Equal pay, equality legislation and the Women's Liberation Movement

Equal pay and equality legislation

From actions such as the Ford machinists’ strike in Dagenham and the Grunwick Film-Processing Laboratories strike, to campaigns such The Night Cleaners, find out how the 1970 the Equal Pay Act came into effect.

In 1970 the Equal Pay Act was passed, prohibiting unequal pay and working conditions between men and women. The Act did not come into force until 1975. Its foundations had been laid by women’s industrial action at the Ford car-manufacturing plants in 1968 and the resulting legislation introduced in 1970 by the MP Barbara Castle. The 1970s and ‘80s saw further industrial action by women and men as workers fought for their rights regardless of gender, ethnicity and class.

Rowena Arshad talks about equal pay for women

Gendered division of pay

At the base of much inequality in women’s pay were two assumptions: first, that women’s work was less skilled than men’s and therefore required less pay; and second, that a woman’s wage did not have to support other dependents. This gendered division of labour occurred both at home and in the workplace. Much of the work of the Women’s Liberation Movement was not for equal pay per se, but to get women’s skills and abilities, as well as responsibilities for dependents, valued at the same level as men’s. This radical shift in attitudes towards women workers would bring, it was hoped, equal pay and conditions along with it. The equality legislation, the Sex Discrimination Act, passed in the 1970s hoped to ensure this.

For more information about the gendered division of labour see Family and Children.

Julie Hayward recalls her fight to have her work valued as equal to men's

© Trades Union Congress

Ford machinists’ strike, Dagenham (1968)

On 7 June 1968 850 women machinists at the Ford factory in Dagenham went on strike. They were protesting against the fact that the work they did, although the same as the work done by men, was classed as unskilled labour, which led to them receiving 15% less pay than the men with whom they worked.

MP Barbara Castle got involved with the women strikers at the Ford factory and utilised the issue to push her equal pay agenda. In 1970 the Equal Pay Act was passed. However, some women strikers at the Ford factory felt used by Castle. They had been fighting for recognition of their work as skilled and this had not been achieved. In 1984 Ford machinists went on strike again, with the result that their work was reclassified from unskilled to semi-skilled, the point of the original strike 16 years previously.

The Ford women’s fight inspired activists from the Women’s Liberation Movement, who continued to campaign for equal pay for work of equal value, and against sexual discrimination both in the workplace and at home. ‘Equal pay for equal work’ was one of the original four demands of the movement articulated in 1970 at the first National Women’s Liberation Conference in Oxford. Two other demands, for equal education and training, and free 24-hour childcare were just as vital in enabling women to become economically independent of fathers, husbands and other male kin (one of the foundations of patriarchy), and in challenging the sexual division of labour in the labour market and at home. Later in the 1970s a fifth demand, for women’s financial and legal independence, was added, attempting to cement women’s economic status.

The Night Cleaners Campaign (1972–5)

By the early 1970s thousands of women were working through the night cleaning offices. These women were already among the worst paid and most exploited groups in the workforce. Their situation worsened when contract cleaning was introduced. Companies began to compete with each other over price, cutting costs by lowering wages even further. May Hobbs, a cleaner who experienced this discrimination, initiated the struggle for better pay and conditions, and for union recognition and protection.

You can find out more about the Night Cleaners Campaign in Activism.

Amrit Wilson describes meeting the Grunwick women's strikers

Grunwick Film-Processing Laboratories strike, Willesden (1976–78)

In 1976 Jayaben Desai resigned from her job as a film processor in the Grunwick Laboratory in north London and instigated a strike among many of the other workers at the plant, who, like Desai, were working-class Asian women. They were protesting against overtime arrangements, pay inequality and racist company practices. Desai led the strike for two years, during which time there were many violent clashes between police and protestors. Desai went on a hunger strike outside the Trades Union Congress and her union membership was suspended.

Amrit Wilson provided an important wider context for understanding the Grunwick strike in her groundbreaking book Finding a Voice: Asian Women in Britain (London: Virago, 1978).

In Britain there has for many years been a subproletariat, a subclass of the working class who are far worse off than the main body, consisting of sweat-shop workers and homeworkers, people who are treated by employers as though they have no rights at all.… Their expectations are high because many of them have, until recently, had a middle-class life and outlook (i.e. the East African Asians) and because, unlike the British working class, they have not been ground down and prepared for their jobs by the British education system.… If they win their battles, as one trade union organiser put it (while describing Grunwick) ‘it will be a new dimension in trade union activity’. In other words it would mean that battles could be won which people have previously thought could not even be fought.

The management at Grunwick had always made use of the poverty of Asians: they had preferred them to English workers to the extent that white women applying for jobs there would actually be turned away. As the Grunwick men and women frequently commented:

Imagine how humiliating it was for us, particularly for older women, to be working and to overhear the employer saying to a young English girl ‘you don’t want to come and work here, love, we won’t be able to pay the sort of wages that’ll keep you here’ – while we had to work there because we were trapped.

