Today, the 29th of May, marks the 45th anniversary of the passage of the Equal Pay Act (1970). Heralded as a watershed moment in the fight for gender equality, the legislation ‘aimed to prevent discrimination as regards terms and conditions of employment between men and women.’ The chief principle behind the Act is that women should receive equal pay for equal work and if a woman finds out that she has been paid less than a male counterpart engaged in similar work she can take her employer to a tribunal with the hope of receiving compensation.
Since its passage the Act has been largely subsumed into the 2010 Equality Act, which amalgamated many of the various anti-discrimination laws that have been passed in the UK over the past 50 years under one act. Despite such robust legislation the fight for equal pay is far from over. The gender pay gap remains stark and is actually in some instances getting worse: last year for every £1 a man earned, a woman only earned 82p. This means that in effect women work almost two months for no pay when compared to men, which is why Equal Pay Day was commemorated on the 4th of November last year. There is still more troubling news: last year the UK fell out of the top 20 most gender equal countries in the world for the first time since the rankings began, hitting a low of 26 in the 2014 Global Gender Gap Report.
The WI has a very long and proud tradition for campaigning for equal pay and gender equity. While it is often noted that the WI passed its first resolution calling for equal pay in 1943, it was actually much earlier that the WI first expressed an avid interest in campaigning on the issue. In 1921 the WI joined the Six Point Group, a body campaigning on a whole host of gender equality issues, from equal pay, to equal guardianship of children, and protecting the rights of widowed mothers and abused children. The Group also petitioned the League of Nations to pass an Equal Rights Treaty.
Extract of a letter from the Six Point Group outlining their demands (The National Archives)
Additionally, it was also in the 1920s that the WI began its push for better pay for female agricultural workers and achieved a major victory when in 1929 as a direct result of the NFWI’s deputation, the Minister of Agriculture decided to fix overtime wages for women workers. However, it wasn’t until the Second World War that the WI took a national leading role in campaigns for equitable pay and compensation across many sectors. Home and Country reported in the early 1940s that many WIs across the nation had begun debating the issue of equal compensation for men and women injured in air raids. Home and Country reported that many WI members ‘know from personal experience that bombs do not discriminate between men and women, but by all people who believe in justice’ and they didn’t think it was fair that injured women received less compensation than men.
In 1943 a resolution calling for equal pay for equal work was submitted for debate at the WI AGM. In arguing for the resolution a WI member noted that achieving the vote was only the first step in the long march to equality:
‘During the past 25 years many sex injustices have been swept away, but many still remain. There is still inequality of pay in posts open to both sexes; women are not allowed to retain their nationality on marriage, peeresses in their own right may not sit in the House of Lords…These are some of the reforms for which those who believe in the right of the individual to equality are now working.’
When the equal pay resolution was passed, the WI wasted little time getting to work on it. The WI joined the Equal Pay Campaign Committee, which presented the resolution to the various government ministries. The following year there was an immediate result as the Ministry of Agriculture agreed to equal pay for agricultural workers. Subsequently, in 1944 the Prime Minister set up a Royal Commission on Equal Pay for Equal Work.
Reflecting on the progress of the resolution so far, the WI committed to further campaigning, writing ‘WIs, having ranged themselves on the side demanding equal pay, have a large part to play as protagonists.’ The WI soon after began campaigning for equal pay for teachers and civil servants, despite running up against pretty entrenched opposition from the Government. In 1955 the campaign won two major victories when equal pay for both of those groups was realised.
After the Equal Pay Act was finally passed in 1970 the WI didn’t let up campaigning on the issue. The WI worked hard over the next decade to make sure the Act had teeth, was implemented in a timely manner, and that the public knew about it. As the editor of Home and Country wrote: ‘This passing of the Act is only the beginning. It is only our attitude to things that is going to put flesh and blood on it.’
For instance, the WI knew that the legislation meant nothing without rigorous enforcement, which is why they supported and celebrated attempts by some members of Parliament to pass an Anti-Discrimination Bill in 1972 that supported the principles of the Act and would make it illegal for an employer to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of sex. The WI joined together with other women’s groups to present a united front, but it was WI involvement that leant much credence to the Bill, with the record in Hansard noting ‘The Women’s Institutes…came out very firmly in favour of the principles enshrined in the Bill.’
The WI so strongly believed that the fight wasn’t finished that in 1975, the same year the Equal Pay Act was finally implemented, they passed another resolution pledging to continue the fight ‘for the principle of equality of opportunities and legal status for men and women.’ Following this resolution the WI lent its support to Factory Act Legislation, which offered safety, health, and welfare protections for women working in factories, but the WI also sought to extend that protection to all workers, female or male! The WI also campaigned for the right of women to work in mines, drive construction plant trucks, and work on the docks.
Pictured below is Susan Brown in 1979, the first woman trained by the Construction Industry Training Bord as a plant operator. When asked about her new job Susan said: ‘I have always wanted to drive heavy machines. Their power fascinates me and I enjoy controlling it.’
All throughout the 80s and 90s the WI kept on the pressure when it came to issues of gender equality. To only highlight a few instances, in 1983 the WI argued that women should be able to transmit citizenship on equal terms with men to their children abroad and in 1986 they pushed the Government to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The 80 years of advocacy for gender equity was crystallized in its 1999 resolution, stating:
This meeting deplores the fact that women’s human rights continue to be violated worldwide and calls upon the governments of the world to adhere to the commitments made at the Fourth UN Convention on Women in 1995, ‘that women’s rights are an inalienable, integral, and indivisible part of universal human rights’ and to implement policies to this end.