Women after World War 2

This essay will focus on the idea that any radical change to the lives of women of all classes in the fifty years after the Second World War were simply illusory, by exploring a variety of aspects that impact on all women’s lives. For instance, changes within the social lives of women; stereotypes; women’s economy; employment and the impact of politics upon women. The term illusory in this essay will be defined as any radical change which does not impact upon or create a real change in the status; opportunities and lifestyles of all women throughout this period.

Firstly, there have been many changes within the post-war period which have impacted on all aspects of women’s life. Perhaps some of the main changes can be considered as the introduction of the pill; legalised abortion; the liberalization and the decline of the stigma attached to divorce. These can be considered as changes that are not illusory and had a large impact. For example the introduction of the contraceptive pill and legalised abortion in 1967 can be argued as ‘open[ing] up whole new possibilities for women…without fear of pregnancy,’ as now women had a greater opportunity to experience life, which in turn impacts their lifestyles. Also, the practical application of women’s contraception and the result that they had more control of the amount of children they had, can be used as another demonstration of social changes. Those were not illusory, as women now had more freedom in their lifestyles and opportunity in the job market than previously where being a mother to a large family took up all their time. However this radical change can also be considered as double-edged as despite contemporaries perceiving an increase in sexual behaviour and attitudes, in fact it ‘remained pretty consistent with that of earlier decades.’ This thereby demonstrates that the radical change, in the introduction of the pill and legalised abortion, can to a certain extent be considered as illusory, because whilst it did create the potential for greater sexual freedom amongst women, this did not mean that this was the case in reality.

A way, in which it can be suggested that the radical social changes in the years following World War II were illusory, can be demonstrated through the continuation of stereotypes within society. For example, the continuations of the idea that man was the bread-winner and women should continue to be the image of a traditional housewife. This is found in the years immediately after World War II wherein many women were to an extent expected to return to their traditional role as housewives and mothers, spurred on by government propaganda and other various forms of influence such as posters magazines and psychological reports, such as J. Bowlby’s research into the effects of the separation of the primary care giver from the child, maternal deprivation. This can also be found in the 1980s with Prime Minister Margret Thatcher calling for a return to ‘Victorian values… her championing of moral, social and gender norms,’ and ordinary men and women agreeing as they ‘consider[ed] married women’s primary responsibility to be to [the]home and family.’ Although it can be suggested that in the modern world the role of the bread-winner being solely a male stereotype and that the women as a housewife and mother, is perhaps a weakening concept, it still demonstrates that the stereotypical status of women has continued throughout this period and thus any radical change in status of women is illusory.

Other continuous stereotypes for women can be found in the work place, as jobs can often stereotyped into specifically men and women’s work/ careers. Despite the introduction of sexual discrimination acts 1975 in England, which is used to prevent a potential applicant being sexually discriminated against when going for employment, it perhaps can be suggested as having done little to remove the stereotypes attached to jobs. For example, primary teaching and nursing are seen stereotypically as women’s professions with engineering and manual labour considered as stereotypically jobs for men. This is further highlighted since the immediate years after the Second World War women who had become part of the labour force were squeezed out of their jobs into ‘lower level jobs designated as women’s work’. Whilst there has been a radical change in the legality of opportunity for women’s professions and employment through the Sexual Discriminations Act, 1975 it can be suggested that the stereotype still remains. For instance according to The Independent’s recent survey of professional and trade bodies, ‘the Institute of Mechanical Engineering reported a landslide male membership of 96.6%, [with] the train drivers at 96.3%,’ and for women in what are stereotyped as ‘caring’ jobs, they outnumber men ’33 to 1 in nursery schools’ .Therefore it can be suggested that any radical change over the past fifty years in opportunities for women’s employment can be considered as illusory because stereotypes still remain and will continue to have an impact on the opportunities in women’s lives.

With the expansion of the economy in the last fifty years, came the rise of consumerism and the development of technology both of which can be argued as having a major impact on the lives of women though out this period, thus demonstrating a radical change was not illusory. For instance, the developments of everyday house hold items such as ‘washing machines, vacuum cleaners, gas and electric stoves,’ and also the rise of connivance food can highlight a change that has impacted on the status; opportunity and life styles of women over the last fifty years. On a practical level such developments increase the potential of opportunities for women to do as they please, including getting a job, which then in turn can change their lifestyle and status. This demonstrates that technological advancements in the years that followed the Second World War did have a profound impact on the lives of women during this time and as such this cannot be considered as illusory.
Employment is another area in which it can be argued that there were radical changes that impacted the lives of women, in the fifty year after World War II. For example, although there was pressure for women to go back to their traditional roles, many remained in some form of employment in the immediate years after the Second World War, a trend which grows and continues into modern times. For instance in America by the 1980s, the number of women in work had doubled its previous total from the 1960s. Furthermore in England, women’s involvement in the labour market has increased from ‘36% in 1951 to 61% in 1981.’ However this radical change does not solely lie with the fact that women remained in employment, but also includes the change in women wanting more substantial roles. This demonstrates a radical change in women’s opportunities that cannot be considered illusory as more women are continuing to be involved in some form of employment up to present day.

