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Study Notes

Feminism & Political and Legal Equality

AQA, Edexcel, IB

Last updated 26 May 2019

This study note explores the perspective of feminism in relation to political and legal equality.

Political equality refers to parity of treatment amongst all adult citizens regardless of their social background. In the context of feminism, the term bears specific reference towards equal treatment between men and women. In a society built upon political equality, men and women possess the same level of voting rights and are both able to stand for elected office. From a historical perspective, one of the notable achievements of the first-wave of feminism was extending the electoral franchise to women. Votes for women was secured after a lengthy campaign from suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst. In the contemporary era, the right of women to vote and stand for elected office has even spread towards countries that suppress women’s rights (most notably the ultra-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia).

With regards to legal equality, there is an extensive range of laws on the statute books to ensure equality of opportunity between men and women. Perhaps the most significant relates to anti-discrimination laws in the field of employment. For instance, the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 renders discrimination against women unlawful except where its special treatment in favour of women based on pregnancy, numbers in the workforce or when being a man or a woman is a genuine occupational qualification (such as an actor). As with all facets of the law, it comes with certain provisos. Most notably, a legal case must be brought within a specific time scale. More importantly, the burden of proof is on the employer to show that there was no discrimination shown. Employers are also liable for the actions of their employees (such as sexist comments). In accordance with the law, employers are liable for the charge of discrimination targeted at a protected characteristic like gender. Employees with these characteristics are thereby protected from direct discrimination, harassment and victimisation as defined in the Equality Act 2010. This protection even applies to indirect discrimination. For instance, discrimination against part-time workers affects women indirectly as most part-time workers are women. Legislation that seeks to prevent discrimination in the workplace is one of the most significant areas of employment law.

Having said all this, legal equality is of a very different character to social equality. Elected representatives can always take incremental steps towards legal equality, but a well-drafted piece of legislation may do little to address deep-seated structural inequalities. Radicals within the feminist movement claim that genuine equality requires far more than just waving a politician’s pen – it demands fundamental and lasting social change. Take the case of equal pay. Sections 64 to 79 of the Equality Act 2010 clearly state that men and women should receive equal pay for the same work, like work, work rated as equivalent (which allows for a comparison to be made in situations where the work is quite different) and work of equal value. However, women are still paid significantly less than men over four decades after legislation was first passed.

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