD countries in its Women in Work Index based on a measure combining five key indicators:
- the equality of earnings with men;
- the proportion of women in work;
- the gap between female and male labour force participation;
- the female unemployment rate; and
- the proportion of women in full-time employment.
And here are some equally outrageous figures on the under-representation of women in public life, political life and private sector leadership today. In national politics, only 23% of MPs and 21% of peers are women. In local politics, around one third of councilors and one tenth of council leaders are women. In the boardroom, women make up just 17% of FTSE 100 boards and 11% of FTSE 250 boards. In higher education, just 14% of UK universities have a woman Vice Chancellor. This is also, of course, a personal challenge for us as women ourselves.
In the nineteenth century, we were formally barred from the professions and from public office. Now there’s apparently nothing to stop us yet we don’t see change on the ground at the pace we want. I’d agree that more women need to step up, lean in, hang in, and strike all the other poses currently recommended by management gurus. But old cultures die hard. And structural barriers – of the kind identified by Price Waterhouse Coopers – are hard to overcome. I believe that a new Working Women’s Charter would help us to overcome them. With an election coming, this is the perfect time to draw one up.
Elections are often won and lost on women’s swing votes. The next one will be no exception. What better time to start a serious debate on the things that matter to women – and to working women in particular?
Of course, this debate is already taking place across the country in organisations from Mumsnet to the 30 Per Cent Group, and from the Fawcett Society to many employers. Just this week, Asda finds itself forced to into the debate via a legal challenge from thousands of its women employees embarking on a new battle for equal pay and recognition.
And in Newham, the women activists of Focus E15 may have ended their occupation of empty flats but their battle for basic housing continues.A new Working Women’s Charter could transform these debates – not because a new list of new demands will change anything on its own but because it could harness the energy and promise of growing ‘third wave feminism’. It could help to find common cause between many different women across many different workplaces.
And that will be the key to scoring more than 4 out of 10 in the next 40 years.
Pam Cox (c) October 2014
Pamela Cox is Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology, University of Essex and one of the impressive list of speakers at the 1 day event held in London on Saturday 8 November 2014, King’s College London, to celebrate the 1974 Working Women’s Charter, explore the many challenges that women in Britain still face, and spark ideas about how these might be overcome.
‘Why we need a new Working Women’s Charter – Celebrating the 1974 Working Women’s Charter’, http://www.historyandpolicy.org/news/article/the-working-womens-charter-40-years-on (accessed 7 November 2014)