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Redefining work

The Women’s Liberation Movement fought for equal access to the workplace regardless of gender and for labour to be valued. Find out how campaigns by the WLM enabled women to enter traditionally male dominated fields.

Cynthia Cockburn recalls working with men in the print industry

Despite the difficulties faced by women in the workplace, many women have always had to work because the money they earn is desperately needed by themselves and their families. Gaining access to the workplace regardless of gender, and ensuring that this work is valued, have been key aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Inequality and discrimination across the labour market have been the principle tools of patriarchy.

The effect of war

While working-class women have always worked outside the home, for elite or middle-class women this was less often the case; they tended to be less educated than their brothers, and excluded from training and the professions. During the interwar years many married women in industry as well as the professions were sacked once they got married. This, however, changed dramatically during the Second World War. Thousands of women of all classes went to work as manual labourers on farms and in munitions factories, as well as in administrative and medical roles. Nevertheless, married women and mothers of young children were the last to be called up. The vast majority of able-bodied men were sent away to fight.

Although women acquired valuable new skills working in munitions and war industries, after the war they were replaced by returning men. Some of these women were eager to return to civilian life, and to marry and have children. Nurseries that had been set up during the war were gradually closed during the 1950s making it difficult for women to work outside the home at all. But many women remembered their war work and the independence it had brought; surveys in the 1950s and ‘60s indicated that some would have liked to return to work on equal terms with men. The history of women’s war work was perhaps one of the catalysts for the rethinking of women’s work among the young women, the daughters of the war generation, that led to the Women’s Liberation Movement of the late 1960s.

After the war

Despite the skills acquired during the war, in the 1950s the majority of domestic labour was done by women. Some women during the 1960s began to question this, and seminal books such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (London: W.W. Norton and Co., 1963) and Hannah Gavron’s The Captive Wife (Middlesex: Penguin,1966) addressed the question of the lonely housewife and mother, the educated woman without employment. These began to reveal a growing sense of lack of fulfilment and isolation among housewives and mothers of young children. In the 1970s Ann Oakley published Housewife (London: Allen Lane, 1974) and The Sociology of Housework (London: Martin Robertson, 1974). These books examined the number of hours women spent on housework, the nature of the work, and the invisibility of the work itself within the home and the family. You can find out more about the gendered division of labour, particularly in the domestic arena, in Family and Children.

The Women’s Liberation Movement demands

The Women’s Liberation movement campaigned for the opportunity for women to work outside the home, learn new skills and receive a decent wage. The first four demands of the Women’s Liberation Movement were developed at the national conference at Ruskin College in 1970 and ratified at the conference in Skegness the following year. They included free 24-hour childcare to enable women with children to be able to work. They also demanded that women receive equal pay for the work they did, and have equal opportunities in the job market.

You can find out more about the WLM conferences in Activism.

Barbara Jones talks about her career as a builder

The politics of skill

Feminists in the 1970s argued that their skills needed to be recognised and considered equal to work of similar value done by men. Decisions on suitability for a job were often based on levels of experience, custom and practice. This frequently meant that women were excluded from being able to get jobs because they lacked the relevant experience and it wasn’t customary for women to be employed. Prevailing social attitudes held that ‘women’s work’ was somehow innately less skilled than men’s, either because it required no training, or because women had no economic dependents, or simply because the work was done by women. It took drastic action such as the strikes and court cases you can hear about elsewhere in this theme, and some pioneering women, whose stories you can hear in this section (as well as all over this site), to force changes in legislation and attitudes.

In the later 20th century some men began to find themselves in a similar position to women in terms of the value of their skills. This was a result of several factors: the defeat of the power of the unions; the decline of manufacturing industries; and the expansion of unskilled work in offices, newspapers and the media, financial services, and the public sector. Cynthia Cockburn carried out studies of men who lost their status when printing skills became downgraded with the advent of computers. Her 1983 book Brothers: Male Dominance and Technical Change (London: Pluto Press) explored men’s control over women through work and technology, and also the way in which men had to remake themselves to combat technological advances.

Alongside women’s struggle for access to traditional professions went a learning of new skills. Women became, among other things, builders, footballers and priests, beginning to occupy space which had previously been exclusively male environments.

Banner credit: Men wouldn’t wear it poster © The Fawcett Society

  • 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.