Equality, work and the Women's Liberation Movement

The battle for equal pay was as much about class as it was about gender and the two fights ran concurrently on different fronts. Read this introductory background on equal pay in the workplace to find out how the WLM carried out their campaign.

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

The Women’s Liberation Movement in the UK fought for the right for women to train for and gain entry into all occupations, highlighted women’s unpaid work in the home, and demanded equal pay for equal work outside the home. Feminists met resistance from some professional bodies, unions of skilled men, and had to challenge popular attitudes and stereotypes of ‘women’s work’. In this theme you can hear audio extracts and watch films about women in several different professions. They discuss their experiences of these professions, their fights for equal pay and the difficulties faced by women whose skills were not recognised as equal to men’s.

The battle for equal pay was as much about class as it was about gender and two fights ran concurrently on different fronts. One was to get working-class jobs recognised as skilled and paid equally to men, particularly those in which women predominated, such as domestic and secretarial labour, and unskilled jobs in manufacturing. The other was to gain entry into the professions such as law, medicine, journalism and publishing, business, finance and politics.

Rowena Arshad talks about equal pay for women

Women’s liberation in Britain enlisted the support of trade unions and working-class women whose participation had been vital to the success of the suffrage movement of the early 20th century. The Women’s Liberation Movement built on this history of cross-class alliance.

Socialism in the sense of both collective action and purpose, and social justice and equality for everyone, was fundamental to much of the work of WLM feminists. However, there were still passionate debates about strategy, including whether and how far to align with left-wing men, and how far to work with the trade unions. Other debates focused on whether women’s oppression was the cause or the result of capitalism, and how gender and class division intersected with racial oppression. These debates were held in journals, pamphlets, women’s centres meetings and feminist classes in adult and further education.

From its beginnings the WLM in Britain worked much more closely with socialist societies, trade unions and the left than in some other (non-European) countries. For example, in the USA the movement grew out of civil rights campaigning, the new left and the liberal National Organisation of Women (NOW). This led to the commonly held belief that women’s liberation in the USA had a stronger liberal feminist core than the movement in the UK. A sizeable proportion of American feminists, perhaps because of the stronger culture of equal rights for the individual and higher numbers of women in higher education and training, focused on women gaining access to traditional professions and representation in political parties.

Gail Chester discusses radical and anti-capitalist feminism

Banner credit: MP cartoon © Jacky Fleming www.jackyfleming.co.uk

  • 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.