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From the Archive: Women's Liberation, Miniskirts and The Pill in 60s and 70s Britain

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Authored by Nishah Malik
Published on 1st February, 2022 23 min read

From the Archive: Women's Liberation, Miniskirts and The Pill in 60s and 70s Britain

Our exciting new collection, British Government Information and Propaganda, 1939-2009, explores the materials produced by the British Ministry of Information (MOI) and Central Office of Information (COI). The material covers subjects such as, the Second World War, the Cold War, race relations in the 1970s and the implementation of social security benefits in Britain. The collection is an invaluable source for students and researchers alike, it provides an insight into what the British government wanted their citizens to know and do. It is also useful in revealing what image of Britain the government chose to project, as well as how the government's media tactics changed over time. 

This article will examine one of the pamphlets within this collection, that was produced by the Central Office of Information: Women in Britain. The pamphlet, published in 1975, outlines the number of ways women’s status in British society had improved by the early-1970s. Referencing women’s status in the nineteenth-century, the pamphlet begins with discussing how the “restriction and repression of women at this time were due partly to direct legal discrimination” and the sexist voting system.1 Further mentioning how since the Victorian era women have seen major changes to their status. The pamphlet attributes these changes to legal reforms, changes in job practices after the Second World War, changes to family patterns and the “work of exceptional women”, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Fry. 

The pamphlet is divided into nine sections, each exploring a different area of life and further explaining the changes to repressive practices. When referring to political status it mentions how the rights of husbands and wives were practically equal in respect to property and children, due to the recent legislation. Furthermore, when discussing education it discusses how women’s enrolment in higher education had risen to 30% in 1972, in comparison to the 23% in 1961.2 When referring to work, it mentions how more women were working outside the home, as in 1971 women formed 36.6% of the labour force, in comparison to the 27% in 1921. Out of that 36.6%, 63% of the women were married, which is a sharp rise from the 13% in 1921.3 These vast changes are not surprising considering the context of the time the pamphlet was written. Francis Wheen asserted that the “1960s differed from its predecessors”, 1960s and early-1970s Britain was an era of dynamic social change.4 It was a period of great prosperity in all aspects of British society. Anne Tyrell mentioned that during the 1960s “an air of optimism prevailed”, it was a “time when anything and everything seemed possible”.5 Britain became a country “favourable to change”, a country that began questioning deep-rooted patriarchal  societal norms and practices.6 

Analysing this pamphlet can uncover a wealth of information related to this new air of optimism that prevailed, particularly revealing the integral changes in women’s political, economic and working status by 1975. However, while they are vital factors in exploring how women’s role changed in society, it is only a segment of the story. The pamphlet only briefly touches on social issues, such as the changes in contraceptive methods during this period. Therefore, taking a social history approach this article will put this pamphlet into the context of the 1960s and 1970s and examine some of the other factors that helped to change women’s position in society by 1975. In particular, it will explore the post-War “Youthquake”, the impact of Mary Quant’s rising hemline and the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.  

Youth Cultures and the Introduction of the Teenager 

“One of the most enduring memories of the 1960s is that of the youth revolution”7

Post Second World War Britain witnessed many watershed moments in which the economic, social, political and cultural landscape of Britain completely transformed.8 One of the most prominent social changes that happened in the post-War years was the emergence of a ‘distinctive teenage culture’ for the first time.9 Arguably, this was one of the first social catalysts that helped to gradually reject idealised femininity and subsequently change women’s status in society by 1975. 

Peter Lewis asserted that the mid-1950s witnessed a “Youthquake” ‘that encompassed the explosive discovery of teenage identity’.10 The idea of the teenager emerged in the mid-20th century, as before the 1950s “the teenager” was not an identifiable social category. This was down to a combination of the post-War baby boom and the rise of the school leaving age to 16 that resulted in an ‘unparalleled number of teenagers’.11 Mark Abrams’ found  that “young people, more than any other social group, has materially prospered since the war”.12 This is certainly true as this new social category were not just powerful in numbers, but also as their role as consumers. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s there was a major economic boost that witnessed the transformation of traditional labour markets and a rise in consumer industries. Following the post-War ‘demand for labour and sustained rises in real earnings’, the earnings of teenagers nearly doubled between the years 1956 and 1966.13  This new financial independence resulted in a disposable income for the first time that they could spend on fashion and music, as many did not have the costs of supporting a family as their parents did at their age. 

