The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 was immensely significant for a whole generation of women who needed no longer to accept that sexism was just the way of the world. They could point to the Act and challenge the discrimination they faced.
The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 came into force along with the Equal Pay Act 1970 on 29 December 1975. The Act is undoubtedly of symbolic and legal significance for women but it is not without its critics. Indeed, even the White Paper that preceded the Act, ‘Equality for Women’, cautioned against expecting too much:
‘It is important to recognise the inevitable restraints on what can be achieved by legislation, so that it is seen in proper perspective, without arousing false expectations or encouraging a sense of complacency.’
The Act applied equally to men and women, making it unlawful to discriminate against either sex ‘on the ground of’ sex. It extended its coverage to ‘marital status’ but only in the employment field and only to those who were married, not those who were single.
Despite its limitations the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 deserves its place as a landmark both as a valuable measure in its own right, and as an important marker on the road to modern anti-discrimination laws. It is, moreover, another example of what can be achieved when campaigners and law-makers are united in the desire to produce social change. At the time of its enactment, Ronald Bell, QC, Conservative MP for Beaconsfield said of it that exposed Parliament to ridicule: ‘The good it will do will be microscopic and the harm will be immense’. History proves him wrong on both counts.
The full version of this landmark is written by Anne Morris.
BBC News, ‘1975: New Laws to End Battle of the Sexes’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/december/29/newsid_2547000/2547249.stm
The Guardian News and Media Ltd., ‘Equal Pay Packet—With Strings’ https://www.theguardian.com/politics/1975/dec/29/past.comment
Sisterhood and After Research Team, ‘The Impact of Legislation on Women’s Lives’ (British Library, 8 March 2013) https://www.bl.uk/sisterhood/articles/the-impact-of-legislation-on-womens-lives