151 years of progress: A timeline of women's rights and gender equality in the UK

Jasmine Jones

We stand on the shoulders of the mighty women who came before us, who fought tirelessly for social, political and economic equality of the sexes. Huge advancements have been made in the battle for gender equality over the past 150 years and the good fight rages on. Let’s take a moment to celebrate the hard-won achievements of the UK’s feminist movement.

1866 1500 signatures are collected for a petition for women’s votes which is presented to the House of Commons by John Stuart Mill.

1867 The London Society for Women’s Suffrage is formed.

1870 The Married Women’s Property Act is introduced, allowing women to be the legal owners of money they earned, and to inherit property. Before this, everything a woman owned or earned automatically became her husband when she married.

[Photo: PA]
[Photo: PA]

1888 Secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League, Clementina Black, secures the first equal pay resolution at Trades Union Congress.

1891 The right for a man to use corporal punishment on his wife is removed.

1907 Women can be elected onto borough and county councils Under the Qualification of Women Act. They can also be elected mayor.

1918 Women over 30 are given the right to vote in Britain. In 1928 this was extended to women over 21.

1928 Women are given universal suffrage on the same terms as men.

1956 Civil service reforms mean teachers and those with other government jobs have the right to equal pay.

1965 Barbara Castle becomes the first female minister of state when she is is appointed Minister of Transport.

1967 Abortion is made legal in all of Great Britain (except Northern Ireland).

The contraceptive pill is made available to all women. When it was first introduced in the UK in 1961 it was only available to married women.

1968 Women strike at the Ford car factory in Dagenham. Their action directly led to the passing of the Equal Pay Act.

[Photo: TUC Library Collections]
[Photo: TUC Library Collections]

Barbra Castle becomes the first First Secretary of State. She is the only woman ever to have held the position.

1970 Feminist activists protest the Miss World Competition by throwing flower and smoke bombs. The protesters weren’t targeting the contestants, rather the organisers and the press who publicised it. They found women being judged on their looks to be insulting and undermining. It was the first protest event organised by the women’s movement.

1971 The first Women’s Liberation march in London takes place with over 4,000 women taking to the streets.

1972 Erin Pizzey sets up the first women’s refuge in Chiswick, London.

1973 Sybil Phoenix is the first black woman to be given an MBE. She initially refused to accept the honour unless the council gave her a property where she could house, feed and educate homeless young girls from the Borough of Lewisham.

[Photo: Lewisham Heritage]
[Photo: Lewisham Heritage]

1974 The National Women’s Aid Federation is set up to bringing together nearly 40 independent refuge services enabling women and children experiencing domestic violence to travel to a place of safety.

1975 The Sex Discrimination Act, pushed through by the women’s movement, makes it illegal to discriminate against women in work, education and training.

The Employment Protection Act made statutory maternity pay a requirement for all employers legislated against dismissal on the grounds of pregnancy.

1976 The Equal Opportunities Commission comes into effect to oversee the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination Act.

The Race Relations Act makes it illegal to discriminate on grounds of race in employment and education.

Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act is introduced to protect women and children from domestic violence. The Act enabled married women to obtain a court order against their violent husbands without divorce or separation proceedings. A court could order a man out of the matrimonial home, whether or not he owned it or tenancy was in his name.

1977 International Women’s Day is formalised as an annual event by the UN General Assembly.

The first Rape Crisis Centre opens in London.

Edinburgh women held the first Reclaim the Night march in Britain, organised to ‘demand justice for rape survivors’.

[Photo: Twitter]
[Photo: Twitter]

1978 The Women’s Aid Federation of Northern Ireland is established. It grew to become the lead in the voluntary organisation challenging domestic violence in Northern Ireland. It currently provides support to over 10,000 women every year.

The Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent is set up. It is the first black women’s organisation in Britain to organise at a national level, bringing black women from across the country to from an umbrella group for black women’s organisations. It has been called “a watershed in the history of Black women’s rights activism”

1979 Margaret Thatcher becomes Britain’s first female prime minister.

1980 Women are allowed to apply for a loan or credit in their own names. Prior to this a women had to get their father or husband to sign for a loan even if they earned more.

1981 Baroness Young becomes the first woman leader of the House of Lords.

1982 Bars and pubs are no longer allowed to refuse to serve women.

1983 Lady Mary Donaldson becomes the first woman Lord Mayor of London.

1984 The national Black Feminist Conference is held.

The wives of striking miners organise themselves into a powerful women’s group under the title Women Against Pit Closure, which evolves into a working class women’s movement. Their organisation gave the women the means to participate in a common struggle with men against their class enemies. It became a national movement and leaves a legacy of a common class struggle against sexism, women’s oppression and capitalism itself.