Bill Osgerby maintained that the term ‘Youthquake’ was a “phrase charged with connotations of deep-seated generational upheaval”.14 The new generation began turning away from tradition and their parent's lifestyle. They began challenging the norms of the past and subsequently began creating their own cultural expression; a culture that was separate to that of their parents.15 A number of distinctive youth subcultures emerged in the post-War years, most notably the Teddy Boys, Mods, and Rockers. Thus, the ‘Youthquake’ of the 1950s is an important segment of how women’s status in Britain improved by 1975. The air of optimism that prevailed in the 1960s, that Tyrell mentioned, as well as the fact that many of the teenagers were reaching young adulthood by the 1960s and 1970s created a new generation that were actively trying to break down outdated norms.  

The Swinging Sixties: Mary Quant and the Miniskirt 

During the 1960s, due to a combination of the ‘Youthquake’, the emergence of distinct subcultures and the rise in teenage/young adult spending powers a youth market developed. There was a major increase in music halls, record companies, cinemas, fashion, shops and magazines.16 Many retailers began selling products suited to this new generation of consumers who had different norms to their predecessors. In Youth in Britain, Osgerby, when discussing the emergence of the teenager, maintained that central notions of the teenager was “the idea that traditional class and gender boundaries were being eroded by the fashions and lifestyle of newly affluent gilded youth”.17 Osgerby’s comment further emphasises how the erosion of traditional gender boundaries in the 1960s and 1970s was not just down to the political and economic changes to a woman’s status that the Central Office of Information pamphlet mentions, but was also down to social factors such as changes in fashion. 

Marine Fogg referred to the swinging sixties as “an age of social enlightenment that was the welcome start of a more liberal society”, it was an age in which anything seemed possible.18 Fashion began to reflect this more liberal mood.19 The 1960s witnessed many iconic fashion trends, however the most famous one has to be  British fashion designer Mary Quant’s miniskirt. Quant, hailed as the “mother of the miniskirt”, opened up her clothing boutique on Kings Road, London in 1955.20 She wanted to design clothes for a youth-orientated market and for the young working woman, however the boutiques prices were expensive for the working-class young woman. Therefore, she set up a diffusion label, the Ginger Group, in 1963, in which she offered affordable mass-produced ‘off-the-peg’ designer collections to the commercial market.21 It was under this label that she began designing and selling the miniskirt in 1963. While the invention of the miniskirt cannot be dated back to one particular designer, it is widely acknowledged that Quant gave “mass-market appeal to thigh-skimming miniskirts”.22 The super short miniskirt became Quant’s signature look and it was widely sold and worn by many women in the late-1960s. The miniskirt truly did ‘spearhead a revolution’, as this lower priced label was available to purchase in 160 department stores , which meant for the first time, due to mass production, fashion was not just for the wealthy woman.23 

"Mary Quant epitomised a style which was different to the norm and meant that teenage girls like me, didn’t have to look like their mothers"24 - Jenny Fenwick, who owned a Mary Quant miniskirt.

Fiona Foulkes asserted that during the twentieth-century “women’s roles were changing socially, economically and politically and their dress changed accordingly”.25 Fashion may be considered superficial; a fad that is of unimportance in the grand scheme of history. However, ‘the rise of the hemline’  was anything but frivolous, it became to be one of the ‘most enduring images’  of the sixties.26 What one wears does not just reflect their personal identity, but mirrors the society in which they were created. Similar to Foulkes comment, Prown, in her article about material culture, mentioned that “when a society undergoes change this manifests itself artifactually”.27 The miniskirt was a manifestation of this societal change. Quant’s mantra was to design unfussy clothes for the modern working woman, within an interview she mentioned:

“I had myself in mind when I designed it. I liked my skirts short because I wanted to run and catch the bus to get to work. It was that feeling of freedom and liberation.”28

