Feminist nostalgia

I’ve recently read a couple of articles by feminist columnists (Erica Jong and Polly Toynbee) inspired by the recent discussions of 1968, complaining about how their hopes for feminism had been dashed and how much better things were back then. Erica Jong, who focuses largely on the US, may be right to see a considerable backlash, but I find Toynbee’s attitude strange. The second-wave feminist movement may not have lived up to its own utopian hopes, but ironically, Toynbee is doing it a serious disservice. Britain has changed massively in the last forty years and most of the changes have been positive for women. In 1968 the Abortion Act had only just become law and the Sex Discrimination Act was seven years away. As for civil partnerships or rights for transsexuals or the criminalisation of marital rape or a female Prime Minister or Home Secretary, that would have seemed ridiculous. To give a bit of proportion, here are some statistics (unfortunately, as usual it’s hard to get consistent runs of exactly the same statistics):

British Social Attitudes database
Who should mainly look after children when they are sick?
Mainly woman: 50% (1984), 37% (1991)
Shared equally: 47% (1984), 60% (1991)

Who should make the evening meal?
Mainly woman: 58% (1984), 39% (1991)
Shared equally: 38% (1984), 57% ( 1991)

Should an abortion be allowed where a couple agree they do not wish to have the child?
Yes: 46% (1983), 64% (2004)
No: 45 % (1983), 25% (2004)

Is pre-marital sex wrong?
Always wrong: 16% (1983), 6% (2005)
Not at all wrong: 42% (1983), 63% (2005)

Support for sex-discrimination law
Support: 76% (1983), 82% (1994)
Oppose 22% (1983), 16% (1994)

Office for National Statistics

Further education
Percentage of men: 58% (1970/71), 43% (1997/98)

Higher education
Percentage of men: 67% (1970/71), 47% (1997/98)

UK Parliament website
Percentage of women MPs: 4% (1970), 20% (2005)

Women and Equality Unit
Mean gender pay gap: 21% (1998), 17% (2005)

Now some of these statistics may suggest slow progress, and feminism in Britain hasn’t advanced as far as many people have hoped, but there has never been a serious backlash, and there is still forward movement. And speaking as someone who was 3 in 1968 and who now has a 5-year old daughter, I’m glad for her sake she was born now and not then. Despite all the pink, her prospects are better.


3 thoughts on “Feminist nostalgia

  1. Re Jong:

    (1) In 1968 she was young and optimistic. Of course things were better then, aside from the murders of MLK and RFK and the police riot at the Chicago convention. Flukes, yes? And really, truly, the music was great.

    (2) Look at the USA now.


    • It is quite funny watching the debate round the US Democratic nomination to see how many of the Baby Boomers (including the second-wave feminists) have now definitively turned into their parents. All this stuff on how the young upstart contender must wait his turn, and why is there no respect for age and experience anymore? Exactly the attitude they were rebelling against in 1968.


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