The Beveridge vision
The Beveridge vision

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The Beveridge vision

4 More giants?

4.1 Sexism

Let us leave the emotive word ‘sexism’ to one side for a moment and look at what Beveridge actually said about the place of women in his scheme and the kind of reasoning he used. He gave considerable attention to the position of married women:

The great majority of married women must be regarded as occupied on work which is vital though unpaid, without which their husbands could not do their paid work and without which the nation could not continue.

(Beveridge, 1942, para. 108)

This ‘vital work’ comprised a number of things. It included caring for their husbands and maintaining the home. Also, as you will know from studying this course, it often involved being what is now called an informal carer, looking after elderly parents and sometimes chronically ill family members. For Beveridge, however, the main component of married women's vital work was producing and caring for children. He stated:

The attitude of the housewife to gainful employment outside the home is not and should not be the same as that of the single woman. She has other duties …In the next thirty years housewives as Mothers have vital work to do in ensuring the adequate continuance of the British Race and of British ideals in the world.

(paras 114,117)

Part of the ‘vital work’ of women

It was because of his acknowledgement of the importance of childbearing and childcare, that Beveridge felt that the married woman should be entitled to economic support from her husband, both for herself and for her children. He went further and advocated maternity benefit at a level higher than unemployment benefit. This was altered after a few years, but was an indication of the importance he attributed to women's ‘vital work’.

The insurance system he devised was consistent with this thinking about women. Single women would take part, like single men, in the insurance scheme. Married women would probably not work and need not do so since husband and wife together were an economic unit. If married women did work, they had the option of being exempt from contributions altogether and, if they chose to pay, they would be entitled to unemployment and sickness benefit at a lower rate, since they did not have the responsibility of family support.

Activity 3: Fair to women?

Timing: 0 hours 15 minutes

Read once more the quotations from the Beveridge report given above. Does Beveridge's approach strike you as fair or unfair to women? Jot down the reasons for your answer and see if you can also write down what arguments would be presented by someone who took the opposite view. (We will leave until a little later the question of ‘the British Race’ and ‘British ideals’ that appear in those quotations.)


If you want to argue that the insurance scheme was fair to women, you can point out that Beveridge recognised that women had a different place from men in society and made provision for it. He acknowledged that what women did in the home was important work – that men's economic activity could not take place without it – and he devised a form of recognition for this. His scheme thus took the reality of women's lives into account and made an allowance for the fact that they could not enter the job market in the same way as men. You could say it was fair because women were an integral part of the scheme and their different needs were recognised.

If you want to argue that Beveridge was unfair to women, however, you could point out that he did not treat the two sexes equally. Married women did not have the opportunity to contribute and benefit in the same way. They were seen not as people in their own right, but as wives. The scheme made them into dependants of their husbands and locked them into marriage. Family allowances apart, they were not given any financial recompense for their vital work, and their choices about doing or not doing caring work of all kinds were restricted.

At the time, many women felt that the scheme was an important advance for them, recognising them in public policy in a way that had not happened previously. Beveridge's own wife certainly took this view. In a book on the scheme published in 1954, Janet Beveridge commented that ‘the whole joy of William's Scheme is its unconscious fairness to women’ (Beveridge, 1954). But even at the time women's organisations and individual women came out in criticism. A pamphlet from an organisation known as the Women's Freedom League was strongly against the dependent status of women in the scheme (Abbott and Bompas, 1943), and at least one deputation to the government was organised, although with no positive result as far as the women involved were concerned (Wilson, 1977, p. 154). The next box shows that some women not only thought Beveridge unfair to women but devised a detailed alternative.

An alternative to Beveridge?

Lady Juliet Rhys-Williams, who had been an active campaigner for maternity services in the 1930s and for making family allowances available directly to mothers, proposed that each man, woman and child should have an allowance funded through taxation, payable to them if they signed a ‘social contract’. Men should be available for work, unmarried women and married women without children should give some service to the community, perhaps through part-time jobs (some of which would provide much-needed help to other women with housework and childcare). The scheme was based on the principles that the state owed the same benefits to all its citizens and that no one, man or woman, ‘should ever depend on any other individual for the means of existence, but only for luxuries and pleasures’ (Rhys-Williams, 1943, p. 182).

If each person had an allowance and the costs of caring were shared equally:

No woman would in future be an unpaid drudge, beholden to some relative for her living and entirely without pocket money of her own as millions of women have been in the past.

(p. 184)

She objected that the Beveridge proposals:

do little to put right this vital matter of providing an income for wives, although the fact that wives are partners with their husbands and not mere slave-like dependants is recognised in theory by the Report.

(p. 185)

In the 1950s and the 1960s, university students of social policy learnt a great deal about the Beveridge plan and its arrangements for eligibility. I myself was one of those students in the 1960s. The emphasis in our courses was on the advances that insurance/assistance represented compared with the pre-war fragmented schemes and on the positive features of the contributory principle. Where there was controversy it was about how far the scheme redistributed from rich to poor (largely it did not – given its flat rate contributions it took more proportionately from poorer workers, redistributing their income over their lifetimes). No one at the time – staff or students – thought to ask about the impact on women and certainly no one drew our attention to the writings of women in the 1940s. It took the momentum of the feminist movement in the mid-1970s and the arrival of more women academics, before questions about women's dependency and the pros and cons of caring again emerged (see, for example, Land, 1978; Wilson, 1977; Lewis, 1983).

So was Beveridge ‘sexist’? If that is a question about his motives and intentions, it is probably not a very helpful question to ask. Even the sternest feminist critics stress that he was reflecting the accepted views of his time about the role of women. He was aware of the drudgery of housework and had ideas on how to combat it; he also rejected the idea that women could be described as ‘dependants’ preferring to see them as ‘partners’ (Measor and Williamson, 1992). It may be better to think of institutional sexism – of assumptions built into the design of the welfare state that placed women in a distinctive and disadvantaged position compared with men and did not allow the range of work they did to be the subject of public discussion. Both the burdens and the blessings of the caring work done by women, were later to become a focus, first of study, then of policy debate in the 1980s.

Key points

  • The Beveridge vision relied on married women to provide care.

  • It also locked women into a form of dependency that some later sought to question.

  • Later, when more women began to question their traditional role, caring began to come on to the policy agenda.


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