the trouble with working women
On 22 April 2010 I'll be leading a lunchtime session The trouble with working women for Birmingham Future. The following timeline helped me think about the kinds of matters that might be relevant to them — especially as their original brief seemed to suggest that women's rights are a done deal.
1878: London University becomes the first UK university to admit women on the same terms as men. My grandmother is born; she is to have 9 pregnancies, 6 live births, 5 of whom survive infancy. She won't be allowed to vote until she is 40 years old.
1903: My grandmother’s firstborn, my godmother, is born. She is to graduate in 1924 from Sheffield University and become a grammar school teacher, a post she has to resign on her marriage in 1932, three years after she's allowed to vote for the first time.
1945: The Second World War ends, during which my parents have married, my mother allowed to continue work as a midwife, later as a health visitor. She stops on the birth of my brother in 1946, never to be employed again. We baby-boomers are the first generation to know neither war nor hunger, and to benefit from secondary education — but only 4% of us go to university, far more boys than girls owing to admission policies.
1948: Women students at Cambridge are officially allowed to graduate. Simone du Beavoir’s La Deuxieme Sexe is written during my gestation. I am born in December, followed 65 minutes later by my twin brother, a breech birth (80% of female opposite sex twins are born first).
1961: The Bay of Pigs. En route to games, we’re tense, excited, edgily speculating if we’ll return for tea.
1966: I pass my driving test. Meeting only ~50-100 cars, I drive up the new M6 from near Manchester to the Lakes to visit my godmother. Fashionable and nippy, my father’s Mini does 0-60 mph in 27.1 seconds.
1971: I start a career as a secondary school teacher. Women staff can’t wear trousers, a rule changed in the late ’70s after protests by fathers of Indian girls. As with all women in England and Wales, I’m not allowed credit of any kind including hire purchase, mortgage, gas or electricity accounts. I taste a fresh peach for the first time.
1972: As a married woman, I rudely learn I’m not allowed to make a tax return or receive communication from HMIT, and tax rebates and sick pay are paid to my husband. My father writes to me as Mrs Robert Cooper.
1975: The Sex Discrimination Act is passed. I walk, unchallenged but to many a comment, into the G.O. (Gentlemen’s Only) bar at the Station Inn in Hagley. her Majesty's Inspector of Taxes writes to me to inform me that s/he can now do so. By the end of the decade, the marking of standardised reading, maths and IQ tests biased in favour of boys, is successfully challenged. Only in 1979 is there universal suffrage across the EU. My father still writes to me as Mrs Robert Cooper.
1980: My son is born. Compulsory maternity leave is on full pay from 29 weeks until 6 weeks after giving birth. I have further generously paid maternity leave, returning to part-time work when he’s 10 months old.
1982: My daughter is born. Lousy maternity pay and no job security. Aargh, I’m a dependent! When she’s a year old, I begin freelance training contracts with British Steel and Inco as well as continuing to mark exam papers.
1984: My son starts infant school, my daughter part-time at Aston University Nursery, myself working part-time while on a “full-time” one year MSc. I’m then headhunted by a training consultancy company at Aston Science Park.
1989: I become a director and shareholder through an MBO. We take over two other companies. I leave in 1993 for more interesting consulting work as co-owner of a small information design and communications company.
1994: I move from the Jewellery Quarter to a home-office to be there through the kids’ teenage years. Two years after separation, the divorce settlement doesn’t take into account my ex’s final-salary, index-linked pension, unlike in Scotland. Child maintenance is only partially paid, despite occasional Child Support Agency “demands”.
1998-2005: The kids go through university, both graduating unencumbered by debt through my consulting work, a Warwick fellowship and employment with the Bios Group. I also begin to put money into a pension pot.
2007-8: After illness, I work as interim Secretary to the modern-day Lunar Society, putting in a new website with back office IT systems, sourcing the programme and expanding membership. At the end of the year, my twin and I collect our bus passes; I am entitled to a State pension but he is not.
2009: My daughter’s daughter is born in Paris; I often visit. I embark on the Optimism Project recruiting 80 local scientists and a delivery team all on a shoe-string. I take an OU maths course, dance twice a week, join a choir and take to regularly exercising a friend's guide-dog.
2010: Figures report 51% of young women (40% men) entered HE in 2008-09. The Optimism Project morphs into a multimedia publishing venture with The New Optimists: Scientists view tomorrow’s world & what it means to us to be launched at the British Science Festival. I begin to work for the next publication. I take and pass a Construction Skills Operatives Health and Safety Test; the certificate is in the name of Mr Catherine Cooper.
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note: For an excellent history of women's struggle to be educated in England and Wales (Scotland has always had a slightly more enlightened position on the rights of women), do read Bluestockings by Jane Robinson, reviewed here.