Alternatively, it can be suggested that the radical changes to women’s status; opportunities and lifestyle as a result of radical changes made within employment can be considered as illusory due to the inequalities that women faced in the working sphere. Although an Equal Pay Act, introduced in England in 1970, which can be considered as a radical change in the status and opportunity for women, its impact is limited when the wage gap between men and women is considered. For instance the gap in wages in the years following World War II were considerably lower than that of a man’s, further more; in 1980’s America, a woman still only earned ‘sixty-four cents to a man’s dollar’ ; and in Britain women’s wages increased from ‘54% [of a man’s wage]in 1970 to 66% in 1982. Therefore the radical change, by the introduction of Equal Pay Acts, can be seen as illusory as there is still inequality within wages in the present day, therefore the change, although it has impacted on the women’s economic stability and spending power, it can be suggested as having done very little to change the status of women as it can be inferred that women are still not seen as equal to men. However, although the wage gap between men and women can to an extent be perceived as an illusory change, is not the only way in which women can gain money. For instance social benefit payments have increased in this period as an extension of social welfare, thus it can be argued that this is a change that is not illusory as social benefits and also greater provision for children’s welfare, allows women, particularly young mothers to have greater opportunity to follow a career or stay at home if they wish. This can be argued as a way in which the wage gap can be considered as being reduced, for example in ‘Western European countries have…generous maternity leaves… [and] public childcare and made considerable progress in closing the [wage] gap.’

Finally politics is another area in which it can be suggested that there were radical changes that in turn impacted on the lifestyles; opportunities and status of women. It can be suggested that the introduction of anti discrimination acts and equality laws in the last fifty years, particularly in the modern-day, have impacted upon the opportunities and status of all women. For instance of the Equality Act 2010, ‘The Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “Everyone is protected by the new law.’ Thus women in particular can no longer be discriminated against, most notably in employment, therefore such acts can be argued as part of a non illusory change because they have allowed women greater freedom. It can also be suggested that as a result, women are not visibly perceived visibly as second class citizens anymore. A practical, if perhaps controversial way, in which this is demonstrated, is through the role of Margret Thatcher as Britain’s first female Prime Minister. This can be used to demonstrate that there was a change in the status of women throughout this period. During the fifties and sixties, the idea of women ministers and the reality of it were considered unusual by contemporaries for example, Shirley Williams writes in her autobiography how women MP’s had been allocated ‘two rooms marked “lady members”, with an ironing board and a chintz-covered settee to rest on.’ Furthermore, Shirley Williams also talks about the ‘camaraderie’ between the female MP’s that crossed party lines, because they ‘knew [what they] were up against’, the view that ‘women weren’t up to the hard choices of politics,’ and were better off in ‘soft subjects like health, pensions and education.’ This marks a divisive change in the status of women within politics as when Margret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister in 1980 she is considered as the ‘“best man”,’ for the job. Therefore it can be argued that the status of women can be suggested as changing as a result of the growing number of female politicians, who can be used as role models showing that women have a more equal status, as they can be successful in what can be generalised as a man’s Job that of Prime Minister.

To conclude, whilst there have been a great number of radical changes that have impacted on the lives of women in the years since the Second World War, whether they can be considered as illusory or not still remains questionable. In addition, the post war decades can be considered as the period in which women have had greater opportunities for doing a wide range of activities through the women’s own choice rather than necessity, which means they now have a more equal status and more options for their lifestyle, therefore it would be logical to assume that the radical changes were, on the surface, were not illusory. Furthermore, the practical changes such as the introduction of convenience food and the development of domestic technology demonstrates that the radical changes in women’s lives were not superficial. However this answer is too simplistic, as whilst on paper all women are free, there are still issues which make the radical changes appear illusory. For instance, stereotypes of women have not completely changed, with ‘the home and childcare is still seen as primarily women’s responsibility, but now they are expected to work as well,’ and also, the employment of women which can be argued as ‘still concentrated in low skill, low status occupations.’ On the other hand, due to the fact that the changes have not changed everything in a woman’s life and as equality between men and women is still a complex issue, means that the changes can be considered as illusory, as they are superficial and have not totally changed reality. Therefore to say that all the radical changes have impacted upon women’s lives in the past fifty years are simply illusory is to over simplify the statement, one which ignores all the changes that have made a radical difference in the lives of women over the past 50 years.

Bruley, S., Women in Britain since 1900, (Basingstoke, 1999).
Hewlett, S, A., A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women’s Liberation, (London, 1986).
Kingsley Kent, S., Gender and Power; in Britain, 1640-1990,(London, 1999).
Lewis, J., Women in England 1870-1950; Sexual Division and Social Change, (Brighton, 1984).
Lewis , J., Women in Britain since 1945, (Oxford, 1992).
O’Grady, S., ‘Business urged to “radically change” way they promote women’, The Independent, 25 February 2011, p16.
O’Grady, S., ‘Still a case of jobs for the boys and jobs for the girls’, The Independent, 25 February 2011, p17.
‘New equality rights in workplace come into force’, BBC News Online, 8 June 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news.
Pugh, M., Women and the Women’s Movement, Second ed., (Basingstoke, 2000).
Williams, S., Climbing the Bookshelves, (London, 2009).


2 thoughts on “Women after World War 2

  1. This was one of the poorest and most contradictory essays I have ever read. It sounds like a very bitter woman’s attempt to justify why she has not achieved what she so set her heart on achieving.


    1. Dear Dissatisfied Reader,

      Firstly I’d just like to comment that this post in question was an essay written for my university course over two years ago, so please forgive me if I can not entirely remember or explain why I wrote what I did then. In addition, because it was a essay turned into a blog post, it was liable to be cut down and re-written in order not to bore readers of the blog who were only having a quick read, and as such parts may have got lost along the way. I am biased because it was my work, however after re-reading it two years later I do not feel that it was my attempt to ‘justify what [I] have not achieved…’ and as i’m sure you can imagine I feel that these changes were to an extent illusory. However please feel free to get in touch with how you feel that these changes are not illusory.

      Sophie Jordan


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