The impact of legislation on women’s lives

The Women’s Liberation Movement were successful in getting a number of laws passed that provide concrete services required by women. Learn about the women who became active in the formal institutions that make and enforce laws and govern the country.

Vera Baird talks about women in the legal system

Legislation alone is rarely sufficient to ensure changes to women’s lives. However, changes to the law have enabled women to, among other things, gain the right to education, win property rights, achieve political representation, and ensure access to contraceptives and abortion. These legal changes have impacted on everyday lives and relationships. Things that were once unthinkable, such as a married woman divorcing her husband for adultery or a married woman’s right to half of property held in common or a woman’s right to enter the professions, are now safeguarded by law. As a consequence women’s experience and attitudes towards women have changed dramatically.

Mary McIntosh talks about the Women's Budget Group

What kind of legislation?

Laws have been passed that provide concrete services required by women. Examples include healthcare legislation around abortion and contraception, and welfare provision such as child benefits and maternity pay. Legislation has also provided an equal platform from which women can fight for their human rights. Since 1975 women have been able to take an employer to court over sex discrimination; in 2010 the Fawcett Society filed for a judicial review of the government’s Emergency Budget. The Fawcett Society believes that the government’s budget proposals will increase inequality between women and men. They believe that 72% of cuts will be met by women, as opposed to 28% by men.

Rowena Arshad talks about the women's movement and the State 

Bronagh Hinds talks about the EU's role in the Northern Ireland peace process

Women in positions of legislative power

Women have become increasingly active in the formal institutions that make and enforce laws and govern the country. Ivy Williams (1877–1966) and Helena Normanton (1882–1957), the UK’s first two female barristers, were called to the Bar in 1922. Barbara Castle (1910–2002) was a Labour MP from 1945 to 1979 and she is still the only woman to have been First Secretary of State. Jo Richardson (1923–94), who vehemently defended the feminist anti-pornography activists, was a Labour MP for 20 years, and chair of the Labour Party from 1989 to 1990. Harriet Harman, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party in 2013, was Minister for Women and Equality and Leader of the House of Commons (2007-10), passing the 2010 Equality Act, which allows employers to discriminate in favour of female and ethnic minority job applicants. Diane Abbott was the first black woman to become an MP in 1987, and Vera Baird is a practising Queen’s Counsel who in 2012 was elected Police Commissioner for Northumbria. The Liberal Democrat Shirley Williams has also long been a leading advocate of gender equality.

In recent years we have also seen the rise of so-called ‘Tory feminism’, including Theresa May, Louise Mensch and others in the Conservative Women’s Organisation, which in its earliest years campaigned for suffrage rights. And in the House of Lords Baroness Anne Gibson is just one of many women who have worked to improve women’s positions, in her case through employment legislation.

These women, and others who have pushed women’s agendas, have been active in creating new rights and freedoms, and ensuring that they are protected by law and recognised by government. The significance and impact of legislation is often taken for granted in today’s society and yet the law is constantly changing. Women must remain active if they are to maintain their equal human rights.

This animated clip, made in 1994, considers sex discrimination and prejudice in the workplace. © Leeds Animation Workshop

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The Women’s Liberation Movement’s autonomy

The Women’s Liberation Movement was a grass-roots organisation that used personal, often low-key methods to get its point across. It was autonomous in that it did not subscribe to any particular party or powerful institutions. Instead, it built alliances on specific issues – for example, with the Trade Union Congress over equal pay, or with sections of the medical profession and the National Health Service over maternity services. Although autonomous, the Women’s Liberation Movement did work with the various political parties and several movement members were active members of political parties, principally the Labour Party.

Joni Lovenduski and Vicky Randall’s book Contemporary Feminist Politics: Women in Power in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1993) thoroughly traces the history of the movement’s political structures. It illustrates how many feminists strategically moved into local government in the 1980s in what was termed ‘municipal feminism’. A number of women in this oral history project took part in this, including Valerie WiseJane Hutt and Kirsten Hearn.

Lesley Abdela talks about sex discrimination in the workplace

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  • 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.