As the Rev Libby Lane becomes the Church of England’s first female bishop, Sarah Freeman looks back on the landmark moments in the history of women’s fight for equal rights.
1870: For the first time women are legally allowed to own their own property.
1918: First votes for women
The suffragette movement had its origins in the Industrial Revolution when women moved from the home to the workplace, but it was only under Emmeline Pankhurst’s leadership that it began to exert any real pressure. The Suffragettes - the name was coined by the Daily Mail - knew the only way to achieve change in a male-dominated parliament was through militant tactics. When all attempts to silence them failed, the government had no option but to give in. While votes were initially restricted to over 30s, it was nevertheless sign of changing times - the same year Virginia Woolf published Orlando, the first English novel to feature a transgender character.
1965: First female secretary of state
No-nonsense was a description made for Barbara Castle. Fiercely intelligent and unapologetically ambitious, the daughter of a Yorkshire tax inspector was one of the most dominant voices in the Labour Party during the 1960s and 70s. As a champion of child benefit and pensioners’ rights she also proved that politics can and should have a social heart. It was apt then that having held ministerial roles in both transport and employment, Prime Minister Harold Wilson made her the first female Secretary of State. Widely tipped to become the country’s first female PM, Britain’s political landscape could have looked very different today had she made it to Number 10.
1961: Contraceptive Pill
Often described as one of the most significant medical advances of the 20th century. While often associated with the swinging sixties and greater sexual freedom, it’s biggest impact was liberation, giving women control over their own bodies. Initially available only to married women, take-up of the pill was fast. By 1969, when it was freely available to all through family planning clinics, the number of users had risen from approximately 50,000 to one million.
1968: Ford factory strike
Until June 1968, no one took much notice of the 187 machinists who worked at Ford Motor Company’s Dagenham plant. No one expected them to go through with the threat of industrial action either.
However, when negotiations with management, who refused to pay them at the same level as men doing similar jobs, broke down, the women walked out. They successfully stopped production and having taken their fight to the heart of government, a deal was finally struck and the women returned to work on the agreement they would be paid 92 per cent of the equivalent male wage. A partial victory perhaps, but it helped lay the platform for all future equal pay legislation.
1971: Erin Pizzey
Now most towns and cities in the country have women refuges, but 40 years ago the landscape was very different. It was Erin Pizzey who broke the taboo about women and domestic violence and in 1971 opened the first dedicated refuge for victims in London, an organisation which would become the blueprint for the national charity Refuge. Pizzey later became the subject of death threats after saying women were as equally as capable of violence as men, but it was her uncompromising attitude which helped bring domestic violence out of the shadows.
1975: Maternity rights
Pre-1975 it was not only legal to sack women who became pregnant, but many companies regarded it as an untouchable right. The policy meant that once women decided to have a family, many never returned to the workplace.
However, the 1970s were a period of enormous change. The decade began with the very first Women’s Liberation match in London and while the 4,000 who took part were dismissed by opponents as ‘man haters’, the message was clear - women and men must be treated the same in the eyes of the law.
1979: Margaret Thatcher
While the greengrocer’s daughter from Grantham would later be accused of failing to champion women’s causes, her election as Britain’s first female Prime Minister remains an important landmark. Having smashed through Westminster’s glass ceiling, the self-styled Iron Lady went on to dominate British politics for the best part of two decades.
The same year she walked into Number 10, the Feminist Review was founded. It was a movement that Thatcher famously had little time for and it soon became clear her priorities lay elsewhere and her’s was an era of privatisation, trade union reform and reduced social expenditure. As PM she made as many enemies as friends, but by the time she made her tearful resignation in 1990 she had also changed Britain forever.
1981: Greenham common
While the butt of numerous jokes, the peace camp set up to protest against nuclear weapons being sited at an RAF site in Berkshire, was one of the most visible displays of women against the establishment ever seen in the UK. Begun by the Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, the first blockade of the base occurred in May 1982. The following April when 70,000 protesters formed a 14 mile human chain from the base to a nearby ordnance factory, it sparked the creation of similar camps across Europe.
The last missiles left the base in 1991, but the camp remained in place until 2000 as protesters fought to house a memorial on the site
1997: Blair’s Babes
The collective noun for a group of female Labour MPs in the late 1990s might suggest that women’s rights were still stuck in the dark ages. Perhaps, but as Tony Blair swept into Number 10, he brought with him 101 female MPs, compared to just 37 who had represented the party five years earlier. Photographed in Downing Street, flanking the country’s new leader, the image was one of the most iconic of the entire election.
Ten years later, a number of the intake said the experience had left them disillusioned with politics, but together they did for a while help puncture the often schoolboy atmosphere of Westminster.
2014: Women on the frontline
The jury is still out, but at the end of last year a government-commissioned report on the ban on women serving in close combat roles called for more research to assess the physical demands involved. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon seemed to signal he was open to change when he said armed forces roles “should be determined by ability and not gender”. Currently not permitted to serve in the infantry or armoured corps, he added he hoped to “open up combat roles to women” in 2016.