But the directors of the company were also aware of the position of Asian women in their community, which they tried to exploit when the women came out on strike. George Ward, the owner of Grunwick, is an Anglo-Indian. Jayaben said:

On my second encounter with Ward he said 'Mrs Desai, I’ll tell the whole Patel community that you are a loose woman.’ I said ‘I am here with this placard! Look! I am showing all England that you are a bad man. You are going to tell only the Patel community but I am going to tell all of England.’

The Grunwick strike may not have succeeded in improving work conditions and gaining the right to unionise, but it did raise the profile of Asian women living in the UK. It highlighted class and ethnic divisions in the workforce. Jayaben Desai never backed down and her tenacity contributed to the increasing recognition of the importance of women’s work in terms of industrial organisation. Going down to picket at Grunwick became an act of political duty for many women’s rights activists along with union members across the left–liberal political spectrum. You can find out more about the exceptionally rich tradition of Asian women’s activism in Britain in Subverting Stereotypes: Asian Women’s Political Activism: A Comparison of the Grunwick and Gate Gourmet disputes.

The 1984–85 Miners’ Strike

In 1984 miners walked out on strike in protest against the planned closure of mining pits and the lack of consultation about this. This meant the loss of hundreds of jobs, devastating the income of many families as well as a whole way of life in large parts of the UK.

Women Against Pit Closures (WAPC) was formed among miners’ families and their supporters in the first few months of the strike. To some extent, WAPC put feminist ideas into practice: it was an industrial dispute that empowered women to take a public role in a community within a male-dominated industry. The group grew from the communal feeding of families in April and May 1984. It began to take on a more explicitly political role and, during the year-long strike, set up many local support groups which organised collections, demonstrations, lobbied MPs, addressed public meetings, and explained the conditions of miners and their communities to the wider public. It also opened the door to understanding the paradoxes of trade union and working-class forms of patriarchy. Beatrix Campbell explored this in her book Wigan Pier Revisited: Poverty and Politics in the Eighties (1984), in which she retraced George Orwell’s famous Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937 in the midst of the economic depression of that decade. A taste of Campbell’s argument and feminist critique of traditional National Union of Miners (NUM) style activism is as follows:

The expansion of trade union parameters beyond the individual wage is unthinkable in a structure of bargaining based on the idea of the breadwinner. If the shop-stewards’ movement has become a paradigm of working-class militancy, it is also a paradigm of patriarchal economism. Fraternity conquers liberty and equality.

The defeat of the strike in 1985 weakened the trade union movement which had been divided among itself about both the aims and tactics of the leadership of the National Union of Miners. The NUM was permanently damaged by the closure of the mines, divisions in its leadership and exhaustion among the impoverished mining communities. The defeat of the strike was a major victory for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and paved the way for further cuts in manufacturing industries. You can find out more about how this felt for miners, their families and supporters at the National Coal Mining Museum, and many archives and oral histories, including the early example of Peter Gibbon’s 1986 oral history project collecting the voices of miners who were involved in the strike in a village in South Yorkshire.

For more information on the miners’ strike see Activism.

This 1994 animated clip uses humour to make a serious point about the different value placed on men and women’s work. © Leeds Animation Workshop

Into the 21st century

Despite the 1970 Equal Pay Act, a gender pay gap still exists today. In some professions and at some levels women’s wages are equal to men’s. But on average women are still paid less than men to do the same jobs. In the 1970s women, on average, were paid about 50% of men’s wages in manufacturing and the professions.

Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell wrote about the distribution of time between paid and unpaid work, and how changing this would start to create a more equal situation for men and women both at work and in the home:

The arrangement of time spent in paid employment is a crucial factor if we are to change the current pattern of male absenteeism from child care and other domestic responsibilities. It would be necessary, in our view, to reduce working hours substantially, aiming for a maximum thirty-hour week, with firm restrictions on overtime. This could put an end to the present distinction between ‘part-time’ and ‘full-time’ workers, which acts so much to women’s disadvantage (the statutory dividing line is thirty hours). It would help to create new jobs at a time when even the official figures show unemployment nearing the three million mark. And it would begin – only begin – to create the conditions in which men and women could participate equally in domestic work as well as paid employment. (Sweet Freedom: The Struggle for Women's Liberation, London: Pan, 1982)

In 2011 the Office of National Statistics reported that the gender pay gap had fallen to below 10% for the first time, though for part-time employees the gap is almost 20%. According to the Fawcett Society, time taken off work due to caring responsibilities accounts for 14% of the pay gap.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission recognises that the pay gap is still a problem today. The Trades Union Congress published a report in 2010 titled Equal Pay, Where Next? So, where do we go from here?

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.