Ruth Wishart: For many women, Savile-gate is a reminder of the grubby little world we used to live in

Sir Jimmy Savile.
Sir Jimmy Savile.
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For many women, Savile-gate is a reminder of the grubby little world we used to live in, writes Ruth Wishart

For a particular generation of women, it was a Eureka moment of mutual recognition.

As listeners queued up to tell BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about incidences of sexual harassment in their workplace when they were young, it was clear it wasn’t just in my kitchen that there sounded insistent echoes of long-buried experiences.

Clear, too, that behaviour you thought belonged to a specific sub-set of workplaces like showbusiness, the media, some factories and probably the police was actually the cultural norm.

By night, the Sixties may have swung; by day they offered a pattern where a type of man, and most especially a type of male boss, considered any young women fair game for libidinous remarks, lewd staring and, not at all infrequently, inappropriate physical contact.

Me office Tarzan, you impotent Jane.

And impotent the Janes usually were. Complaints directed at the offenders were greeted with either outright hostility and threats as to what happened to whistleblowers, or heavy-duty hints round the office that they were frigid or lesbian or perhaps both.

Complaints further up the line were encounters rich in mutual embarrassment and sometimes the suggestion that perhaps they had merely misinterpreted – even exaggerated – well-motivated intentions of help.

As the women recounted stories of men behaving badly, I recalled day one of a particular new job. I’d been around newspapers since I left school. I was well-used to coping in an environment then 90 per cent male. I was still young, but married and I thought, reasonably savvy.

It started well; an agreeable lunch with what I will call a more senior colleague, in the days when lunch was an unhurried affair not washed down with bottled water. He invited me back to his office to continue the conversation we’d begun about new promotions for the paper. Then he jammed me against the wall, attempting simultaneously to put his tongue down my throat and his hand between my legs.

The appropriate response might have been a knee in the groin; which is never quite the smartest career move. Instead, leaving with not much dignity but a considerable turn of speed, I legged it to the ladies loo and ran into another colleague. Still shocked, I told her of the mini drama I’d just exited. She offered a unique brand of comfort: “Oh don’t worry about X, he does that to all the young women.” Well that’s all right then.

But it wasn’t, of course. Particularly when it transpired he was an Olympic-class groper if invited to dinner, spreading his unwelcome favours around. Yet my lovely husband, who would no more have groped a dinner guest than roasted a hamster, effected no more than a weary shrug and a wry grin when I relayed a friend’s outraged complaint at X’s latest clumsy attempts at intimacy.

So, looking back it seems that even the men who treated female colleagues with respect, couldn’t or wouldn’t take very seriously the antics of other men who acted as if the office was some kind of playpen constructed for their adolescent frolics and fantasies.

A lot of the banter and fun was just that. When you worked in a male-dominated environment, there was always going to be a certain amount of flirtation and a predictable number of office affairs begun and conducted by consenting adults. But for young women on the bottom rungs of the employment ladder, these years offered a harsh lesson in office sexual politics. Yesterday, recounting the radio programme to a friend, she recalled working in a shop where the boss arranged for her to stay behind to help with “stocktaking”.

Frightened by his advances, but more alarmed by losing her job, she took to wearing trousers to work. He took her aside, handed her a pair of tights and told her to go home and change back into her skirt. “Amazingly, I did,” she laughed. But it wasn’t remotely funny when she was 17.

Back then, women often compared furtive notes about the worst offenders, which makes me wonder if the grubby breed of contemporary men did the same in reverse. Did they linger over a pint discussing who might and who wouldn’t? Did they boast about getting the typist alone in the supplies room? Did any of them ever wonder how they’d have felt if the object of their speculation had been their daughter?

When first-wave feminism arrived and legislation on discrimination finally staggered on to the statute books, there were subtle changes in the insult department. Now young women who rebuffed advances were re-packed in the re-telling as boilersuited weirdos whom no self-respecting man would want to put a leg over. Women’s Libbers “were joyless, asexual and undesirable”.Which thought the sisterhood in question bore with some fortitude.

And now? Has all that sniggering, predatory behaviour disappeared under the weight of legal and cultural disapproval? Can today’s junior staff encased in bottom hugging shorts, opaque tights and killer heels march around the workplace with impunity? Would they be uncomfortable if today’s metrosexual men repaid the compliment by turning up in skin-tight Lycra?

Maybe they wouldn’t. They seem markedly more self-assured, gently mocking of my generation of banner-waving marchers. The world has moved on and so, indeed, have those of us who plied our trade in more shark-infested waters. It’s all yesterday’s news, until something like Savile-gate comes along and reminds us what a grubby little world it could sometimes be.