Happy Birthday Equal Pay?

Ella Staddon, Women’s Officer HT22

The fight for equal pay can be traced back to the 19th century, culminating in the 1888 TUC conference which endorsed the principle of the same wages for the same work. While there was some campaigning during WWI, it was during WWII that the first moves to legislate equal pay began. In 1945, Thelma Cazalet Kier and Meghan Lloyd George introduced a bill which launched equal pay for teachers. The bill passed, however Winston Churchill turned it into a vote of confidence and as a result the bill was dropped. Many thought this political manoeuvre was a frivolous waste of time, especially when women workers had kept the country going. Unsurprisingly, the majority of women did not vote Tory in that year’s election.

Unfortunately Labour’s track record on equal pay was not much better. Agreeing in theory, but opposing in practice, Chancellor Hugh Dalton claimed that he couldn’t introduce equal pay for women due to the unstable economy. The vast majority of the Labour party agreed with this sentiment, however the young backbencher Barbara Castle openly criticised Dalton, saying women ‘would be deeply disappointed at the suggestion that they alone should be expected to forego any satisfaction of just claims owing to inflationary pressure.’ In response to Castle’s rebellion, Jennie Lee wrote in Tribune that women and equal pay could not be a government priority during the post-war crisis, and that equal pay should not be introduced while miners wages were so low. Castle retorted, ‘in that case, we will wait forever’.

It wasn’t just the Bevanites who disapproved of equal pay – in 1951, Hugh Gaitskell claimed it would drive up prices and increase demands on public spending. He also blocked female Hansard reporters from gaining equal pay, resulting in Irene Ward describing Gaitskell as ‘a little dictator’. Meanwhile, Gertrude Horton, the Secretary of the Equal Pay Campaign Committee, decided to change tactics to appeal to a wider proportion of the population. This included selling badges and pencils with equal pay slogans and endorsing Jill Craigie’s documentary ‘To Be A Woman’.

In 1954, Barbara Castle brought forward a petition with over 80,000 signatures to demand equal pay for women, and was delivered to parliament by Castle herself, Dr Edith Summerskill, Patricia Ford and Irene Ward. The Gaitskellites Alice Bacon and Elaine Burton criticised Castle for teaming up with women from other parties and going against Labour policy, although interestingly their criticism did not extend to Summerskill, a fellow Gaitskellite. The women kept up the pressure and by budget day Rab Butler offered to open discussions about the theoretical introduction of equal pay in the civil service. Ward described the move as being a ‘crumb’ that ‘is already disintegrating’. In 1955 Butler announced that equal pay for non-industrial civil servants would be introduced by 1961. 

By the 1964 general election, Hugh Gaitskell was dead and Castle’s reputation began to improve. She used this influence to ensure equal pay was included in the manifesto, although upon entering government discovered that her colleagues had little enthusiasm to act on their promise. Dr Edith Summerskill accurately told parliament that, ‘in the 30 years I have been in Westminster, each successive Minister for Labour tells us how his heart bleeds at the gross exploitation of women, but explains, with crocodile tears that this is not the moment to remedy the grave injustice’. In Cabinet, Castle repeatedly warned that government inaction would result in women turning militant, and at one point was quoted saying, ‘we have behaved with an inertia worthy of the Northern Ireland government!’. In 1966, she attempted to persuade the unions to push for equal pay to be included in the prices and incomes policy (P&I), however they made it clear that their focus was getting men into employment.

In April 1968, Barbara Castle was appointed Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity. Less than 2 months later 187 women machinists at Ford’s Dagenham factory went on strike. The women claimed that they had been unfairly graded as ‘B’ (unskilled), while men doing the same work elsewhere in the factory were graded as ‘C’ (skilled). The (largely male) union officials did not know what to do with the women, many of them arguing that they should go back to work before men lost their jobs. By this point, Castle decided to intervene and negotiate directly with the women. Having called them into her office, she negotiated a pay rise to 92% the male rate of pay, and promised that she would introduce an equal pay act. Interestingly, the film Made In Dagenham credits the machinists with pushing for equal pay during these negotiations, however it was actually Castle who suggested it. It would take a further strike in 1984 for the women to achieve their initial aim of being re-graded as ‘skilled’ workers.

Despite this progress, later that same year women were deliberately excluded from the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers’ (AUEW) pay negotiations. While men’s wages would increase to £19 a year, women’s were to remain at £13, and General Secretary Hugh Scanlon secured a pay grading structure that had women as a separate category from skilled, semi-skilled and labourers. There is a delightful entry in her Cabinet diaries where Castle absolutely lost it with the AUEW management after discovering Scanlon’s betrayal. She credits this incident with her decision to go about introducing equal pay without union support. 

