Springingtiger's Blog

Brief Encounters

Sadly the first series of BBC’s (my mistake it was on independent television as my wife reminds me) ‘Brief Encounters’ has come to an end. I was unsure that a comedy serial based on ‘Ann Summers’ in the Seventies had much to offer, but the trailers were funny and so I decided to try it. In the end I watched and enjoyed every episode.

Without sounding too serious, I hope, I would like to say that this was actually an important program. It is easy to forget now just how much society has changed since the Nineteen Seventies and ‘Brief Encounters’ is a timely reminder of what life used to be like. The Equal Pay Act had only just been passed in 1970 and the actuality of equal pay was still far off…let’s be honest nearly half a century since the Act women are still suffering from disproportionately lower pay than men.

In 1979 I joined the Union of Post Office Workers, Glasgow Night Telephonists Branch. I have somewhere a rule book from a few years before I joined in which the branch was called the Glasgow Male Telephonists Branch because it was only in the Seventies that the Post Office Telephones allowed women to work at night. Even when I joined the day staff were mostly female and the night staff and all the night supervision were men. Allowing women to work nights had not been popular with many of the men. I remember the frictions every time we introduced a new staffing revision the men wanted the revision to maximise income which meant building in as many anti social hours as possible whereas the majority of the women wanted us to maximise the time off, the two were not compatible.

It is useful to remember that it was not until 1928 that all women over the age of twenty one were allowed to vote. Previously some women had at certain elections had vote because of property qualifications and suffrage had been extended piecemeal in local elections. It is a little ironic that after all their efforts to bring about universal suffrage and remove the property qualification over a century later the Labour Party is trying to exclude many of its members from voting by pricing the right to vote too high, in effect a property qualification.

I remember on one occasion canvassing in West Renfrew for Norman Buchan. I knocked one door and asked the man who opened it if he would be voting Labour. He said he would, referred to my electoral roll and asked about the other members of the family. He replied that they too would vote Labour. I stupidly suggested that perhaps I should confirm that personally to which he responded,

“They will vote the way I tell them to!” and closed the door. This is the attitude which ‘Brief Encounters’ reminds us was prevalent back then, the man was head of of the family and ruled it.

We should not remember that back then it was usual for married women to vow to obey their husbands. We know how difficult it is to get a conviction of rape, even more so in marriage. Until 1991 it was not a crime for a man to rape his wife, the marriage vows effectively gave consent. The definition of marital rape was finally given in 2003. In ‘Brief Encounters’ we see the liberating impact of women taking control of their own sexuality and because of the age range of the women we get a sense of the progress being made. One plot line brings home the racism that existed towards relationships such that a mixed race baby would bring unendurable shame on a white family. I know from experience that in the Seventies my wife (then fiancée) and I knew very few other mixed race couples and there was resistance to them. Now they are commonplace on television and in society, but still not always acceptable.

I remember many years ago being told that one of the inmates of a psychiatric hospital in which I worked had been committed years before because her throwing her husband out was considered sufficient evidence of insanity. It was not until 1971 that Refuge opened the first women’s refuge in the UK. A feature of the story was the growing confidence of the women. However it was only in 2014 that legislation was introduced to prevent psychological abuse in marriage. It’s only a few years since someone I know was told that ‘men are like that’ when she was challenged for allowing her husband to abuse her.

It was only in 1926 that a woman could own and dispose of her own property, but in the Seventies she was still economically subservient to her husband. It was not until 1990 that the incomes of a husband and wife were taxed separately even the Married Couples Allowance was paid to the husband. I remember in my union branch many of the men complaining that the women were only working for ‘pin money’ while for the men it was their family’s primary wage, in fact this was an oversimplification that became increasingly less true as time went on. However there was still a perception that it was a man’s role to earn a wage while his wife looked after the children. In some professions marriage bars preventing women’s full time employment lasted in to the Seventies. I still know men who think their wives should only work with their permission. One woman on the day staff used to get up at four in the morning to make her retired husband’s packed lunch when he was going to go fishing, then she’d get herself ready and take the bus into work for a Seven O’ Clock start while he was still asleep. In the evening she would do her housework and cook dinner. This was in the Nineteen Eighties.

It was good to be reminded by ‘Brief Encounters’ how much has changed since the Seventies and to see women’s lives changing. However unfortunately it also reminds me that so many of those prehistoric attitudes to women are still holding ground and the pace of change is pitifully slow. The programs made me laugh and laugh, reflecting on the programs makes me angry.


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