Why have women still not got equality?
- Credit: Archant
With the film Suffragette out, we ask how far women have come in 100 years and what still needs to be done
There’s a lot that can provoke Eleanor Rehahn’s sense of fairness. The pastel-rich, “girly”, Lego Friends range does. Even bricks and mortar. “There’s a whole estate in Stowmarket where all the roads are named after writers and artists and musicians. There’s not a single woman! Not even a Bronte!” she says.
“A child walks, day after day, past street signs featuring men’s names. What message does that send out?”
Actually, among the Lowrys, Blakes, Brittens and Wordsworths of the Chilton estate, perhaps there is one female. Maybe.
Eliot Way probably refers to the poet TS Eliot, but it could be George Eliot, though you’d have to know that the author of Middlemarch was actually Mary Ann Evans. She chose the masculine pen-name to give her novels a better chance of being taken seriously.
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Which kind of proves the point.
Eleanor teaches A-level politics and sociology, and some history, at County Upper School, Bury St Edmunds. Away from work, she’s spokesperson and co-ordinator for the local group of The Fawcett Society – the charity striving for women’s equality and rights.
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“I’ve always been a feminist but I hadn’t been an activist. I guess I became more political through teaching politics but also by becoming a mother.” She has two sons, aged 14 and eight.
“Although I haven’t been badly treated and experienced extreme sexism, I think the pigeonholing of women in motherhood made me more politically active, and that led to me joining The Fawcett Society.
“Nothing major happened, but people started judging me more as a mother rather than a teacher, which I’d always been. You start getting assumptions made about you – that you’re the person responsible for X, Y and Z because you are the mother.”
The Bury group is a pretty young branch. It will be two years ago this coming January that Eleanor put out a notice to hold an inaugural meeting at The Bushel pub in town.
It can be an uncomfortable ride when you decide you really have to poke your head above the parapet. For instance, Eleanor spent part of the summer trying to convince Suffolk County Council to ditch the word “chairman” and replace it with gender-neutral “chair”. She didn’t manage it – and took some flak on social media from people who didn’t share her view that language is important in setting the culture of an organisation.
The upshot was something of a fudge: councillors presiding over meetings of the council, cabinet and committees can decide what they want to be called (such as chairman, chair, madam chairman and so on) but there will be no blanket ruling. “They’ve given people the option to embrace equality, but in a society you can’t have an optional equal opportunities policy. You have to enforce things like this. I do think the language that’s used in politics implies a man has the right to that power.”
It’s fitting that Fawcett has a Suffolk presence, since the society was to all intents and purposes formed by Aldeburgh-born Millicent Garrett Fawcett. It was in 1866 that the suffragist began leading a forceful mass campaign for women’s votes. “If it wasn’t for women like her, suffrage wouldn’t have taken off,” says Eleanor. “The fact she’s Suffolk-born is a really good legacy for the county. We should recognise her a lot more than we do. There’s a Fawcett Road in Aldeburgh, which I always have a little pilgrimage to when I go there.”
The battle for voting rights might have been won – though less than a century ago – but the world still has some pretty skewy ideas about womanhood, gender and what’s important in life. Look no further than a children’s top sold until recently by Next. “Happy girls are the prettiest”, trilled the slogan on the front, much to the dismay of the charity Mind, members of GirlGuiding UK and Fawcett.
Cue a storm on social media and the withdrawal of said clothing. There’s more. “We still have less than 30% of MPs who are women, and women are still paid less than men in a supposedly-democratic society,” says Eleanor. “So although we have made massive leaps in terms of girls’ education in this country – in terms of women’s rights in the workplace; in terms of maternity rights; a whole list of things – the fact The Fawcett Society still exists demonstrates we still have a massive issue.”
It always amazes me it was only in 1980 that women could apply for a loan or credit in their own name. “If you think about The Equal Pay Act, which came in 1970 and was supposed to secure equal pay for women, we’re still having a discussion in Parliament on pay in 2015! So, yes, we have made progress, but it’s not complete equality. We have to keep working at it.”
Is there also “unconscious” discrimination, fuelled by ignorance, as well as the blatant kind?
“The best examples of discrimination through naivety are things like the phrase ‘man up’, which is in common parlance and suggests that to be strong is to be a man and to be weak is a woman.
