Women and the Welfare State

My research focuses on women born in Britain in the long 1940s. This is a generation of women that has made a significant contribution to the intellectual and political life of Britain, yet we know surprisingly little about their lives- especially past the 1960s. 

My research has found that the welfare state was so central to the lives of women born during the long 1940s that they should be considered the ‘welfare state generation’. Not only were their whole lives shaped by the expanded post-war welfare state, but they were also active agents in shaping it. The expansion of the welfare state opened up new educational and occupational opportunities for women which had ongoing effects on their material circumstances and sense of self. This insight transforms our understanding of this generation and offers a new way to think about the changes in education, work and life-cycle that occurred in the lives of post-war women. 

To analyse the experiences of this generation, I interviewed women using life history techniques and asked them questions about their life from birth to the present-day. I am interested in what women have to say about their own experiences, and what they perceive as the significant moments and turning-points. During the interviews, I was constantly surprised by the twists and turns of women’s lives and many of my assumptions were challenged. It is often overlooked by historians that women tend to have much less linear life trajectories than men. Women of the welfare state generation are particularly adaptable and likely to move between different educational and occupational arrangements over the life course. 

One notable theme that emerged unexpectedly from the interviews was the fact that many women achieved social mobility in the 1970s through entering adult education and then getting a job in the welfare professions. It was common for women of this generation to leave school at 15 or 16 with few qualifications, but I have found that many of them returned to gain a degree later in life. They benefitted from the second major expansion of the welfare state in the late 1960s, during which the Wilson government created the polytechnics and expanded further education. I have explored this development in detail in a recent article for Cultural and Social History. 

We know much less about women’s social mobility than men’s, and the majority of existing mobility models are based on the male experience. Until fairly recently, scholars presumed women’s social class was just the same as that of their father and then husband, so women’s mobility was not worth studying in its own right. It is especially important to focus on the mobility of women born during the mid-twentieth century because there are a number of myths about the nature of social mobility in this period- most notably the role of the grammar school- which are often deployed by politicians to justify social policy. 

To develop my research on social mobility, I am currently interviewing women born around the 1970s so that I can contrast the generational experience of mobility. The generation of women born in the 1970s are in a sense the ‘daughters’ of the post-war women. These two generations are significant counterpoints to each other and studying them together sharpens our understanding of their differing experiences. Whilst the older women were socialised during a period of social democracy and relatively high rates of social mobility, the younger generation grew up during an extensive period of neoliberal government and static or declining rates of mobility. A key question that needs answering by historians is: what are the mechanisms of upward social mobility for women when the welfare state is contracting rather than expanding? 

Dr Eve Worth
Eve is the inaugural Jenny Wormald Junior Research Fellow in History
St Hilda’s College