100 years ago, most middle-class women didn’t work. Of course, many women did work – on the land, in factories, as seamstresses and laundrywomen, and in domestic service – but they were always paid less than men, often destroying their health and lives for a pittance. Most married men did whatever they could to make sure wives did not work, as many saw it as their duty to “keep” “their” wives. Most families lived in what would now be thought of as abject poverty, but would never dream of allowing the woman in the family to do paid work if they could avoid it.
Of course, household work was far harder then. I can remember my mother washing our clothes in a tub before wringing them out. Many women had more babies than they do now, with no effective birth control available, and infant mortality high. (I believe that birth control will come to be seen with agriculture and the steam engine as a turning point in history). But there was never any suggestion, apart from amongst a tiny group of eccentric intellectuals, that perhaps the man of the house could help with the housework. And men actually promoted theories that women’s brains were weaker and their bodies were unsuited to anything other than childbirth – which didn’t stop them exploiting women’s labour in sweatshops and match factories of course.
We’ve come an enormous way in 100 years. Company boardrooms are more effective with women – not just a token woman – in positions of power. I am proud of the role Labour has played in promoting women’s equality in politics. We’ve had women at the top of virtually every profession. There’s still a way to go – women are under-represented in management and over-represented in low-paid jobs – but only a tiny number of chauvinists would now claim that men were more capable overall than women.
Women did not achieve this by accident. It took an enormous amount of determination and hard work, and changes in the law as well as changes in public attitudes. How much richer, more productive, and more humane our society is now because half its members are playing an active role. We now need to fight for equality of treatment and opportunity for Black and Minority Ethnic people, and for disabled people as well.
Yesterday, the House of Commons debated the UN Convention on the rights of disabled people. People are all different – some have some skills and some have others. But there are far too many people with skills that are not being used because of Society’s attitude. People with degrees who are unemployed because they have cerebral palsy and so “sound funny”. People who are fit and eager but who are ignored because they have learning difficulties. People who want jobs as secretaries or computer programmers or hairdressers but who cannot reach their workplace because they are in a wheelchair. These people are mostly “disabled” by Society’s attitudes, not by their own characteristics.
On Wednesday Theresa May offered her condolences to a family whose disabled father died after 18 months of not receiving the benefits he was entitled to. But disabled people don’t want warm words, they want justice.
For those who are incapable of any work, we owe it to ourselves, as a decent society, to make sure that they can be enabled to live as full and independent lives as possible. But for those who can and do want to work, the uncertainty and complication of claiming the benefits they need in order to live actually stands in the way of seeking employment. It is a nonsense to suggest that by taking away any travel support, for instance, you are going to incentivise a disabled person to travel to job interviews. Work Capability Assessments are destroying people’s lives. We know that the majority of the decisions are just plain wrong, because over 60% of the appeals are successful. In fact, the Ipswich Citizens Advice Bureau tells me that over 90% of the Appeals that they prepare are successful, because they are able to ensure that the person gets the best possible hearing.
So let’s stop blaming disability and unemployment on the disabled people themselves, let’s work to take away the barriers to employment – both legal and social – and lets look forward to a Society where not only are disabled people’s rights fully protected, but they are able to contribute to society on an equal basis too.