The miniskirt was all about providing functionality for the modern woman. Within Boutique: 60s Cultural Phenomena, Fogg recalls growing up as a child within the 1950s and being “made to wear white gloves and carry a handbag like a miniature middle-aged woman”.29 Previously young women dressed similar to their mothers, however the miniskirt provided them with a chance to take control of their own narrative, it provided them with more social independence, while simultaneously wearing an item of clothing that fitted their modern lifestyle. Fashion historian, Laurent Cotta expressed that wearing a miniskirt in the 1960s “was a sure-fire way of upsetting your parents”.30 In a sense the miniskirt was a form of rebellion, women were rejecting traditional dress code norms; no longer would women “be restricted with corsets and weighed down with gown-like skirts”.31

“The miniskirt remained an iconic signifier of a certain type of liberated woman.”32

The short length of the miniskirt also characterises the sexual changes of the period. Psychologist Flugel proposed the ‘theory of shifting erogenous zones’, essentially stating that over time the ‘focus of erotic attention’ has shifted to different parts of the female body, simply due to ‘boredom and over familiarity’.33 Flugel states that within the 1900s the ankle was the ‘focus of erotic attention’, while by the 1930s attention shifted to the back and by the 1960s the ‘thighs became the new erogenous zones’.34 The fact the thighs would be visible in a miniskirt does not just mark a fashion revolution, but a sexual shift to a more liberal society, as to date the thighs had always remained covered.  Thus, it was not just a fashion fad, the miniskirt is significant in indicating a paradigm shift from conservative dress to a more free-spirited dress. The introduction of more liberal dressing, like the miniskirt, is another segment of how women’s status changed by 1975. Drawing on Prown’s comment, the fashion of the 1960s embodied the very spirit of the wider economic, social and political freedoms that women were gradually gaining in society. It is a visual representation of the new-found freedom for women.

Sexual Revolution and The Pill 

“Sexual intercourse began in 1963”35, Phillip Larkin

The Central Office of Information pamphlet only briefly touches on changes to contraceptive methods in the 1960s and mentions how contraception had “helped to bring the average number of children born” to one woman from 6 to 2. It also only briefly mentions the sexual revolution, however does not expand on how the sexual revolution helped to change women’s position in society. It states:

“Important and fairly rapid changes in the age and sex structure of the population have been taking place throughout the twentieth century and have had a profound effect on women’s position in society and their way of life”36 

As discussed, the 1960s witnessed profound changes to all traditional aspects of society, in particular the decade provided more openness with regards to sex. During the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century great emphasis was placed on a woman’s chastity and modesty.37 Intercourse, for women, was only presented as a means of producing children in the constructs of marriage and sex outside of marriage would have “ruined” the woman’s status.38 However, this changed for women in the 1960s and 1970s, there was more of an emphasis on sexual pleasure and enjoying sex without just having children.39 At the heart of this more sexually liberal society was the advent of the contraceptive pill. 

Dame Valerie Beral, a professor at Oxford University, maintained that the introduction of the pill was the "most important thing in the latter half of the century - no question about it".40 Prior to the 1960s there were a range of contraceptive methods available, but these were not always safe or mainly relied on men.41 However, Minister for Health, Enoch Powell, announced on the 4th December 1961 that the female birth control pill could now be prescribed on the NHS.42 In 1961, the pill was only available to “older married women who no longer wanted children, or to those whose health would be at serious risk during pregnancy”.43 After the passing of the NHS Family Planning Act in 1967 the pill became more widely available for women.44  

The introduction of the contraceptive pill was a milestone moment for the women’s liberation movement. Despite some backlash, many women began taking the pill and the usage rose from 50,000 to 1 million between 1962 and 1969.45 Hand in hand with the sexual revolution of the period, the pill gave women more sexual agency. It allowed for more of a focus on sexual pleasure and for the first time separated sex from reproduction. Jenni Murray talks about this sexual agency that the pill provided: 

“I loathe this idea that women have no agency in their sexuality. What the pill gave us was the opportunity to know we had agency and we could exercise it, and we could make choices about it.”46

