The last century has seen significant societal development in the UK; examples include the establishment of the NHS, abolition of the death penalty and the right of all citizens to vote. It is without doubt that the rights of women have improved as modern society has developed, not least in their legal standing. In fact, it has been exactly one hundred years since Lady Rhonda, a Suffragette, formed the Six Point Group whose main aim was to improve the rights of woman by changing laws. A century on, despite the great strides, equality remains an aspiration, not a reality for many.
The Six Point Group began with six main aims, spanning both the private and public sphere. They campaigned for satisfactory legislation for child assault; adequate legislation for widowed mothers, as well as unmarried mothers and their children; equal pay for teachers; equal opportunities in the civil service; and equal rights of guardianship for married parents. Understandably, these aims broadened as the group evolved.
Along with the Open Door Council, the Six Point Group directed the movement for married women’s right to work, they campaigned throughout the Second World War for equal pay between female and male Civil Defence volunteers and they had representatives on the committee for the Equal Pay Campaign from 1944. Post-war, they continued to have political influence and took part in the protest for change in the Matrimonial Proceedings and Property Act to financially protect married women. However, by the 1980s the Women’s Liberation Movement was dominating and the Six Point Group became seemingly outdated. The valid criticism that this group was dominated by educated middle class women, so lacked intersectionality, should also be noted.
The history of the women’s movement can be used as a tool to compare and illuminate the state of women’s rights today, as well as to learn from their methods. One of the interesting points to draw from the Six Point Group specifically, was their focus on the law and its potential to act as an instrument for social change. Unlike other groups they believed the law could be the way to change people’s behaviours and attitudes, rather than targeting societal attitudes first and leaving the law to follow suit. It was also believed that formal equality would unveil the true extent of attitudinal resistance, this would make it easier to combat, and vitally they would have the force of the law on their side.
But in what ways is the law able to effect attitudinal change in society and individuals? The law is by no means equal to morality; however, it does have the capacity to influence people’s moral code. Although not always the reality, the legal system should be perceived as striving for justice and thus by expressing certain values, people may see the law as a source of guidance on morality. This illustrates one way in which the law can influence society’s moral attitudes and as such be used as a tool to tackle inequality.
Another angle is that legal regulation can affect behaviour, for example, by increasing and decreasing the frequency of particular actions. The law can impact behaviour directly through sanctions and incentives, and it can use infrastructure to change behaviour by making acts more or less convenient. While this change is initially behavioural, over time it can also alter the social meaning and moral connotations of the action. The frequency of which something is done can normalise or ostracize it. For example, by introducing infrastructure that makes it easier to breastfeed in public, legal regulation encourages people to approve and normalise it. There is also a social element; for example if one person believes that others are, recycling then they too are more likely to recycle as they perceive it to be an expectation in the community. The behavioural change that legal regulation achieves can impact how people view and value those behaviours by altering the situation in which those attitudes are moulded.
There are of course limits, there cannot be fervent dissensus for the law, people’s intuitions about justice must align with what the law expresses. Post-enlightenment, Western societies also tend to resist suggestions of the state pushing any official moral orthodoxies. In other words, to change moral attitudes the law aims to ‘nudge’ rather than strictly dictate attitudes. From 1921 when the Six Point Group formed to modern day, there has been significant improvement in legislation, particularly with the Equality Act 2010. However, it is no secret that resistance and inequality has survived law reform. Despite there being an Equal Pay Act since 1975, there continues to be pay gap and within the law. In 2020, women made up only 33% of partners in firms and the proportion of female QCs stood at only 16.8%. These few statistics also do not speak to the surmounting inequality that many women experience in numerous areas of daily life. It is also worth noting that the pay gap that is normally discussed generally focuses on white women and the situation for women of colour is more severe.
Even though inequality has persisted despite law reform, legal regulation should not be viewed as an ineffective method. Most issues such as discrimination require a multi-faceted approach and the effectiveness of legal change rests on implementation and enforcement. It is unsurprising that targeting the law alone is not sufficient to achieve actualised equality. However, it remains able to impact behaviour and attitudes both directly and indirectly and as such should be used in an armoury of approaches to tackle discrimination; the Six Point Group were right to recognise its utility.