7 Women’s rights you take for granted

by | Sep 27, 2016

Changes to women's rights you probably don't know about

Women's rights

Simone Manuel at Rio 2016

As a British millennial woman, I can find myself repeatedly shocked when I read about women's rights in the most basic sense are denied in other countries. The rights to vote, divorce and even drive are still withheld from women in certain places.  It all seems so alien to me.  But how women’s rights have changed over the years has resonated more loudly recently. The film Suffragette opened my eyes to how women could lose their rights and access to their own children, something that had never occurred to me. Simone Manuel’s gold medal in swimming at the Rio Olympics highlighted how segregation laws have changed and shaped the world in only the last 50 years.

It made me pause and think of the many women's rights I’ve taken for granted.

Here are 7 changes to women's rights in the past 50 years

This will also apply to other countries but I am going to cite the U.K.

 # 1 Own property, have a separate income from their husbands, sue or be sued.

Boundaries in business

Can you imagine not having the right to your own home?

Until the Married Women’s Property act in 1964, in the eyes of the law, a women was merely and extension of her husband or father. Anything she owned before marriage automatically became her husbands and anything she gained during wasn’t hers. Husbands would often give their wives an allowance, even if all their money really belonged to their wife.

This act protected women's rights and allowed them to be seen as separate legal entities from their husband and therefore own and retain half of their property in case of divorce. It also allowed them to make wills and pursue legal action without their husband's permission, which really helped out daughters.  Typically all inheritance with any real value (such as land) automatically went to the male heirs with the eldest son taking priority in a practise known as primogeniture.

Read: Divorce: Fighting for the marital home? 5 things to consider  

#2 Applying for credit

You could only have credit if a man said you could

You could only have credit if a man said you could

Women still couldn’t apply or a loan or credit in their own name (without a male guarantor) until 1980 and it wasn’t until 1990 that they were taxed as a separate person from their husbands.

This obviously restricted women financially and also prevented them from opening independent businesses. It also made it almost impossible for women to purchase a home if they had to leave their husbands or were not married.

To obtain a mortgage they needed their father's signature.

#3 Have an abortion unless your life was at risk

You had no right to your own reproductive choices

You had no right to your own reproductive choices

In 1967 Labour MP David Steel sponsored an Abortion Law Reform Bill which then became the Abortion Act. Until then a women could only access a legal abortion if her life was at risk if she continued with the pregnancy (and this, along with mental collapse of the mother, is still the law in Northern Ireland).

Although doctors could interpret the law with some flexibility (like in the case of Dr. Alex Bourne in 1938, who performed the procedure on a 14-year-old rape victim even though her life was not at risk). This act made safe medical abortions obtainable up to 24 weeks gestation. This was also the first year that all women could access the contraceptive pill irrelevant of marital status.


#4 Fight discrimination on grounds of gender

do more for gender balance

You could be sacked just for being a woman

In the work place, educational settings and in training, it was perfectly legal to discriminate against women on grounds of their gender or marital status until 1975. This is when the Sex Discrimination Act was born, allowing all to bring grievances if they’d been treated unfairly simply because of their gender. In 1999 this was amended to include Trans* people.

1975 was also thee year that statutory maternity provisions were introduced and it was made illegal to sack a women for being pregnant. The following year the Equal Opportunities Commission came into effect to oversee these new laws and the Race Relations Act also made discrimination on the grounds of race and education illegal too.

# 5 Go to any pub anytime you wanted

Pubs really were a lads club

Pubs really were a lads club

You would have thought that women could go and have a drink and spend time with their friends wherever  and whenever they wanted. Wrong. Incredible though it may seem, believe or not until 1982 pubs and bars in the UK could refuse service to women just because they wanted to. And because you were a woman.

The Court of Appeals then decided this was against the new Sex Discrimination Act, and made it illegal.

# 6 Demand Equal Pay

The wage gaps persists

There have been many strikes and demonstrations from women from different sectors in the fight for equal pay. The most famous strike was the women of the Ford car factory in Dagenham in 1968. After finding out they were classed as a lower category of skilled labourers then the men in the factory, therefore receiving 15% less pay, the car seat machinists walked out bringing production to a halt.

Their action and subsequent victories in court had a direct impact on the bringing in of the Equal Pay Act of 1970. They returned to work for an increase to 92% of the male rate, rising to the full category B rate the following year.

It wasn’t until and amendment in 1985 that companies had to pay men and women equal pay for equal work.

This is one area where we have actually seen a regression.

Read: Equal Education = Equal Pay? The Gender Wage Gap

# 7 Claim violence as a human rights infringement or prosecute for marital rape

Violence against women was a 'private matter of discipline'

Violence against women was a 'private matter of discipline'

Shockingly it wasn’t until 1993 that the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women classed violence against women as a violation of their human rights. This was the first international recognition that all women have the right to a life free of violence.

It took violence against women from being a private, domestic affair to being an issue of national concern. Off the back of this in 1994 marital rape was outlawed in the UK for the first time (although the first conviction wasn’t until 1997).

Before that time marriage was seen as a form of irrevocable and ongoing consent by a woman to have sex with her husband whenever it was expected. Most definitions of rape before then had contained some clause that showed a victim of rape could not be the accused wife, for example in Bosnia and Herzegovina the law read: "Whoever coerces a female not his wife into sexual intercourse by force’.

There were laws in place to punish rape of other women, but this was to do with possession rather than for the protection of women. If you raped another mans wife, you had defiled his property. If you raped an unmarried woman then you had stolen from her father as you had made her less desirable as a bride to a future suitor. Only in 1994 was a women’s right to protection from rape for the sake of her own personhood fully realised.

Read: Misogyny as a hate crime, effective or just words?

We've still got work to do

These women's rights took time to be implemented and  obeyed by all. Even now women of colour, disabled women and trans* women  still face disproportionate discrimination in many ways. These are all rights I have always taken for granted and what our mothers and grandmothers campaigned for.
Although our fight for complete equality is not over yet, seeing how much changed in 50 years gives me hope that so much more will change for women’s rights in the next 50,  not just here but all over the world.

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Esther Myers Contributor
Esther Myers is a Drama graduate who teaches children with disabilities and is heavily involved in women’s rights movements. She lives in London but often travels back to Yorkshire to see family and friends. She enjoys going to the theatre, being involved in feminist forums and Motown music. She works in a pub part time and wants to write about work and online issues facing modern women, as well as about intersectional issues.

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