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Mary Kenny 'I used to hear men say that "only tarts kiss and tell"'

Am I A Feminist? Are You? is a new book by journalist Mary Kenny.

Mary Kenny was a founder-member of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement and has seen many shifts, changes and developments in women’s rights and the definition of feminism.

Her new book, Am I A Feminist? Are You?, is a personal appraisal of what feminism has meant, accomplished and prompted over the past five decades.

A FRIEND OF my late mother-in-law took a job, during the First World War, at No 10 Downing Street, when David Lloyd George was prime minister. Lloyd George was a notorious philanderer, and quick to grope any woman when he got the chance.

My mother-in-law’s friend was one of those Englishwomen of fortitude, cut from the same cloth as the fearless memsahibs who trampled across Africa and India. She was apparently an attractive young woman, and Lloyd George duly put his hand rather intimately on her well- shaped bottom.

“Unhand me, Prime Minister!” she boomed out in ringing tones, for all to hear. “What do you take me for?”

Overcome with embarrassment, he duly “unhanded” her and apologised profusely. She never had any trouble with him again. Yes, she was upper-class and confident, but so was Harriet Harman, many decades on.

Harriet Harman’s experiences

In 2017, the Labour Party politician Harriet Harman – an experienced and confident front-bencher who was for a time acting leader of the Labour Party – published a memoir in which she described certain episodes of sexual harassment in her own youth.

As a politics student at York University in the 1970s, she claims that her tutor, one Professor TV Sathyamurthy, promised her a better degree (from a 2:2 grade to a 2:1) if she agreed to have sex with him. She was outraged, she wrote, and refused, but did not complain.

Then, when she worked as an articled clerk in a lawyer’s’ office, again in the 1970s, she writes that a lawyer at the firm “crept up behind her” and “groped” her when she was on the phone to a client, causing her to “scream”.

In 1991, she was again the subject of predatory male attention while at a function in Wales for her colleague Peter Hain: while dancing with some fellow politico, she was “groped horribly”. In no case did she complain at the time.

We’re all entitled to write about our experiences

We are all entitled to write about our experiences and how we coped (or didn’t) with unwelcome advances, but I admire and prefer the approach of the forthright Suffragette of 1917 than Harman’s post-hoc damsel-in-distress lamentations.

Professor Sathyamurthy died in 1998, and was in no position to confirm or deny the claim, but his former wife described Harriet Harman’s account as “fanciful and unfair”. Mrs Sathyamurthy said that her husband was given to jokes and japes, but would not have behaved dishonourably.

Yet forever more, whenever his name is mentioned, a quick Google search will associate him with such unethical conduct.

I used to hear donnish chaps who kept women out of institutions with the dire warning that “women are trouble”. (It was a phrase much favoured by the novelist Kingsley Amis.)

A code to shut women up?

I also used to hear men say – when I worked in an all-male ambiance – that “only tarts kiss and tell”. I do, of course, now wonder if that was a code to shut women up. And there were women who were too frightened to complain about unwanted attention.

Camilla Paglia’s advice is that “when men step out of line, women should deal with it on the spot. Most men are cowed by women! Any woman worth her salt should know how to deal with men and put them in their place. Women must demand respect, and over time they will get it.”

If a man “makes a vulgar remark about your breasts … don’t slink off and whimper. Deal with it. On the spot. Say “Shut up, you jerk! And crawl back to the barnyard where you belong!’” We’re talking about minor gestures here, not serious assaults or misconduct.

Let’s end on a parliamentary note: Shirley Williams recounts the story of a male MP in the House of Commons who would pinch the bottoms of female colleagues as they went to vote. Rather than tell the whips, the female MPs decided to wear their sharpest stiletto heels into the voting lobbies. “Few things hurt more than a stiletto driven into the foot”, writes Baroness Williams.

The next day, the man hobbled into the tearoom with a very sore foot, to be met by the women MPs’ mock-concern. He claimed it was gout, but he did not re-offend.

Am I A Feminist? Are You? by Mary Kenny is published by New Island Books at €14.95. 

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