[Photo: Flickr]
[Photo: Flickr]

1985 The Equal Pay (Amendment) Act allows women to be paid the same as men for work of equal value.

The first black lesbian conference is held in Britain and attended by over 200 women of African and Asian descent.

The Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development, campaign against female genital mutilation, leading to the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act.

1986 The Sex Discrimination (Amendment) Act enables women to retire at the same age as men. The restriction preventing women from working night shifts in factories is lifted.

1987 Diane Abbot becomes the first black female MP.

Elizabeth Butler-Sloss becomes the first female Lord of Justice and Appeal.

1990 Independent taxation for women is introduced. Prior to this, the income of a married woman was added to the income of her husband and taxed accordingly.

1992 Betty Boothroyd becomes the first female Speaker in the House of Commons.

1994 The Church of England ordained 32 women as its first female priests.

Reverend Wendy Callan poses with her granddaughter Cora, at her baptism. [Photo: Lydia Callan Mosedale]
Reverend Wendy Callan poses with her granddaughter Cora, at her baptism. [Photo: Lydia Callan Mosedale]

After 15 years of serious campaigning by women’s organisations, rape in marriage is made a crime.

A House of Lords ruling gives equal rights to part-time workers affording working mothers more security.

1997 The general election sees 101 female Labour MPs elected.

The first ever conviction of marital rape by a husband in the Asian community is secured by the Southall Black Sisters. Members of his family are also sentenced for abusing his wife.

1998 The European Union passes the Human Rights Act, guaranteeing basic principles of life for everyone.

1999 The House of Lords delivers a historic judgement in the Shah and Islam case that women who fear gender persecution should be recognised as refugees.

A new law on parental leave enables both men and women to take up to 13 weeks off to care for children under age five.

The Sex Discrimination (Gender Reassignment) Regulations, makes it illegal for employers to discriminate against trans people.

2000 Asylum Gender Guidlines are launched after a long battle led by refugee women’s groups in the UK. The guidelines note the dominant view of what constitutes a ‘real refugee’ has been of a man and this has meant women asylum seekers in the UK may not benefit equitably from the protection offered by the Refugee Convention. They aim to ensure that the gender of the asylum seeker does not prejudice their application.

2001 The London Partnerships Register is launched by the Mayor of London, allowing lesbians, gay men and unmarried heterosexual couples to register their partnerships.

Clara Furse becomes the first female chief executive of the 200-year-old London Stock Exchange.

2002 Lesbian and unmarried couples are allowed to adopt children.

[Photo: International Foster Care Organisation]
[Photo: International Foster Care Organisation]

2003 Baroness Amos becomes the first black female cabinet minister when she is appointed Secretary of State for International Development.

The Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations are introduced to protect people against discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

The Female Genital Mutilation Act strengthens and amends the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act of 1985. For the first time, it is an offence for UK nationals or permanent UK residents to carry out female genital mutilation abroad, or to aid, abet, council, or procure the carrying out of female genital mutilation, even in countries where the practice is legal.

Section 28, the act which made it illegal for any council or government body to “intentionally promote homosexuality, or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” is repealed after years of lobbying by by voluntary and community organisations, particularly Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender organisations.

2004 After years of campaigning by trans activists, the Gender Recognition Act allows trans people who have taken decisive steps to live fully and permanently in their reassigned gender to gain legal recognition in that gender.

2005 The first civil registrations of same-sex couples takes place.

2007 The Gender Equality Duty places a legal obligation on public authorities to eliminate unlawful gender discrimination and harassment and promote equality of opportunity between women and men.

Jacqui Smith becomes Britain’s first female Home Secretary.

Moira Cameron becomes the first woman to serve as a Beefeater after 522 years of men only in the role at the Tower of London.

2008 The Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act comes into force in the UK to protect vulnerable women.

2009 Dorothy Hughes and Winifred Phillips, become the first female veterans to join the Chelsea Pensioners.

[Photo: Carolannduffy.co.uk]
[Photo: Carolannduffy.co.uk]

Carol Ann Duffy is appointed the first female poet laureate after 400 years of men only in the role.

2014 Shared parental leave is introduced giving a mother the right to transfer periods of leave to fathers.

2015 Major General Susan Ridge becomes the first female senior of officer in the British Army.

Harbhajan Kaur Dheer, is appointed Mayor of Ealing and becomes the first Asian woman elected Mayor in the UK.

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