My husband can’t see the need. He rightly makes the point that there are differences between men and women that will always define certain roles – men are stronger and more gung ho, and women are more cautious and have more patience (sometimes) – but he also believes that ‘the best person for the job’ should do the job, no matter what their race, religion, or sexual orientation. Simple.
He views the subject in these simple terms and can’t see why women make such a big thing out of equality. Now, I don’t consider myself a feminist – I believe that both men and women have their strengths and weaknesses and that we are two sides of the same coin, complementing one another. I also think that the most important job in the world, the raising of our children into decent, morally upright, and socially responsible adults is being put at risk by the pressures women now face in maintaining this equality that women’s libbers fought so hard to bring about – but having researched women in an historical context, I do have a basic understanding of where the Suffragettes were coming from and what they achieved.
Now, I love men – well, I love my men, and their attitudes to women are great. I’m definitely not a man-hater. For me, women’s equality is about equality of choice. The choice not to have a child a year, something my great-grandmothers had no say in. The choice of a career, and even in my youth that was very limited for a woman – shop work, secretarial, or banking. (The Forestry Commission threw up their hands in horror when I applied for a job in 1966. ‘We don’t employ women’ was their answer. Had they forgotten the lumber-jills of World War Two?) The choice to have control over property, something women were not supposed to ‘worry their pretty little heads’ over. Did you know that a couple of centuries ago men actually believed that a woman’s head would explode if she thought too much? (Mine’s exploding right now!) The choice to vote. The choice to think for myself and hold an opinion. The choice to write – George Elliot was a woman called Mary Anne Evans who had to use a male pen name in the mid 1800s in order to be published. I count myself very fortunate that I have these choices and these freedoms, and I hope my writing helps bring a deeper understanding of the history of women in society.
What ‘he who frequents his shed’ doesn’t understand is the historical morass of exploitation and inequality from whence the women’s liberation movement arose and why their achievements deserve recognition. As a writer of historical fiction, research into the lives of women in the 19th and early 20th centuries opened my eyes to the depth of the inequalities that existed, some shocking, and many still a way of life for women until shockingly recently.
In my own job, working for the NatWest Bank in the late nineteen-sixties – or the Westminster as it was then – I earnt a little over half the amount my male counterparts did for doing the same job, which irked me, and promotion prospects were poorer for a woman, which I understood. After all, what employer wants to invest time, education, and money into someone who might get pregnant and leave to have a family? Although attitudes have changed since the sixties, pregnancy and family duties are understandably still a major factor in the unequal treatment of women in the workplace.
Pay is one obvious area where women have campaigned for equality, and the equal pay act came into force in 2010 – that’s almost fifty years since I was feeling undervalued and overworked – fifty years of my life where employers have exploited women as second-class citizens www.equalpayportal.co.uk/the-law/ but there are other less well known areas where women have been the ‘underdog’ – a term I discovered meant the bottom sawyer in a saw pit – and as such, the submissive sex. How many people realise, for example, that the consent a woman gave upon marriage meant a man could legally rape his wife until a landmark judgement in 1991, and that it is still legal in some countries.
‘It found that it is legal in Ghana, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Lesotho, Nigeria, Oman, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Tanzania. In four of these countries, “it is permitted even when the victim is a child”, Revelist reports.’
One attitude that always seemed a contradiction in my youth was that boys were expected to ‘sow their wild oats’, but the girls who let them were considered sluts. Pick the bones out of that one if you can.
Go back further, and it was 1937 before women were able to petition for divorce on the same terms as men thanks to the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937
On September 12th 1922, the Episcopal Church voted to removed the word ‘obey’ from the bride’s marriage vow, which was remarkably enlightened for the time.
Go back further still, to before 1882, and a woman owned nothing once she married. Everything she brought to a marriage belonged to her new husband, and she had no rights even over her own children, a travesty woven into my series For Their Country’s Good.
And divorce law was so weighted in the favour of men ‘a law made by men for men’ that few women even considered it an option.
I quote a relevant passage from the above site concerning one Mrs Caroline Norton, who campaigned for a change in the law after she left her husband :
‘Despite being cleared of impropriety, Caroline remained hostage to the misogyny of the Victorian legal system. Unable to obtain a divorce, her husband continued to deny her financial support and access to their children.
As a result, she turned to legal campaigning, and her case became a cause célèbre. Three acts of Parliament emerged from the affair – the Custody of Infants Act, The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 and the Married Women’s Property Act 1870.
The Custody of Infants Act removed the assumption that a child would remain with the father. It allowed a woman to petition for custody of her children up to the age of 7 and for access in respect of older children.
The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 put divorce into the civil courts for the first time, widening the availability for a divorce to the middle-classes. The act, however, remained deliberately gender discriminatory. A husband could seek a divorce on the grounds that his wife had committed adultery, whereas for a wife to petition it had to be paired with incest, bigamy, desertion or another offence. Additionally, a husband was required to name the person with whom his wife had committed adultery, whilst a wife did not.
Within 12 months of the act, the divorce rate rose from 3 per year to over 300. Perhaps surprisingly, petitions made by women had a greater rate of success than those by men. Financial provision, however, was far less favourable. The vast majority of wives were awarded no property or further financial support – a factor which led to many wives abandoning their applications after issuing petitions.’
I believe also, that a wife had to prove she was of sound mind before she could petition for divorce as recently as the early twentieth century. I find the arrogance of the men of those times astonishing, but this was the mindset that women had to overcome.
When researching On Different Shores (Book One of For Their Country’s Good) which is set in 1840s England and Australia, I discovered a man could legally beat, imprison, and rape his wife, he could have mistresses that she had no right to complain about – in fact he was expected to have a number and was congratulated upon having them! He could throw her out on the streets, keep her from her children, and offer her no support. Prostitution, being destitute, would probably be her only recourse. Is it surprising women put up with abusive marriages?
Given the history of women, from the days when Stone Age man grabbed a girl by the hair and dragged her off to his cave, through daughters of the rich being used as marriage pawns to consolidate wealth and power, women not having any say over their own bodies and lives, and the fact that it was the courage of a few outspoken men and women that changed the laws to obtain the equality we enjoy today, I think we should #PaintItPurple for International Women’s Day and celebrate.
And if you need more inspiration… 100 inspirational women of the last 100 years
See more about these books here and embark on a journey you won’t soon forget. Tales of ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances: their courage, hope and, love.
All FREE on Kindle Unlimited or only £1.99/$2.99 (For Their Country’s Good Box set £3.99/$5.99)
And coming soon – Kindred and Affinity – an historical romance – for what would the world be without the love of a good man for a good woman?
Thank you for reading.