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Don’t turn back time: women and the cuts – 19 November 2011

This is an edited version of a talk given by Catherine Pope, Southampton UCU Equalities Rep to the Southampton Feminist Society and Socialist Society event for the Fawcett Campaign to ask the government ‘Don’t turn back time on women’s equality’ on 19th November.

I am a Feminist. I am also a Mother (to three boys aged between 9 and 20). I am a Professor at the University of Southampton – so I am variously a scientist /academic / educator / researcher. If you want specifics, I am a sociologist who studies health care organisations and teaches health professionals and a Web Scientist studying the world wide web and co-directing a major doctoral training programme here at the University.
I am also a Trade Unionist. I have been member of UCU (University and College Union) since its creation and before that of the Association of University Teachers – its predecessor – since the late 1980s. I am currently the Equalities Officer for the local branch and region. I am an activist. I haven’t always been one but I find, contrary to the usual political trajectory, which has people tending to get more conservative with increasing age, I am becoming more radical as I get older. (I am 45 now so goodness only knows what I’ll be like when I’m 80 if I go on like this). I have become more radical and I have been radicalised. In my 20s my activism was focussed on the peace movement – marching with CND, and of course, as a student in London the 1980s, defending free education and fighting for the Greater London Council. Over recent months I have become closely involved with the anti-cuts movement – notably UK Uncut. In fact this week I have been supporting some inspirational people involved in the UK uncut non-violent action in Fortnum and Mason’s earlier this year. I am, and continue to be, passionate about defending education – particularly post-16 education: that is higher education in Universities like this one and further education for 16-19 year olds in our colleges, and other forgotten areas such as adult education, prison education.
Of all the labels I might use for myself, Feminist is the most important. Without it I would not be here. I do not think I could have achieved any of the other things without Feminism and importantly I could not have done it without Feminists. (and I must be clear that I do not only mean women, though many women have been important to me on this journey. I include here the numerous men who have supported and inspired me.)
The Fawcett Society has a vision “of a society where women and our rights and freedoms are equally valued and respected and where we have equal power and influence in shaping our own lives and our wider world.”

So I’d like to talk briefly about three ‘equal’ rights. Firstly, as we are in here in the University, I thought I would talk about the right to education. I have had a life changing educational experiences, notably at Lewisham College and North East London Polytechnic (now University of East London) where I first studied sociology and learned to think differently about the world. I learned to question why things are the way they are. I learned to see gender and roles as socially constructed rather than given, to see that inequality is often manmade. Had I been born 100 years earlier I would not have had the chance to access education. I was the first in my family to study for a degree. In 1878 the first London university admitted women to its degrees, and even for a long time after that women were still expected to be wives and mothers, not doctors or geographers or lawyers. Women’s access to education was not given to them. It was won in a long political struggle. A political struggle which some of our sisters across the world have not won. According to a United Nations report women in two out of three countries in the world have unequal access to primary and secondary education. For every 100 boys not attending school, there are still 117 girls in the same situation.
I had a free education. I did not have to pay the kinds of fees currently expected from students and I did not leave higher education with the kind of debt facing many of the young women who will study here in coming years. UK students starting university in 2012 are likely to graduate with debts of well over £50,000. Alan Bennett a few years ago said
I believe that all students should have the same access to education as I did. But it just doesn’t happen now because students have to pay for the university tuition their academic achievements have brought them. I don’t claim to know how higher education should be paid for; all I know is that it’s morally wrong to expect students to get into debt”
That sense – that it is morally wrong to charge for higher education – is why I along with many members of my trade union UCU joined the NUS last year for the national demonstration – Fund Our Future: Stop Education Cuts and why we in UCU continue to oppose fees.

Secondly I have grown up with the right to vote. This right was won for me by other women and men who protested and fought and sometimes lay down their lives to win suffrage. Again this right is not shared by all women across the world. And whatever I might feel about the political parties on offer I cherish my vote and use it. Each time I do it is a small repayment of the debt to those that fought for my right to participate in the political process.
The third and final right I want to talk about takes me back my sons. I mentioned earlier that I am a Mum to three boys. They are a delight and amazement to me. I think they might also be feminists like their Dad. As well as being a Mum I also have a career. My choice to have children and work is a choice which the women who came before me could not make. My dear mother in law – the first in her family to go to University, who studied at Oxford and trained as a teacher, left her teaching job when she had her first child. Her own mother had to leave work on marriage. The activists and feminists of the 1960s and 1970s fought for the right of married women and mothers to work, for affordable childcare, family friendly employment policies, and for equal pay and opportunities. It is not easy combining paid employment and parenting. But I have had that choice. That right. And I also have the choice – a personal choice – about controlling my fertility via contraception or abortion. Having children or not. Having a career. Combining the two or not as I choose. These are rights and choices which all women should have – no matter where they live.
I feel privileged that I have had the opportunities I have had. And there is certainly more equality for women in my lifetime than for those in the preceding generations. I have equal rights – to vote and to be educated. I know this gives me a lot more opportunities than many women in the developing world. If I had been asked here just to celebrate feminism and its achievements I would stop there. But I am afraid you will have to listen to me a bit longer. Because I think that the policies of the current government will turn back time on women’s equality. The cuts to public services being made now disproportionately affect women. The Fawcett Society has called the way the cuts affect women a ‘triple jeopardy’ because

1. Women will be hit hardest by job cuts in the public sector
2. Women will be hit hardest as the services and benefits they use more are cut
3. Women will be left ‘filling the gaps’ as state services are withdrawn

Let’s look at some of the ways that the cuts are hitting women.

  • Women’s unemployment is now at its highest in more than 20 years – there are 1m women unemployed.
  • 65% of public sector workers are women; almost a quarter of working women are in public sector jobs so they will be more heavily hit by the public sector pay freeze and the projected 600,000 job losses.
  • Of the nearly £8bn that the government wants to raise by 2014-15, nearly £6bn will be taken from women.
  • Cuts to legal aid of £600m per year for people facing issues relating to divorce, housing, employment, immigration, debt and welfare benefits will hit women hardest, according to the government’s own equality impact assessment.
  • Child benefit has been frozen for the next three years. As 94% of child benefit recipients are women, of the £975m saving from child benefit £913m will be taken from women.
  • The health in pregnancy grant was abolished this April. The Sure Start maternity grant will now only be paid for the first child.
  • Child tax credit changes will cut the income of many families.
  • Changes to state and public sector pensions will disproportionately affect women – who already make up 2/3 of the UK’s poorest pensioners.

Despite a raft of equality legislation women are often treated worse than their male counterparts. Nearly 40 years since the Equal Pay Act women working full time across the UK still earn on average 15.5% than men working full time. According to the 2011 National Management Salary Survey, men continue to be paid more on average than women doing the same jobs (£42,441 compared to £31,895). Despite laws to protect them 30,000 women lost their jobs in 2009 as a result of being pregnant.
This government is doing nothing to address inequality. Their policies are making it worse. The Fawcett Society suggested that we dress up for this tea party in 1950s clothes because today’s event says ‘Don’t turn back time’. Our grandmothers and mothers alive in the 1950s lived with austerity – after WWII. But they could look to the newly created NHS when they were sick and to widening access to free education. They were on a journey that would take them through the women’s liberation and equal opportunities movements that would improve their lot. We’ve come such a long way. Let’s not turn back now.

One Comment

  1. sophia efstathiou says:

    Well said!

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