The records of the National Council of Women, Birmingham Branch, held at Birmingham Archives and Collections, [MS 841B] illustrate some of the steps along the way to women achieving ‘Equality’, which is the theme of this year’s, and indeed today’s, International Women’s Day.In 1937, the question of the status of women was brought before the 18th Assembly of the League of Nations, at the request of 15 states who were members of the League. This was as a result of united activity by a number of international organisations and national bodies.
As a result, the Council of the League set up a commission of eminent jurists, women and men, to make a world survey of the status of women. The British representative was a Professor Gutteridge of Cambridge ‘and although the women’s organisations had hoped that a woman would be appointed, they welcomed the fairness, impartiality and great interest Professor Gutteridge brought to the task.’
To show their interest in this unprecedented advance, it was proposed to celebrate a ‘Status of Women Day’ in which all women’s organisations could take part on 14 May 1938, and two planning committees were set up by the N.C.W., one to organise a conference at the University College London, where Professor Gutteridge was to speak on the subject: ‘Equality can be won. Make your demand heard’; and a second committee to give assistance to set up similar events outside London.
Nothing happened quickly, of course. The minutes of 1939 include the following report about a Deputation to the Lord Privy Seal on 1 August 1939 about the ‘Rates of allowances and compensation as between men and women in the Civil Defence services’.
The Deputation included women from the National Council of Women, the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, the Association of Headmistresses, the British Federation of University Women, the National Union of Women Teachers, the Secretary of Women Housing Managers, the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries, the St. John’s Social and Political Alliance, the Women’s Freedom League, the Open Door Council, and Miss Betty Archdale, Barrister at Law.
It is always interesting to see how many different women’s organisations there are/have been and to remind ourselves that what effects change is a campaign with unity of purpose.
The Deputation was there to make the claim for equal rates of compensation and allowances for women and men, as what the government were offering was £3.00 per week for men and £2.00 for women.
Miss Archdale said that ‘Women were only too willing to offer themselves for National Service…. the unequal rates were unjustifiable and the feeling of their contribution being less valuable than men’s, and that they were inferior, was bad for the women.’
‘Miss Archdale gave the Lord Privy Seal an analogy. Suppose all men in the Home Office whose names began with letters A to L were asked to accept a lower salary, although their work was the same as men whose names began with subsequent letters M to Z. Those with A-L being paid 2/3 as much would immediately feel their work was not appreciated and not taken as seriously. The government perhaps did not realise what a shock these rates had been to women.
Sir John Anderson replied that he had had to consider the existing services, greater risks being undertaken by men (women were not invited to volunteer for the most hazardous work – demolition squad, firemen etc.). He had based his appeals to volunteers on equality of sacrifice.’
Mrs Tate, M.P. [Mavis Constance Tate (1893 –1947) Conservative M.P.] thanked the Lord Privy Seal for his explanation. She could not agree with any of it. She was sure the terms were wrong and unjust and would have to be altered. She considered that women who were asked to give up well paid work to take on National Service at £2.00 a week were making a greater sacrifice than men who were to receive £3.00 a week.’
Sir John Anderson replied that he hoped women would not give up well paid work. Women in those jobs were probably doing more important work than any work for National Service could be.
‘Mrs Tate said that nevertheless, unequal rates meant that the women gave their services at a greater sacrifice. She could not agree with Sir John and said the delegates present would continue to hope for equal treatment.’
The Deputation then retired.
The Society for Equal Ministry of men and women in the Church reported that a resolution had been sent to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York welcoming the action of the Bishop of Hong Kong in ordaining a Chinese woman (Florence Li Tim – Oi, 1907 – 1992) to the priesthood in January 1944.
In 1945 Lella Secor Florence (1887-1966), American journalist, was also giving talks on ‘Equal Pay for Equal Work’ in Birmingham. A letter from Anne White, secretary of the Nursery Nurses Guild, Birmingham, invites her to speak at their AGM on 7 January 1945 at the Brassworkers’ Hall, Lionel Street. Another letter from January 1945, from James Welch of the Joint Consultative Committee of Staff Unions, Northampton, also asks for her talk on Equal Pay.
Lella Secor Florence, a peace campaigner from Michigan, had married Philip Sargant Florence, professor of Commerce at the University of Birmingham, 1929-1955. She was also a pioneer of birth control for women, and was successful in getting Birmingham Family Planning Clinic to set up a trial of the oral contraceptive pill in the 1960s.
One collection which looks at equality in the 1970s and 1980s is that of Banner Theatre Company (MS 1611).
‘Womankind’ was the first production by Banner Theatre’s Women’s Project and was developed to mark International Women’s Year in 1975. It was a musical documentary which utilised the mumming play as a basis. Such plays had a long tradition in folk drama, with the central element being the death and resurrection of the production’s main figure. Banner deployed this technique to demonstrate the resilience of the female spirit in the face of adversity.
‘Women at Work’ c. 1979 was a show about women’s right to employment on equal terms with men, about women’s involvement in trades unions, about the struggle in every area of their lives. The production was compiled by women members of Banner Theatre who recorded women in various industries across the West Midlands.
Project files and publicity material can be seen in MS 1611/D and MS 1611/A/4.
Still campaigning; not there yet!