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‘‘They could but they weren’t encouraged to’: Class, gender and work in Portsmouth in the 1970s and 1980s’ – Mandy Wrenn

After a long career in financial services I wanted a change of direction and applied to study history in Portsmouth. One of my university modules covered the successes usually ascribed to Second Wave Feminism, namely gender equality legislation and a greater self-awareness for women. My reading for the module included a documented interview with Pat Smith, a teacher in Portsmouth in the 1970s, whose feminist activism was to visit local schools and tell girls how new equality laws meant they stood to gain more from life.[1] However, her conclusion – which became the title for my dissertation – that “working class girls could absolutely achieve so much more but other factors in their lives were ranged against them”, really struck me. Indeed, being a member of this cohort myself, I tended to agree with her assessment. I wanted to explore this further. My primary research largely composed of the recollections of a focus group, consisting of my friends of the time who had all grown up working class in Portsmouth. In this blog, I use their memories of moving into the workplace to show how, despite workplace equality legislation, they faced many challenges.  I have changed names to maintain confidentiality.

The women’s experiences were shaped by two strong themes emerged: firstly, low expectations from their families who expected them to essentially live their lives as wives and mothers, and secondly, discrimination from men at work, a factor in their unequal pay.

All of the women were steered towards jobs deemed the most suitable for them. Thelma joined the civil service and recalled that ‘women did the clerical jobs and men did the technical jobs. Women were in the typing pool or were PAs – I just assumed that was what women did.’  In addition, Bev reflected that she thinks now that she had been subconsciously pushed towards ‘female’ roles in caring for others instead of what she was really interested in which was vehicle maintenance and carpentry…..’I was encouraged to look at carer roles and my Dad said he didn’t work with any female engineers where he worked’.  Thelma said her father effectively steered her to be less ambitious, dismissing many of the jobs she wanted to apply for, such as the police force or airline cabin crew. He was even derogatory once she secured a role in the Civil Service and she concluded that her father made her feel that ‘anything I did (wanted to do) was negative’.The focus group was quite reflective thinking about joining the workplace and ending up with jobs they had. Bev questioned ‘Why didn’t I do that (working with cars) …because I didn’t feel at the time that I would be able to do something like that?’ There was a poignant moment when the possibility of lost opportunities, determined by others, was acknowledged.

The women were actively steered away from ‘men’s work’ including roles at the local dockyard. I had already found an example of a woman who had been berated by a male supervisor for taking an apprenticeship position away from local boys in 1969.  Matters had  not improved much by 1982 when Tracy worked in Portsmouth Dockyard. She remembers it being an extremely male dominated environment with only one other woman in the department;  she said, ‘I saw the whole area, the dockyard, as a man’s thing’.  When applying for a technical role at a large defence company, Sally was told by the interviewer: ‘I’ll tell you now. I have never employed a woman for this job and I don’t intend to now.’ Having actually landed the job, she found herself in a department full of men. Other women in the organisation worked in administration and PA roles. She remembered that ’it was quite strange because they didn’t see me as a girl, I was ‘Sally’. It’s always been like that … there was never this differentiation that she’s a girl and he’s a boy. It was just ‘Sally’. It appears that only by thinking of a girl as a gender-neutral person was the male workforce able to accept her. The focus group offered other examples of men excluding them from work. Annette was adamant that she did not get jobs she applied for because she was female.

The women all remembered that unequal pay was a real issue for them but not a situation they could do anything about. There were several examples of working with men in the same clerical job but being paid less although, interestingly,  Jane repeated the long-held views of the time that ‘maybe the man had a household to protect’.  Some of the group remembered specifically that company bosses discouraged any discussions about pay, with the reflection that it was maybe a way to manipulate them to not to question any pay differentials. These memories support other observations made about the way bosses ensured continued low pay for women. The only positive memory from the group was from Bev who spoke about being treated the same as a male colleague with regards to pay on the Youth Training Scheme. Introduced in 1981, the scheme offered working opportunities to 16-17-year old trainees who were paid a flat £25 per week. Bev’s recollection was of being with other young people and feeling positive that ‘we were all on the same wage’.

In summary, the world was positively changing for women but at the time these girls lives were being shaped by more local forces. As expected by their families, all did become wives and mothers but they were also able to achieve careers in financial services, social services, engineering and child protection despite the barriers in the early years.


Images: Group of women, author’s own. The author is on the far right.

‘I’m a working-class woman OK’. The Feminist Library. Google Arts and Culture.

Mandy Wrenn is a recent graduate from the University of Portsmouth. Her dissertation reflected both an interest in the history of the women of Portsmouth and a growing understanding of the social changes in post war Britain formed from studying for a degree.

[1] Pat Smith interview.  ‘Women’s Community Activism in Portsmouth since 1960: The Hidden History of a Naval Town, Project Archive Ref No. X/3310A, Portsmouth History Centre. Last accessed Tuesday 9 October 2021.