ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, January 1978


Nina Gosling

Sexism and the Law


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 104, January 1978, p. 26.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Women’s Rights: A Practical Guide
by Anna Coote and Tess Gill
Penguin £1.25 (New edition)

Anna Coote (journalist) and Tess Gill (GMWU Legal Officer), members of the National Council for Civil Liberties executive, have produced this excellent guide through the labyrinth of legislation affecting women.

They explain what each piece of law gives on paper; what can be expected in light of tribunal and judges’ interpretations (always a great deal less); how to get legal aid, social security, grants; the roles and workings of civil courts, county courts, magistrates courts, and the many tribunals.

There are useful sections on tax, pensions, maintenance and all the elaborate schemes and laws relating to money.

The appendices on Scotland and Northern Ireland make this second edition a useful reference work for all shop stewards, community workers, advice organisations and activists concerned with women’s rights.

But where the writers have succeeded in focusing in on the legal provisions for women, they have failed again to stand back and give us a view of the entire picture of the issue of women’s rights.

The first ideas of the Women’s Liberation Movement imported from America during the early 1960s fell on fertile ground in Britain when the proportion of women in the workforce had risen dramatically to 43 per cent.

The real gains made by women embodied in the Abortion Act and Family Reform (easier divorce, more property rights etc.) came out of a period of capital expansion.

The Equal Pay Act however emerged at a time of recession and was the means by which the State was able to intervene in and extend the rationalisation process of production which had begun in the middle 1960s This was a process based on introducing grading systems onto the factory floor, dividing sections of workers against each other within the same factory; a process based upon centralising bargaining procedures away from the factory floor to the top of the national union structure.

The famous car-seat sewing-machinists’ strike at Fords Dagenham in 1968 did not start as an equal pay strike. It was a strike for more pay.

And the militancy of the women began to overflow and inspire the demoralised male Ford workers whose shop floor organisation was in disarray following the ‘rationalisation process’.

In a successful effort to prevent the women’s strike blowing up the frail industrial peace upon which the Labour Government’s ‘squeeze and freeze’ policy rested, Barbara Castle the then Minister for Employment went down to Fords and turned the women’s strike into one over equal pay.

During her visit she made it clear through the media that men would have to make economic sacrifices so that women could get equal pay, thus furthering the sexist divisions in the workforce.

A year later the Equal Pay Act was passed, and five years later was implemented – after the bosses had had all the time they needed to sack, regrade or ghettoise their women workers into the lowest-paid jobs. This is what the Equal Pay Act was all about and goes a long way to explaining why women workers today are still far from earning equal pay – currently averaging little more than 70 per cent of men’s wages.

Against this background of corporatism and capitalist crisis, the ineptitude of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the impotence of the Sex Discrimination Act takes on a greater meaning than mere male bias of judges or loopholes in the law which need closing.

Coote and Gill’s acceptance of legal rights at face value clouds the double-edged nature of government intervention, and denies the interest of the State in incorporating women’s demands into ‘paper rights’, which effectively brake the movement’s acceleration for more.

The question of women’s rights is not one of reform but of revolution. It is not a question of tinkering with legal processes but of building a movement of hundreds of thousands of working class women who seek to gain control of their lives.

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 24 March 2015