Angela Phillips provides a different angle to what usually dominates the narrative in regard to the pill and women’s liberation.47 She mentions how the invention of the pill did not just provide women with sexual liberation, but allowed them to be economically independent. As with most aspects in society women have faced “a long history of discrimination when it comes to birth control”.48 Prior to the pill and legal abortion laws, like the 1967 Abortion Act, sex would come with the likelihood of pregnancy, Phillips mentions how this meant the end of a woman’s economic independence.49 A woman who became pregnant was immediately financially dependent on “the man who impregnated her”.50 Phillips asserts that due to the lack of personal earnings women were “literally enslaved” and “totally depended on his [her husband’s] earnings to keep her and her child”.51 However, this changed by the 1960s and 1970s, with more women working, having their own income, shared property laws and shifts in family structure. The Central Office of Information pamphlet proves this by stating: 

“Some 70% of women aged 20 years and over are married. Most families are run by a man and woman living together, sharing the use and, in many cases, legal ownership of the family home and its contents, looking upon themselves as partners in earning and spending and in an increasing number of cases operating a joint bank account. Often both husband and wife are going out to work, while both share in the running and maintenance of the house and the care and upbringing of the children.”52 

The 1960s and 1970s did not just see women gain independence in terms of being able to have a career, but the introduction of the pill allowed them to break “the link in the chain that had eternally tied women to male earnings”.53 Phillips commented that the pill in fact allowed women to make “economic independence a reality”.54 Women could now not only enjoy sex, but also plan when to have or not have a child, they could continue their career or education without the fear of getting pregnant. The changes in the sex structure and introduction of the pill had a profound effect on women’s position in society by 1975. 

Women in Britain

When referring to the nineteenth and early-twentieth century the Central Office of Information pamphlet mentions how “the restriction and repression of women at this time were due partly to direct legal discrimination”. While there is no denying this, this article has in fact shown how the restriction and repression of women happened in all aspects of society, not just legally. Social changes, such as freedom in terms of sex, fashion and the introduction of youth subcultures provided women with economic, sexual, and social independence that helped them reject idealised femininity. You cannot attribute the changes to women’s status to just one factor, however each segment should be viewed as part of an overlapping longer continuum that helped to change women’s position overtime. However, at the heart of these alterations was a gradual change in societal attitudes surrounding deep rooted female repression. The changes in attitudes regarding a woman’s place in the 1960s and 1970s was arguably the key factor that helped to create a modern Britain built on equality between the sexes.

