The 1960s and 1970s – those eras of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were also eras of wars, racism, starvation, massacres, atomic bombs, nuclear threats, assassinations, the Cold War and rampant sexism.
You only have to watch some hideous films of the ’60s and ’70s or listen to song lyrics from the time to realise that while there was much talk about women’s liberation the reality was it was just that – talk.
So women’s lib movements mushroomed in much the same way they had a century before with the rise of the Suffragists and Suffragettes. That the struggle was continuing 100 years on reveals how resistant British society was to embrace radical change in its power relationship with women.
What women had discovered was if you want an injustice rectified you have to go out and fight for that cause and not to expect rights to be handed out by political bodies. Rights are grabbed screaming and kicking from those who limit access to them.
The 1960s when the taxman sent tax statements and demands and tax rebates relating to a woman’s earnings to her husband! Women were considered incapable of understanding such complex arrangements.
Women in work were horribly exploited by employers and male-dominated trade unions run by dinosaurs content to collaborate with employers to keep women’s earnings lower than men’s for equivalent work.
Along with employment rights, women sought to control their own bodies – to be able to terminate a pregnancy in particular circumstances. The alternative was horrific and sometimes lethal and in 1967 an abortion act was passed which allowed a woman to apply for an abortion if the pregnancy was a risk to her life, her physical or mental health, to her existing children, likely seriously handicap the unborn child or an arguable detrimental social impact going through with the pregnancy.
That same year the Homosexual Law Reform Act was passed allowing homosexual acts between consenting adults in private.
During the 1960s and 1970s Aberdeen was buzzing with the politicisation of the young. Groups they were involved with included Aberdeen Women’s Liberation made up of young housewives, working women and students.
Much of their discussions centred on questioning the family structure, its strict gender divisions, availability of contraception and developing awareness among girls and women of their status within society.
The group’s very limited resources produced a wee publication called Bust Up. Published here is the second edition and as well it the group printed as a pamphlet on contraception which was distributed outside factories where women worked and secondary schools in the city (which attracted an interview on BBC radio).
I shouldn’t imagine there are many copies of Bust Up or the contraception booklet left some half a century on but a copy of each have recently surfaced and you lucky people have a near unique opportunity to travel back in time catch a glimpse of Bust Up and hopefully soon, the contraception one.
In 1969 the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act guaranteed a wife a share of family assets on dissolution of her marriage, based on her contribution to the household as a housewife or wage earner.
The Divorce Reform Act allowed for divorce on the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage and a divorce was granted after five years of separation.
In 1970 the Conservative government of Edward Heath introduced the Equal Pay Act. Equal pay for equal work but what was equal work? That discussion still continues. It was to be another five years before it had to be implemented.
In 1975 Equal Pay Act implemented, in theory although we know there are still women fighting for recognition of equal pay for equivalent work with male colleagues, by Labour under Harold Wilson.
The Sex Discrimination Act was passed which demonstrates that there was no gender equality in Britain. As might be expected the Act failed to cover everything – excluding pensions and social security rights.
Maternity rights were strengthened through the Employment Protection Act.
In 1976 the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act was passed which made it possible to get a court order to remove a man from the matrimonial home, whether or not he owned or rented it. The Act did not apply to cohabiting couples.
A year on from the implementation of the Equal Pay Act and women at a factory in Middlesex were out on strike for 21 weeks before management agreed to follow the law. Clearly their employers were not the only ones to ignore legislation but the only one where women were prepared to stay out this length of time to force the hand of their management.
The fishing industry was still a major employer in Aberdeen then and many women worked processing and packing fish (where incidentally they were left to man(sic)-handle very heavy wooden boxes packed with wet fish while their higher paid male counterparts drove around in forklifts never lifting anything heavier than their weightier pay packets.
In 1977 the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act recognised battered women as homeless.
In 1978 the ‘Normal Household Duties Test’ a wheeze brought in by the Labour government under James Callaghan, to deprive disabled married women of benefits as they had to prove they could not work but also then they were incapable of doing normal housework for a whole year in order to receive those benefits.
The Scottish National Women’s Liberation Conference met in Aberdeen in 1977 and discussed lesbiansism and heterosexuality, language, the fifth demand.
The Fifth Demand was legal and financial independence for all women.
The women’s movement agreed a series of demands at their conferences in the seventies:
Demands 1 – 4 Passed at the National WLM Conference, Skegness 1971
- Equal Pay
- Equal Educational and Job Opportunities
- Free Contraception and Abortion on Demand
- Free 24-hour Nurseries
5 and 6 Passed at the National WLM Conference, Edinburgh 1974
- Legal and Financial Independence for All Women
- The Right to a Self Defined Sexuality. An End to Discrimination Against Lesbians. In 1978 at the National WLM Conference, Birmingham, the first part of this demand was split off and put as a preface to all seven demands
Demand 7 Passed at the National WLM Conference, Birmingham 1978
- Freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status; and an end to the laws, assumptions and institutions which perpetuate male dominance and aggression to women.
One young woman, a keen member of the Labour Party, attended a couple of meetings. She said she was quite interested in women’s lib and she’d only entered one beauty competition. The group was arranging to disrupt a beauty contest being held in Union Terrace Gardens, which it did beautifully, with fancy dress, saucepans and lids. The young woman from the Labour Party did not come back.