Women’s liberation at 50

A celebration held on February 29 2020
at Ruskin College, Oxford

This event has been widely reported – Google ‘Women’s Liberation at 50’ for references.

My own contribution was short and unscheduled; but it came from my heart.


By Zoë Fairbairns

I wasn’t at the first UK Women’s Liberation Movement conference at Ruskin College in 1970.

But I want to pay tribute to those women who were, and who made it happen, at a time when UK patriarchy was still red in tooth and claw.

Married men had a legal right to rape their wives. There were no domestic violence refuges or rape crisis centres. Many employers openly advertised job vacancies as being for men only. Sometimes, even if a job was open to women, the ad would specify that she must be ‘attractive’.

If a woman found that she was being paid less than a man doing the same job for the same employer, she had no legal redress.

Maternity leave was not a legal right. Neither was state-funded childcare.

Women seeking a mortgage or other credit were often required to provide a male guarantor.

Most married women were not allowed to fill in their own income tax returns: they had to give their financial information to their husband, who would fill in the form on the couple’s behalf. He, by contrast, was not required to reveal his financial information to his wife.

Many social security benefits for couples and families were only payable to the ‘head of household’, i.e. the husband.

Contraception was not available on the NHS. In some areas, help was available from clinics run by charities or local authorities, but some of these would only help women who were married or engaged.

I could go on, but those of you who are old enough will remember life before Women’s Liberation, and those of you who don’t remember will probably have heard. All of the above examples of institutional sexism (and many others) have now been abolished or at least reformed.

This is due, in large part, to the energy, commitment and activism of (among others) those who organised, attended or were inspired by the legacy of the 1970 conference at Ruskin College.

To them I say a big thank you.

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