Not only was she at odds with the unions, she also found resistance from her own Cabinet. Roy Jenkins, Tony Crosland and Dick Marsh publicly opposed the bill, and argued that it would be electorally damaging. Although she had by now written the bill, the whips continued to postpone it.

To aid Barbara Castle in forcing equal pay into law, Lena Jeger tabled an equal pay amendment to Jenkin’s Prices and Income bill. Labour had a majority of just 1, and if the bill did not pass it would likely bring down the government. Sat next to Jenkins on the frontbench, Castle threatened to vote the bill down unless he agreed to her Equal Pay Act. The threat worked, and would later inspire Harriet Harman’s tactics when introducing her own Equality Act, which was just as unpopular as Castle’s Equal Pay Act with the PLP for being ‘too radical’.  

The unions and the CBI were still not convinced. In September 1969, the CBI claimed that equal pay was a ‘luxury’ the country couldn’t afford. In early 1970, Wilson sent Castle on a tour of the unions to rally support for the bill with little success, although it did result in a drunken karaoke session with TUC boss Vic Feather where she sang ‘we shall get [equal pay]’ to the tune of ‘we shall overcome’.

On the 9th February 1970, the Equal Pay Bill was brought to Parliament, and Castle proclaimed:

‘There can be no doubt that this afternoon we are witnessing another historic advance in the struggle against discrimination in our society […] While other people have talked—lots of people have talked—we intend to make equal pay for equal work a reality, and, in doing so, to take women workers progressively out of the sweated labour class.’

Lena Jeger spoke out in support of the bill, stating that it would ‘ensure that the women who do the lowest paid, most drudging jobs in society at last get a measure of social justice.’ Meanwhile, Dr Shirley Summerskill argued that we also needed a sex discrimination act ‘to create a climate of opinion and alter people’s views about what is permissible behaviour. Not only must women be paid the rate for the job, but there should not be such low rates for what is known as women’s work.’ Margaret Thatcher was one of the few Tory MPs who came out in support.

On the 29th May 1970, the Equal Pay Act received royal assent, and on the 29th December 1975 it became law. 

But that is not the end of the story. One of the issues that Castle faced was the definition of equal pay. The unions pushed for the EEC’s definition of equal pay for work of equal value, however Castle pointed out that until women’s work was valued equally it would make very little difference. She also pointed out the union’s original definition of the same wages for the same work would not benefit women working in similar- but not the same- industries. She aimed to strike a balance with ‘equal pay for equal work’, and the law was strengthened when we adopted the EU’s definition in 1984, which, alongside the Sex Discrimination Act, covered the majority of women workers. 

However, it would take the introduction of the National Minimum Wage – another piece of legislation which was unpopular at the time of its introduction – by Dame Margaret Beckett to substantially increase women’s wages. It is the NMW that is credited with closing the gender pay gap the most of any piece of legislation or government action since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act.

It has now been 51 years since the Equal Pay Act received royal assent, and 46 years since it became enforceable by law, and yet we still have a long way to go. The pandemic has exacerbated already existing inequalities, and recent data has suggested that the gender pay gap is widening. Now, more than ever, we need ‘deeds not words’, because – as Castle once said – ‘equal pay for equal work is so self-evidently right and just’.


https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/29/gender-pay-gap-at-uks-biggest-firms-is-growing-data-suggests(accessed 29/12/2021)

https://tuc150.tuc.org.uk/stories/dagenham-womens-strike/ (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://tidesofhistory.com/2020/06/16/another-historic-advance-the-equal-pay-act-at-50/ (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://ukvote100.org/2017/11/09/women-demand-equal-pay/ (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://tidesofhistory.com/2017/05/29/of-course-i-am-opposed-to-equal-pay-how-barbara-castle-bounced-the-labour-party-into-equal-pay/ (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1970/feb/09/equal-pay-no-2-bill (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/11/harriet-harman-barbara-castle-heroine (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/sep/19/labourconference.labour (accessed 29/12/2021)

https://www.cheerfulpodcast.com/rtbc-episodes/first-they-ignore-you-part-4-the-fight-for-a-minimum-wage (accessed 29/12/2021)

Jill Craigie, To Be A Woman equal pay documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4f68SaDqBU

Harriet Harman, A Woman’s Work, (2017)

Barbara Castle, Fighting All The Way, (1993)

Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries 1964-70, (1984)

Barbara Castle, The Castle Diaries 1974-76, (1980)

One thought on “Happy Birthday Equal Pay?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s