  1. "Central Office of Information Reference Pamphlet 67 - Women in Britain", 1975, p. 1. Available at: https://microform.digital/boa/documents/22507/bs8135-central-office-of-information-reference-pamphlet-67-women-in-britain-1975#?c=&m=&s=&cv=6&xywh=-216%2C1007%2C6483%2C3591 
  2. Ibid, p. 9. 
  3. Ibid, p. 12. 
  4. Wheen, Francis, The Sixties, (London: Ebury Press, 1982), p. 13.
  5. Tyrell, Anne, Classical Fashion Patterns of the 20th Century, (London: Batsford, 2010), p. 138.
  6. Ibid. 
  7. Wheen, Francis, The Sixties, p. 14.
  8. Lewis, Peter, (2008), "Youthquake": Continuity and Change in the Culture of Salford Youth, c. 1955-1969", Thesis, Newcastle University, p. 3.
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Lewis, Peter, The Fifties, (London: BCA, 2005), p. 118.
  11. Fogg, Marnie, Boutique: a 60s Cultural Phenomena (London: Mitchell Beazley, 2003), p. 8. And Osgerby, Bill, Youth in Britain Since 1945, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), p.5.
  12. Osgerby, Bill, Youth in Britain Since 1945, p. 26.
  13. Osgerby, Bill, Youth in Britain Since 1945, p. 25. & Donnelly, Mark, Sixties Britain (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005), p. 23.
  14. Osgerby, Bill, Youth Media, (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), p. 26. 
  15. Osgerby, Bill, Youth in Britain Since 1945, p. 6.
  16. Osgerby, Bill, Youth Media, p.18.
  17. Osgerby, Bill, Youth in Britain Since 1945, p. 37.
  18. Fogg, Marnie, Boutique: a 60s Cultural Phenomena, p. 8.
  19. Cawthorne, Nigel, Key moments in fashion: the evolution of style, (London: Hamlyn, 1998), p. 112.
  20. Lobenthal, Joel, Radical Rags: Fashion of the Sixties (New York: Abbeville Press, 1990), p. 11.
  21. Lister, Jenny ‘Kaleidoscope Fashion in Sixties London’ in Breward, C. Gilbert, D. Lister, J. (ed.) Swinging Sixties (London: V&A Publications, 2006), p. 40.
  22. https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2021/oct/28/miniskirt-mayhem-nine-ways-mary-quant-revolutionised-womens-clothes-and-lives#:~:text=Before%20Mary%20Quant%2C%20it,opens%20in%20cinemas%20this%20week
  23. Franklin, Caryn, Fashion: The Ultimate Book of Costumes and Style (London: DK, 2012), p. 352. and Lister, Jenny ‘Kaleidoscope Fashion in Sixties London’ in Breward, C. Gilbert, D. Lister, J. (ed.) Swinging Sixties,p. 40.
  24.  https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/the-miniskirt-myth 
  25.  Foulkes, Fiona, How to Read Fashion, (London: Herbert Press, 2010), p. 90. 
  26. Baxter-Wright, Emma, “1960’s” in Vintage Fashion Collecting and Wearing Designer Classics (London: Carlton Book, 2013), p. 125. and Cawthorne, Nigel, Key moments in fashion: the evolution of style, p. 110.
  27. Prown, J. ‘The truth of material culture: history or fiction’, in Lubar, S. and Kingery, W.D. (eds) History From Things: Essays on Material Culture. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), p. 1.
  28. https://www.heraldscotland.com/life_style/13157770.50-years-mini-skirt-mary-quants-thoughts-success/ 
  29. Fogg, Marnie, Boutique: a 60s cultural phenomena, p. 8.
  30. https://www.thefashionspot.com/runway-news/671429-ollie-henderson-history-miniskirt-tale-sexual-revolution/
  31. Ibid.
  32. https://www.standard.co.uk/lifestyle/london-life/mary-quant-mini-skirt-liberated-women-a3764166.html
  33. Lurie, Alison, The Language of Clothes (London: Bloomsbury, 1992), p. 250.
  34. Ibid. 
  35. Wheen, Francis, The Sixties, p. 13
  36. "Central Office of Information Reference Pamphlet 67 - Women in Britain", 1975, p. 1. Available at: https://microform.digital/boa/documents/22507/bs8135-central-office-of-information-reference-pamphlet-67-women-in-britain-1975#?c=&m=&s=&cv=6&xywh=-216%2C1007%2C6483%2C3591 
  37. https://www.bl.uk/sisterhood/articles/sex-love-friendship-and-the-womens-liberation-movement
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid.
  40. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/jun/06/rachel-cooke-fifty-years-the-pill-oral-contraceptive
  41. https://www.hana.co.uk/blog/the-pill-through-the-ages-the-journey-to-the-60s/
  42. https://peopleshistorynhs.org/encyclopaedia/birth-control-on-the-nhs/ 
  43. Ibid.
  44. https://onlinedoctor.lloydspharmacy.com/uk/contraception-advice/when-was-the-pill-invented
  45. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/250337.stm 
  46. https://www.bl.uk/sisterhood/articles/sexual-pleasure-sexual-rights
  47. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/mar/31/thepillsexandwomenslibera
  48. https://www.hana.co.uk/blog/the-pill-through-the-ages-the-journey-to-the-60s/
  49. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/mar/31/thepillsexandwomenslibera
  50. Ibid. 
  51. Ibid. 
  52. "Central Office of Information Reference Pamphlet 67 - Women in Britain", 1975, p. 1. Available at: https://microform.digital/boa/documents/22507/bs8135-central-office-of-information-reference-pamphlet-67-women-in-britain-1975#?c=&m=&s=&cv=6&xywh=-216%2C1007%2C6483%2C3591 
  53. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/mar/31/thepillsexandwomenslibera 
  54. Ibid.


Authored by Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik


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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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