Visible Women

We can't believe these shockingly sexist laws existed in the UK

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe
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Today marks the 100 year anniversary of some women being given the right to vote. But what other sexist legislation has the UK abolished in the last century?

While it’s now hard to imagine not having the basic right to vote, the UK has an (often startling) history of outrageously sexist laws, some of which have only been abolished within our lifetimes.

For example, men were legally allowed to rape their wives until 1991, while violence against women wasn’t officially recognised as a violation of their human rights until 1993. Pubs could refuse to serve women on the basis of their gender alone until 1982, and wives have only been taxed independently from their husbands since 1990.

With such sexist laws nestled in our recent history, it is perhaps not surprising that women in the UK still have so far to go before we can really reach gender parity. Despite the huge advances for our gender in the last century, we are still grappling with issues such as the gender pay gap, maternity discrimination and outdated laws policing what we wear to work. All of this, in a country described by a UN council member as having a sexist “boys club culture”.

So, how far have we really come since some women were first granted the right to vote back in 1918? Here, charts some of the sexist laws and rulings that have been repealed over the last century, as we look forward to the next 100 years of fighting the patriarchy. 

Suffragettes march in London, 1910

1919 The Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act

This was the first piece of equal opportunities legislation to officially enter the statute book. As implied in the title, the intent was to “amend the Law with respect to disqualification on account of sex”, meaning women would no longer be “disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function”.

For the first time, women could become accountants, lawyers and vets, sit on a jury or become a magistrate.

1922 The Law of Property Act

This piece of legislation meant that husbands and wives had equal rights to inherit property from each other. Before this, women were forced to give up all rights to their property when they got married – putting their legal status on equal ranking to criminals and insane people. This was changed under the 1870 Married Women’s Property Act, followed by an extension to the law in 1882, which gave married women complete control over their own property.

Following on from the Law of Property Act in 1922, legislation finally gave women the same rights to own and dispose of property as men in 1926.

1923 The Matrimonial Causes Act

This act allowed women to petition for divorce if their husband had been unfaithful. Before the act was passed, only men were allowed to divorce a spouse due to adultery.

A further Act passed in 1937 included cruelty, desertion and incurable insanity as grounds for divorce.

1967 The Abortion Act

This landmark ruling legalised abortions in Great Britain. However, they are still illegal in Northern Ireland.

50,000 pro-life campaigners marched on Whitehall after The Abortion Act was passed

1967 The NHS (Family Planning) Act

This act was important for a number of reasons. First, it made contraception available to all women – previously, the service had only been granted for those whose health would be endangered by pregnancy.

Second, it finally made it legal for local health authorities to give birth control advice to unmarried women, rather than only those who were wed.

1970 Women can get their own mortgages

Women in the UK were generally refused mortgages right up until the Seventies, because so few of them were in continuous employment. Until then, a woman could only secure a mortgage if she had the signature of a male guarantor.

1970 Equal Pay Act

This act made it illegal to pay women less than men for the same amount of work. It also made it illegal to give women less favourable conditions of employment than men.

Some employers attempted to find a loophole in the law by rewriting women’s job descriptions so they wouldn’t have to raise their pay, or by creating new positions for which there were no male equivalents hired. Thankfully, this generally received resistance from local authorities.

1975 The Sex Discrimination Act

This was another radical change to the law, which made it illegal to discriminate against women in work, training and education. This meant that employers, landlords, schools, restaurants and finance companies legally had to treat women as equals to men for the first time. For example, job adverts could no longer specify that a company was looking for only a woman or a man for a specific role.

The Equal Opportunities Commission was also established, with the aim of driving equality forward.

Joanna Foster, former chairman of The Equal Opportunities Commission

1975 The Employment Protection Act

This law finally made it illegal to fire women for being pregnant. The legislation also established that women were entitled to take maternity leave, and that they had the right to return to their position after doing so.

However, despite this law being in place for over 40 years, the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates that over 50,000 women are (illegally) sacked every year for being pregnant.

1980 Women can apply for credit cards and loans 

Yes, it really took this long before all women were allowed to apply for a credit card or loan without first needing a man’s signature.

1982 Women can’t be refused service in pubs

Up until 1982, it was perfectly legal to refuse to serve women in British pubs, which were traditionally “male environments”.

Happily, this all changed in 1982, following the legal case of solicitor Tess Gill and journalist Anna Coote. The pair were banned from El Vino pub on Fleet Street for standing with their male colleagues at the bar, rather than sitting at the tables that women were confined to. They took their case to the Court of Appeal, where the ban was overturned in a landmark ruling – a massive win for women, who could no longer be refused service in pubs.

Following the decision, Gill, Cootes and other women headed straight to the bar at El Vino, brilliantly leading one bartender to comment, “There are more women at the bar than men - it’s chaos”. 

Tess Gill and Anna Coote celebrate their victory at El Vino pub

1986 The Sex Discrimination (Amendment) Act

This was an important extension to the earlier Act in 1975. It permitted women to retire at the same age as men, and made it legal for them to work factory night shifts.

1990 Independent taxation introduced

Amazingly, women were not taxed independently from their husbands until 1990. This finally marked their income as their own, rather than as an addition to their husband’s earnings.

1991 Rape within marriage becomes a crime

Before this date, it was legal for a man to rape his wife because he had “conjugal rights”. It took another decade after this ruling for the word “consent” to finally be given a legal definition, under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act.

1993 Violence against women recognised as a violation

It wasn’t until the early Nineties that violence against women was finally established as a violation of their human rights, under the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women.

2018 Gender pay gap addressed?

Under a “trailblazing” new government initiative, all companies employing more than 250 staff must publically declare the salaries – and pay gaps – of the men and women in the company. They have until 4 April to do so.

Stylist is celebrating the 100th anniversary of some women getting the vote. See more of our commemorative content here

Images: Rex Features