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What a difference a generation makes

10 April 2018

Is life in Britain better for women today than 50 years ago?

A woman reenacts the suffragette protests | Editorial credit:  /

We asked Zoë Fairbairns, 69, writer, feminist since the 1970s and member of the advisory group advising the founders of the publisher Virago, to compare notes with her niece, Beth Grassis Fairbairns, who is 19 and studying environmental science at the University of the West of England, based in Bristol.

What is it like being a woman today?

Zoë Much easier than it was. I’m not saying all our battles have been won, but I’m lucky in that I can now choose to spend my time doing work I find fulfilling with people I like. And I’m also fortunate as, having been born when I was, I still qualified for the state pension at 60 – one day, that might be 70.

I remember when my grandmother hit her 60th birthday, we all went with her to collect her pension book and it was a cause for celebration. But as a grey-haired granny, her life was, sort of, all over. Today, that generation is still able to work and enjoy life.

Beth Working to the age of 70 doesn’t sound good to me at all. But as long as men and women retire at the same age, it’s not a big issue. It’s much more important to me that I can look forward to a future of travelling the world, being free to choose exactly what I want to do, and not being stuck in the same city with a boring job, year after year.

It doesn’t seem to me that being a woman will be a problem at all in achieving what I want, so I can be optimistic about the future

How have things changed for women?

Zoë One great advance is that it’s no longer legal to advertise a job as being just for men. In the 1970s there were separate job ads for men and for women, with different rates of pay.

In 1967, when I was 18, I had a holiday job as a postwoman. I noticed I was paid less than the men, but was told that was because they had families to support.

Of course, that didn’t apply to the male students working alongside me, who were nevertheless paid more.

But let’s not forget there’s still a gender pay gap, although it’s subtler now.

It was also normal then for employers to fire a woman – whether married or not – if she got pregnant.

Beth Hanging out with men of my age, especially after a few drinks, they talk about women (or ‘chicks’) in a derogatory way, joking about their sexual experiences. My girlfriends and I just shrug it off. It’s so normal now.

Zoë Well, in that respect then, things have got worse. I don’t think I ever heard men talking about women that way in the 1960s or 70s. They wouldn’t boast about ‘sex with chicks’ in front of other women.

Beth I guess it’s part of the Tinder effect. Dating apps have turned us all into objects.

Do you think the 1960s and 70s feminists have achieved their goals?

Zoë A seminal women’s lib conference in 1970 set out our four main goals: equal pay for equal work, equal opportunities, free contraception and universal childcare. The first three were achieved through new laws, and the last has been partially achieved – there is more childcare, but still not enough.

I was naïve in believing that when contraception became freely available, the issue of abortion would disappear; all unwanted pregnancies would be avoided. I hadn’t accounted for human fallibility.

Beth If it weren’t for your generation of women, my life and my girlfriends’ lives would be completely different. We’d be less confident, feel less free to express ourselves in how we dress and behave, and probably have lower aspirations. I feel grateful for what your generation did.

Zoë While it’s nice to be appreciated, we’d prefer you to take for granted the advances we fought for, just as I always took for granted that I could vote, thanks to the suffragettes.

What still needs to change?

Beth The over-sexualisation of women in ads, the media and social media.

The ‘perfect body’ is always being thrust in your face. Bottom implants, lip-fillers, boob jobs, Botox.

‘Is your body beach-ready?’

Ugh! It’s why so many girls develop body-image problems.

Have you always been a feminist?

Zoë I got involved with feminism the way some people get drawn into cults. I had a head full of questions and suddenly, in 1969, ran into a group of people who seemed to have the answers. And it was about lifestyle as much as ideology. I spurned fancy clothes and make-up.

One bus conductor aggressively crossed out Ms, which I’d written on my season ticket, and put Miss instead. The conductor was a woman. Which somehow makes it different, and somehow doesn’t. 

Beth It’s hard even to imagine a time when calling yourself Ms was radical. I grew up with feminist views; Mum instilled them in me from the start.

I remember her saying that it was ridiculous to have boys’ toys and girls’ toys. On a visit to a department store once, I went to look at the toys and was angry that there were separate sections for girls and boys, so I marched over and complained to a sales assistant. I must have been about six or seven.

Zoë Your mother told me an anecdote about when you were two and sitting in your high chair in the kitchen. Radio Four was on, as usual, and as you listened you noticed there were more men being featured than women, and said ‘Man’s voice, woman’s voice, man’s voice, man’s voice, man’s voice… that’s not fair!’ I was so proud of you.

Beth I don’t remember that, but it sounds about right.

How have perceptions of marriage changed?

Zoë I lived with my partner for 40 years, until his death, and neither of us ever wanted to get married – and I’d decided not to have children. I’ve been with my current partner for several years now, and we feel the same. The blessing of Church and State on our union does not matter. Women who do marry should insist on equal responsibilities in the home – because that’s where equality starts. And, of course, they should have the same chance to pursue a career.

Beth I’m certainly not going to be stuck at home doing the housework. It’ll be 50:50. And I won’t do the indoor ‘women’s jobs’ while he does the tough outdoor work. We’ll share it all equally – cooking, cleaning, gardening.

And while I like the idea of a big wedding party, I don’t see the appeal of being married. I also disapprove of a woman changing her surname. I already have two surnames – my father’s and my mother’s – and I really couldn’t take on any more.

Zoë Some couples marry just so that when one dies, the other doesn’t have to pay inheritance tax.

Beth Hmm. I didn’t know that. Maybe I’ll get married right at the end: the last week!

What do you think of men today?

Zoë The appalling things I read about women being harassed at work, all the #MeToo stuff, which has been spilling out recently, makes me think male behaviour towards women hasn’t changed much since the 1970s. Perhaps the one good thing to come out of it is that women will be empowered to speak out when it happens, and men will finally get the message that it isn’t acceptable.

Beth I’ve been getting wolf-whistled since I was 14. It’s very uncomfortable when I’m on my own. But if I’m with my girlfriends we’re just rude back at them.

By the way, did you know there’s a men’s movement now, called meninism? They complain that feminists portray women as superior and disregard men’s issues, such as paternity leave. I don’t take it too seriously.

Zoë Meninism? I haven’t heard of it.

Beth They’re mostly younger men. I have a few meninists among my friends, demanding ‘equal rights with women’.

But older men can still be pretty traditional, as I saw recently when I set my mum up on a date with a friend’s father. He wanted to pay for her dinner and she said, ‘No way, I’m paying for my own dinner’. They had a heated discussion and in the end she reluctantly let him pay. He said, ‘It’s your lucky day’.

But there wasn’t a second date.

Personally, I never expect others to pay for me, but if it’s offered I won’t refuse. After all, I’m a student.

Who is your hero?

Beth David Attenborough. I love his programmes and he inspires me to follow in his footsteps. One day I’d like to make films on environmental issues, too.

Zoë In the feminist movement we don’t have heroes or ‘stars’, instead we have influential books. If I had to pick one, it would be Sexual Politics by Kate Millett.

The title alone was eye-opening for me, because it introduced me to the idea that what went on between men and women was political.

These days, no one can deny that.

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