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What is the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 (SDA)?

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In March 1975, when Home Secretary Roy Jenkins moved the second reading of the Sex Discrimination Bill in the House of Commons, he claimed that it was "probably the most comprehensive of its kind in the world". Such fanfares even before the Bill became law effectively ensured its reputation as a Charter for Women's Equality. The Press responded with a characteristic mixture of humour and 'fair play' sentiment, painting vivid pictures of male bastions crumbling. Yet some people were reluctant to join in the congratulation of the Labour Government for the steps it was proposing. The International Marxist Group consistently pointed out in the Red Weekly that although the legislation was undoubtedly a step forward in the struggle for women's equal rights, the Labour Government had not begun to tackle the basic problems of women as workers both inside and outside the home. In this pamphlet, we shall examine the Act in greater detail and attempt to draw out some of its implications and potential for the Women's Movement.

After only a glance at the provisions of the SDA, one fact is immediately apparent. This Act is entirely rational from the point of view of most employers, banks, and providers of services. The legal provisions cover three fields: employment, education and provisions of goods and services. In these three areas, it is geared to women as participants in the economic structure, specifically either as workers or consumers. Further, it is geared to a particular type of woman. A good deal of resources go into the education and training of qualified women. In the context of the economy as a whole, it is clearly wasteful of these resources to deny educated people jobs simply because they are women. Similarly, if someone has the money to pay for a house or washing machine, why deny her a mortgage or hire purchase agreement simply because she is a woman? We can see from the nature of the Parliamentary debate on the Act that this kind of idea was uppermost in the minds of many of its supporters. Labour MP Renee Short, for example, expressed concern that in the top echelons of industry women were conspicuous by their absence, and there was not one woman managing director among the top firms, and less than two per cent of the Institute of Directors were women".

Speaking generally, then the SDA is aimed at dealing with anomalies in the lives of middle-class women, especially those in professional jobs. Of course, it is true that middle-class women do experience oppression as women, and that they are often victims of discrimination. But any Sex Discrimination Act which was seriously intended to end this situation would have to consider the circumstances of the majority of women rather than those who aspired to be managing directors. Such an Act, for example, would have to ensure the stopping up of loopholes in the Equal Pay Act by guaranteeing equal pay to those who have not already got it. It would have provision for restructuring areas of employment so that women were not ghettoised in some sectors and denied admittance to others. It would have to ensure that women were able to take advantage of the improved mortgage and loan facilities by guaranteeing a minimum wage tied to increases in the rate of inflation. The Labour Government's SDA does none of these things.
o far, we have only considered the terms of the Act, but we have already identified certain basic weaknesses. Of course, it could be argued that we cannot alter the position of women overnight. The White Paper, 'Equality for Women', on which the SDA is based, argued that it was a matter of changing attitudes, of people following the example set by the government, employers, and trade unions. However, when we look at the range of women's problems that could be tackled by legislation, we can see that the Government has only dealt with the symptoms and not the causes. Any reference to the right of women to control their own fertility and sexuality is conspicuously absent. Yet how can we have equality of opportunity if we are forced to bear unwanted children? Or refused adequate pregnancy leave and maternity allowances? Or unable to find nursery facilities for our under-fives? It is remarkable, too, that an Act was drawn up by a government that proclaims its readiness to fight discrimination should not cover government practices. The Civil Service, which is controlled by the government, discriminates daily against women in relation to pensions, family allowances, taxation, national insurance, social security, passports and so on. How can an Act which is supposed to bring women into the 1970s remain silent about the Victorian morality practised in the DHSS COhabitation rule? To such criticisms, the Government has replied that these matters will be dealt with in separate legislation. there are two problems with this. Firstly, the existence of several different laws dividing areas of discrimination up between them makes it very difficult for a woman to work out which legal procedures she must follow if she wishes to make a complaint. Secondly, our experience of the economic crisis shows that all sorts of well-intentioned proposals can end up in ministerial dustbins in the name of 'national interest'. It would be no surprise if the government announced (apologetically) that it did not have the money to implement the changes.

The crucial difference between such an Act and the SDA is that an equality Act would be positive. It would require certain basic provisions abortion on demand on the NHS, freely obtainable contraception, state financed nursery provision in every area, positive discrimination in training schemes and so on. The SDA simply says what may not be done in an otherwise equal situation: it plays no part in promoting this equality. Of course, any positive revisions to the SDA will be taken by the Government only if the struggle by the working class on all these issues develops to the point where the Government is forced to act.

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