The title quote of this piece in fact refers to married women in the civil service and comes from a document dated 1947 which states “To us, married women have been, to quote the Treasury – “a perfect nuisance” 1. This statement comes after the removal of the marriage bar in 1946, and illustrates the nature of women’s role in the civil service over the greater part of the 20th century, and underlines the point that despite steady, progressive legal change, pervasive sexist attitudes remained barriers. Social change was just as important as legal change, if not more so, for equality in workings women’s lives.
Since the birth of the modern civil service women’s progress had been ahead of other areas of public life. This blog post will highlight significant moments in that process, and the reality of how these changes affected women in the civil service.
The First World War
The First World War was a key moment – allowing women to prove they could work in the civil service as well as men. Women flooded into clerical roles, with the number of women in the civil service increasing from 33,000 in 1911 to 102,000 by 1921 2. These workers were largely single women, with a marriage bar preventing all but six married women from taking civil service jobs in this period 3. W. Turner Cooke, of the Central Office, 20th July 1916 illustrates the type of work he believed women were able to do, “entering, indexing and sorting the various documents taken in to be filed, and other duties of a like nature, but I should confine their use to this class of work only” 4. Indeed women were not allowed into the administrative grades until 1925.
With the fruition of the women’s suffrage movement leading to women over 30 gaining the vote, the pressures of a new female electorate allowed progressive changes in law. The 1919 Sex Disqualification Removal Act was part of this first wave of legislation; this act fundamentally argued “A person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from the exercise of any public function”. 5
The Sex Disqualification Removal Act 1919
In 1922 Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her place as an MP in 1918, asked whether the post-war replacement of women cable workers by men meant a breach of the Sex Disqualification Removal Act . Viscountess Astor argued it could not be reasoned that women were unsuitable for the job, as they had taken this role throughout the war. The response from the Postmaster General was definite – ultimately the choice to terminate a contract rested with the employer.
Therefore while this legislation showed a positive move for female civil servants, the reality was that the act was very rarely evoked and with very little success. The failure of this act is most significantly demonstrated by the continuation of the marriage bar until 1946, despite this legislation specifically stating marriage could not be used to disqualify someone from a public function.
The removal of the marriage bar
1946 therefore heralded a significant watershed moment of change for all women in the civil service, with the recognition that a woman irrespective of marriage should have the same opportunities as male employees. This progressive change followed the removal of the marriage bar in teaching and the BBC in 1944 and preceded the wider removal of the marriage bar in other areas of public life 6. This same year women were also allowed to work for the Foreign Office for the first time.
However negative attitudes towards married women workers continued: summed up in a document dated shortly after the act from 1947-51 stating “Naturally, their home comes first with them, and if their husbands or children are ill, they regard it as their duty to remain at home and look after them”. Despite the removal of the marriage bar in the civil service women themselves largely expected to leave work upon marriage.
The road to equal pay
Baroness Evelyn Sharp’s appointment to Permanent Secretary in 1955 represented a significant advance for women. Baroness Sharp had been among the first women to complete the examination for the Administrative Grade in 1926 a year after it was opened to women. However even Evelyn is quoted commenting that she disagreed with equal pay, referring to the “unreliability of women” and their lesser financial responsibility compared to men. She later requested these comments to be re-phrased 7.
Upon becoming deputy secretary in the Ministry of Town and Local Government Evelyn was one of the few women to receive equal pay: as no woman had previously reached her level, there was no women’s equivalent pay grade in place 8. The civil service was often targeted by women’s organisations as a place for reform on equal pay as it was a workforce where women often did the same jobs as men, making the argument of equal work for equal pay stronger 9.
The Six Point Group, a women’s rights organisations from the time lobbied the government around six principle issues, one of which was “equal opportunities for men and women in the Civil Service”. Amongst agitation from numerous women’s groups in the 1930s the government won a vote in 1936 on the introduction of equal pay to the civil service. The government won this vote by an unusually small majority, showing how controversial this issue was at the time, and a failed vote of confidence forced by Stanley Baldwin then vetoed this result 10.
Equal pay to the civil service was finally completed on January 1st 1961 over 20 years later, after a phased introduction from 1955. This legislation preceded the wider Equal Pay Act of 1970.
1975 Sex Discrimination Act
The final significant legislative change for women was the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. This legislation significantly stated that, for women in the civil service, referring to the areas of housing, education and employment women were to be treated the same as men 11. Following the repeal of the marriage bar and implementation to equal pay this act represented a significant change from the opinion of married women as a “perfect nuisance” to the Treasury.
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