On 7 October 1946, one year after the Second World War ended and just under four years before my birth, a radio programme was launched. Woman’s Hour reaches its 70th birthday this week and the programme has followed the trajectory of the fastest and most profound cultural revolution in history. I call it “the genderquake”.
When Woman’s Hour was commissioned in 1946 by Norman Collins, its brief was to provide companionship and advice to the millions of housewives who had been forced back to the kitchen as men returned from the front to take over the jobs women had performed so ably when their country needed them.
I like to think we now have a generation of young men who understand that housework and childcare can no longer be defined as women’s work only. They also know that their wives are just as likely as them to be lawyers, doctors, engineers or vets. But the genderquake began in the 1940s.
Postwar women were not as keen to embrace the domestic world as wholeheartedly as those in power had assumed. They had known the freedom that financial independence could provide, and so the programme’s editors were soon reflecting the changing gender landscape with pieces on “My Job” and heated discussions about the equal pay talks.
By the 1970s, important feminist thinkers such as Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem were explaining their philosophy of equality, the Women’s Liberation movement made demands for universal childcare and freedom from intimidation, coercion and violence and new laws came into force to regulate sex discrimination, equal pay and eventually, thanks to Europe, equal pay for work of equal value.
The building societies that refused me a mortgage in 1974 without the signature of a father or husband were now breaking the law. It has been an extraordinarily speedy revolution, but I’m not yet convinced that it’s time to unwoman the barricades of the gender war.
Equal pay is still an issue. Yes, young women do OK as they enter the workplace, but hit the buffers when children come along. Trustworthy, affordable childcare is essential to free both parents to choose to work or to care, regardless of gender.
Domestic violence is still a huge problem with two women being killed in the UK by a current or former partner every week, although, thanks to campaigning charities and the media, including programmes such as Woman’s Hour and, latterly, The Archers, it has become part of the national conversation, as has the sexual abuse of minors.
It’s important we don’t become complacent. Rights, once won, are not set in stone and can be reversed. Look at Iran, Iraq, Afganistan, Turkey and other places in the world for the evidence. But what is exciting and encouraging is the rise of women in politics.
All the major political parties in the UK (apart from Labour and the Lib Dems) have a woman in charge and by November the most powerful countries in the West may well be led by a woman – Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton.
I don’t know whether a world led by women will be a better one than a world that has been dominated by men, but it ain’t half time we were given the chance.
Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey present the 70th anniversary edition of Woman’s Hour today at 10am on Radio 4
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