Four Decades On

The 70s are back in fashion and I, for one, couldn’t be happier. Forget any flower-power fancy dress notions that the 1970s bring to mind and, instead, think glamour – we’re talking a sexy, tough glamour that embraces female empowerment as much as the female form.  It’s 1970s with a touch of ’30s and ‘40s thrown in the mix: grown-up, glamorous and rather seductive.

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The 1970s have been described as a time of quiet revolution for women.  Four decades later, and the resurgence of ‘70s fashion has got me thinking about how much has really changed. Of course, without a doubt, progress has been made. There was the introduction of the birth control pill, available from the 1960s, allowing women to be in control of contraception for the first time.  In 1967 abortion was legalised in the UK, with the USA following suit in 1973 (following the landmark Roe vs. Wade case).  In 1969, divorce law underwent its greatest transformation, with the Divorce Reform Act allowing marriages to be ended without fault having to be proven and, finally, in the late 1990s-early 2000 the role of the homemaker was recognised, and remunerated, by the courts.  The 1990s brought us another long-overdue move towards gender equality, when it was finally made illegal for a man to rape his wife in the UK (I won’t get into a discussion here as to why it took this country until 1991 to recognise marital/spousal rape…).  All of these changes represent women, in the western world, gaining rights over their bodies; rights which our foremothers fought for and which have changed the way we live today.

However, if we stay with the issue of rape and take a look at rape conviction rates they tell us a lot about how far we still have to go. In the UK today, only 6.5% of reported rapes end in a conviction (and rape is a notoriously under-reported crime).  What does this mean? Do we, as a society, really believe that 93.5% of women who report a rape are lying?  Britain has the lowest conviction rate for rape in Europe and it has fallen steadily since the 1970s, when one in three reported rapes resulted in a conviction.  In the 1990s, it was one in six and today, it’s one in fifteen.  How did this happen and what does it say about how we view men and women in 2011?

The 1970s saw the gender pay gap close a little, following the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970, which prohibited the differential treatment of men and women in terms of pay and working conditions and was the first legislation of its kind in this country.  This act was a result of the Ford sewing machinists’ strike of 1968 (recently inspiring the film Made in Dagenham).  Despite the passing of over forty years, pay is still a huge issue in the battle for equality between the sexes. On average, women earn 16% less than men, with women over 40 earning 27% less. If a woman has a degree she will lose, on average, 4% of her lifetime earnings if she is also a mother; if she does not have a degree, then she faces a whopping 58% loss of earnings. There are still men out there who think this is fair; I know, having had the misfortune to meet some of them. I’ll never forget the charming young man who initiated a conversation with me about the pay gap while at an academic conference; I was a Masters student and one of a handful of women delivering a presentation.  He told me that women deserve to earn less than men because, apparently, we all insist on taking ‘a holiday’ to have babies. He himself wanted a family, but of course expected his wife, rather than himself, to make the career sacrifice. He also refused to accept that the issue was more complicated than simply being about babies.  Do you want the worst part of this little anecdote?  He told me he had just finished contributing to a research project which was assessing how to tackle the problem of the gender pay gap….  This story perfectly encapsulates why I generally find academia, compared to the world of fashion and modelling, much more misogynistic.

The problem of the pay gap is reflective of disparities between men and women at the level of business and politics.  In the UK, we have elected to office the two parties that have the least amount of female MPs.  There are 144 female MPs compared to 505 male MPs: 75 of these MPs are Labour; 49 are Conservative; 14 are Liberal Democrats, and; 6 belong to other parties (including the one Green MP, the fantastic Caroline Lucas).  Compare this to 1979 when we had a woman running the country (albeit one who failed to appoint ANY OTHER WOMEN TO HER CABINET…!).  In business, the picture is no rosier.  Women make up only 12.5% of FTSE 100 boards and the proportion has stagnated as such for the last three years.  It will come as no surprise to my fashionable friends that the company with the highest proportion of female representation is a fashion retailer (Burberry, with three out of eight board members being female).  Widening the net to FTSE 250 companies is even more depressing, with over 50% of such companies having no women at all on their boards.

So this is a call to arms, ladies!  Fashion may be cyclical but if we want feminism to keep moving us forward (or, rather, to move us forward once more) we need to fight.  Don those platform stilettos and file your nails to a sharp point – you’ll need all the tools you can muster to continue smashing and scratching your way through the old glass ceiling.

Image Credits:

Photographer Ian Austin

Stylist Ruby Henderson

MUA Sian-Louise Auld

Hair Stylist Martin Bland

Model Jessica Berry

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