5 Key Laws that Reflect the ‘Permissive Society’ of 1960s Britain | History Hit

5 Key Laws that Reflect the ‘Permissive Society’ of 1960s Britain

Katy Maydon

06 Jan 2020
Carnaby Street was a fashionable hub in the 1960s

A ‘permissive society’ is one in which liberal behaviour becomes more accepted – particularly with regard to sexual freedoms. One of the most famous examples is that of 1960s Britain, where being ‘deviant’ gained new meaning.

Here are five key moments in law reform that reflected the move towards a ‘permissive society’ in 1960s Britain.

1. The ‘Lady Chatterley’ Trial

In 1960, the publishing house Penguin Books decided to publish an unexpurgated version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. As well as being the 75th anniversary of Lawrence’s birth, it was also Penguin’s 25th jubilee, and the run of 200,000 copies marked the occasion.

Under an act passed in 1959 it was a criminal offence to publish literature classed as ‘obscene’. The crown made the decision to prosecute Penguin and block the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Penguin fought the prosecution.

The passport photograph of D.H. Lawrenece, the author of 'Lady Chatterley's Lover'.

Passport photograph of D.H. Lawrence, author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Credit: Public domain)

Between October and November 1960, the court, held at the Old Bailey in London, heard how many times the explicit ‘four letter words’ were used. The jury were asked:

Is it a book you would have lying in your own house? Is it a book you would wish your wife or servant to read?

Witnesses were called for the defence, which included a number of experts on literature. The jury acquitted Penguin books after three hours of deliberation. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published, uncensored in 1961.

2. The contraceptive pill

A year after the ‘Lady Chatterley’ trial, another landmark change happened – one that was particularly important for women. On 4 December 1961,  the contraceptive pill was made available for the first time to all women through the NHS.

Enoch Powell announced that the contraceptive pill Conovid could be prescribed by the NHS. (Credit: Allan warren / CC BY-SA 3.0.)

Enoch Powell, who was the health minister at the time, announced in the House of Commons that the pill Conovid could be prescribed by the NHS and would cost two shillings per month. The pill was initially only available to married women, however through the NHS Family Planning Act in 1967, unmarried women gained access.

Although not everyone in Britain supported the pill, it was key to changing the role of women in British society. Finally, women could have sex in a similar way to men.

3. The Abortion Act

The 1967 act, which came into effect in April of the following year, made abortion legal until the point of 28 weeks’ gestation. Doctors were now responsible for deciding if a woman met the conditions laid down in the act.

In the first year after legalisation over 37,000 abortions were performed in England and Wales.

As the right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy is challenged on the other side of the Atlantic, today Betwixt the Sheets we are looking at the history of abortions here in Britain.
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The passing of this law allowed millions of women to terminate unwanted pregnancies safely. Before the law was passed, between 50 and 60 women died each year from unsafe illegal abortions.

Speaking on the subject, historian Stephen Brooke said:

The Abortion Act has also accrued profound sound symbolic meaning as a cipher of permissive Britain.

The law applied to England, Wales and Scotland and was only extended to Northern Ireland in October 2019.

4. The Sexual Offences Act

Based on findings in the Wolfenden report of 1957, the Sexual Offences Act passed in the House of Commons on 27 July 1967.

The act legalised homosexual practices between two men over 21 years old. Homosexual acts between women had not been criminalised in Britain.

The Wolfenden report recommended ending the criminalisation of homosexual acts (Credit: Public domain)

The bill was put forward partly as a response to the rising number of arrests and prosecutions for homosexual acts – including a number of high profile cases. It was also campaigned for by the Homosexual Law Reform Society.

The Act applied only to England and Wales – Scotland followed in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982.

5. The Divorce Reform Act

Prior to this 1969, women could only petition for divorce based on grounds of adultery. The Divorce Reform Act changed this.

Couples wishing to get divorced could now do so if they could prove the marriage had ‘irretrievably broken down’. Either party could annul the marriage if they had been separated for five years. This only took two years if both parties were compliant.

Carnaby Street was a fashionable centre of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ (Credit: Alan warren / CC)

The act changed the way people viewed divorce – it was no longer about ‘guilty’ parties. In turn, people’s expectations of marriage changed too.

These five legal changes show how Britain progressed in the 1960s. It shook off the strict Victorian morality which paraded the sanctity of marriage to become a society more accepting of sexual freedom and diversity.

Katy Maydon