“There’s a lot of casual sexism that goes on. I personally challenge it all the time, and I’m in a position where I can.” Other things can be done to chip away at antiquated thinking. “I’ve never changed my title. I’ve always been, as an adult, Ms Rehahn, and I think that’s a really simple thing women can do to demonstrate equality. It is personal choice, and I think marriage itself can be a brilliant and equal institution, but if you choose to use terms like ‘Mrs’, and to lose your own identity through changing your name, I think that is something that demonstrates a collusion with following the male-dominated line of society as it has always been. I’m surprised more women don’t opt to be ‘Ms’ and keep their names.” (For the record, Eleanor says her husband is hugely supportive and shares her desire for equality.)
Similarly, don’t make our daughters wear tops bearing slogans like When I Grow Up I Want to be a Princess. “Give them some aspirations that are to do with their brains! Become good at something with your brain, and not because you look good.”
All right. Magic wand. Three wishes to make life better. Go!
“I know what my first one is. In this country we call mothers mothers and fathers fathers, and we assign them particular roles – particularly in terms of our taxation and our [post-baby] leave system.
“I wish we followed the Swedish model. It would shift the focus to people being parents, not ‘mothers’ or ‘fathers’. It would create complete equality after the birth of a child, whereas we have inequality here, as the mother is the only one who can take the longer time and still be paid for it. Although it has improved, the problem now is that it’s still optional [in terms of taking time off]. In Sweden it is enforced and both parents take equal amounts of leave.” It would transform attitudes in the workplace, Eleanor suggests – less chance of female staff being discriminated against – “and it would change our whole culture, where women are seen as the nurturers and the person responsible for childcare. ‘From now on, it’s parental leave and not maternity or paternity leave, and you’re going to take it equally.’
“Two: Women in Parliament. Quotas are a really difficult issue, but if we need a quick fix then I would go for quotas, because, until politics looks female, we’re not going to change the culture, the language.
“Number three. A thing that would massively help society would be better sex and relationship education, and citizenship education, to banish some of the things I’ve talked about – like sexism, and consent culture.”
Is she hopeful of change?
“I have to be hopeful. But the fact we [Fawcett] still exist and have only 29% female MPs... it’s incredibly slow.
“But I think the fact more young people are politicised is a good thing.”
Speaking of the younger generation, she laughs that her sons can’t avoid the focus on equality. “They’ve grown up being aware – because I’ve made them aware – of things being sexist; things like adverts on television.” Eleanor mentions the new Fifa 16 computer game, which includes female football teams for the first time. But she understands the game’s covers in the UK feature only men on the front. Other territories show a male and a female footballer, apparently.
“We make progress; we are a democracy; we’re not Saudi Arabia; but in some ways we’re still not prepared to put a woman on the front of an Xbox game…”
A suffragist ‘from my cradle’
Millicent Garrett was one of six sisters and four brothers
Father Newson was born in Leiston. He was the third son of Richard Garrett, the successful manufacturer of agricultural machinery. Newson went to London and married Louisa Dunnell
He managed his father-in-law’s pawnbroker’s shop in Whitechapel
Daughters Louisa and Elizabeth were born above it
Newson moved his family to Aldeburgh in 1840
The following year he bought a corn and coal business at Snape Bridge.The entrepreneur thrived, amassing interests in warehousing, shipping, gasworks and a brickworks
In 1852 Newson built a mansion for his family and then the maltings at Snape
Daughter Millicent was born in Aldeburgh in 1847
Sisters Louisa and Elizabeth moved to London, and Millicent visited as a young woman
In 1865 Louisa and husband James took Millicent to a speech by MP John Stuart Mill, arguing for the vote to go to working men and women Millicent later wrote she was a suffragist ‘from my cradle, but this meeting kindled tenfold my enthusiasm for it’.
One of Mill’s supporters was blind Liberal Party politician Henry Fawcett. He proposed to Millicent in 1866. They married in 1867
In 1868 she joined the London Suffrage Committee. Although she admired the bravery of the suffragettes, she thought militant acts would alienate otherwise-sympathetic people
Millicent argued the vote should be won by peaceful campaigns
She was president of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1907 to 1919
Millicent is celebrated as a prime mover in getting the vote in 1918 for six million British women aged over 30
An inscription added to the monument to her husband in Westminster Abbey says she ‘won citizenship for women’
Millicent died in 1929, the year after the Equal Franchise Act finally gave women the vote on the same terms as men
Sister Elizabeth became England’s first female doctor in the 1870s
Elizabeth said in 1864: ‘My strength lies in the extra amount of daring which I have as a family endowment. All Garretts have it’