The world that matters most, the one that shapes who you are, exists in your head. It is a shifting, slippery, elusive mix of perception and experience, constrained by very few rules. Those that endure are, in the main, the outcome not of rational intellectual argument but of visceral response. What is right, what is wrong, what must be endured and what must be fought. The first two don’t change. The other two have changed radically.
I worked as a political correspondent at Westminster from the early 1980s to the early 2000s. I have been chased round the banquettes of a restaurant that seemed to have been designed for grubby old men who wanted you to feel them up. I have been stalked by the notorious lecher Alan Clark, and endlessly sized up by backbench MPs with an inexhaustible sense of entitlement. I’ve had breathy phone calls in hotel rooms and discreet taps on my door at night … as with all my female colleagues, the list is pretty well inexhaustible, and of course it didn’t only happen at Westminster – it happened at work and travelling, in foreign studios as much as in London offices.
On one level, it wasn’t damaging in the way that would be understood now. Most of the men were just dross to be shaken off like horseflies. But one grubby old man had been in Attlee’s cabinet (he really was old). I would have done almost anything to be able to spend time listening to someone who could describe the atmosphere in cabinet when they realised financial catastrophe threatened everything they wanted to achieve, someone who was there as relations between Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell soured into the battlelines that divided Labour for a decade, and who hadn’t smoked since the postwar balance of trade crisis made importing cigarettes a luxury. As for Clark, he was witty and clever and had written a brilliant account of the early days of the first world war, and listening to him was like being with a child genius, a mix of fireworks and petulance.
So it wasn’t all bad. But boy, was it demeaning. My whole interior world was a kind of negotiation. Not very old and lacking the confidence of better-educated, male colleagues, I relied on what I had been brought up to believe was any young woman’s main asset: that is, being young and a woman. And I was surrounded by men who made just the same presumption.
Yet I was very, very serious about politics, about the whole political realm, from academic inquiry to the gossip that fuelled the Big Brother hothouse of Westminster power relationships. I still find it infinitely absorbing. Which means there are few more diminishing experiences than being told that you have featured in the Clark diaries as a passing sex interest.
It was not a cost-free exercise, living in a hierarchy where, even with a female prime minister, all men were more significant than all women. So, unlike some of my contemporaries, I utterly reject the idea that young women now are snowflakes. I do not for one second think they should just get on with doing their best in a world that deeply and instinctively devalues them. I stand beside them in the fight to use this moment to transform attitudes, to exploit this huge political crisis and turn it into a watershed.
But what does put me off is the determination to weaponise the past. Not, of course, serious abuse, not rape or assaults that in a fairer – or less “loyal” – world would have been reported to the police. It is the recollection of the attentions that even though they range from the repulsive to the alarming were – and were felt to be – something that had to be tolerated. No, they should not have been. But in the tawdry environment of late 20th century politics, they were. We did.
It is a fundamental principle of law that it cannot be enforced retrospectively. Even less so, surely, cultural change. Every generation has 20:20 hindsight. It is easy to see now that cultural norms most of us took as read in the 1980s and 90s were already worn and threadbare, and to understand how the fear of change led men who were past their sell-by date to cling to stale, worthless cliche. But now that is almost gone. Culture is at last becoming more respectful of difference, more accepting of diversity: not everywhere, not evenly, but fast enough for the recent past truly to feel like another country.
It is one thing to use the energy generated by the wrongs of the past to drive change in the present. Thoughtful men are beginning to acknowledge that what they imagined to be office banter was in fact another way of establishing dominance by reducing the other. That is how cultural change happens. I would encourage women of my generation to acknowledge that however easily they dismissed the groping and the innuendo, however casually they brushed the hand off their knee or dismissed the “banter”, it did damage a part of their psyche. And please, men of my generation, some of whom are in the cabinet, think back … and think again.
Source: The Guardian