Labour MP Harriet Harman’s recently published autobiography told the same story – and named names. The tutor at York who told her he’d give a 2:1 degree if she slept with him; the MP who called his assistant “sugar tits”, and another who sent his secretary out to buy sex toys. For sure there’s been a whole long and sorry narrative of sexual shenanigans and seedy dealings in the corridors of council chambers and parliamentary offices for as long as we’ve had foreign policy and public expenditure and the Budget. Reviewing Harman’s book, A Woman’s Work, writer Jean McNicol said that while some might say all the behaviour that goes on between men and women in the workplace can’t be legislated for, or regulated in any clear and meaningful way, the book made it chillingly clear “how wearing and dispiriting it is to spend decades in a male-dominated environment where male primacy is continually and aggressively re-asserted”. And, for sure, the names that rear up throughout it are an act of assertion, the bravery of a clever woman in the face of that relentless tide of misogyny, a claim that enough is enough.
Yet, we know too, how names fade away, and the habits remain. “A woman walks into the room and it’s political,” wrote the trailblazing feminist poet and activist, Adrienne Rich, back in the Seventies. That was as true then, when women were first able to get themselves into the room, as it is now. Our lives remain gender-sensitive. Lit up and troubled by the fact that women, a huge number of them, stay quiet, stay married and quietly indoors with the children, never making a fuss, leaving a huge number of men to think they don’t need to be taken that seriously, that they can pretty much carry on doing as they please.
Rich went on to advise that a woman, when offered a seat by a man or when being shown her place on entering a meeting room, should ignore any instruction that would dictate her spot in the pecking order. Find your own space, was her dictum. Create a new context for social interaction that was not predicated on past norms. “Everything is political,” she wrote. But clearly that advice has been hard to follow for all the women who were interviewed for the Westminster study published last Thursday which revealed that 58 per cent of all those interviewed had been propositioned, spoken to in inappropriate ways, touched or denigrated or bullied or hassled by their male colleagues at work. Women mainly, but also young men, were in the sightlines of “predatory” politicians, the term that’s in use.
It’s ghastly to think about – all those old, power-crazed patriarchs thinking that they can do whatever they please because, after all, they’re the ones who represent the dominant culture: “T’was always thus!” they cry, as they reach for another bottle of claret and pinch the waitress’ bottom at the same time. It’s only a bit of fun, after all. These women aren’t our wives or our daughters. They’re something else and I can do as I please.
I think, in the end, that is what’s most interesting about these times we’re living in. Not that this old professional or that – whether he be an MP or a university professor, an actor or a film producer – should be outed at last, or not, for his leching old ways and manner. But that we should now be aware that we inhabit a culture that has made it clear – on a number of occasions at this point – that there’s a whole swathe of women who are regarded as being faceless, anonymous, and so “up for it”, somehow, and available, whose responses – because they’re not someone’s wife or partner or daughter – don’t count. To be aware for once and for all that that part of our lives hasn’t changed one bit since Adrienne Rich told us to be careful where we sat when we walked in a room. That’s what we need to be thinking about now.
For it’s ethical, really, all this discussion about harassment, it’s not party political in the way many want to think it might be. So the SNP want to make a big deal of Hugh Gaffney sounding well dodgy at some late night Burns Supper? That’s the SNP taking political advantage of a situation that happens all over the country all the time. It’s not to say that what the Labour MP for Coatbridge said was OK. It was vulgar and stupid, and sounds, frankly, a bit like he’d one whisky too many after the address to the haggis. It was racist and sexist and narrow-minded – and expressing the very opposite of the sensibility represented by the poet he was out that night to celebrate. But that’s something for all of us to reflect upon – and for him to regret – not a reason for political pointscoring. Change begins with our own behaviour. Nothing alters when we always think it was someone else’s fault, someone else who did wrong.
Everything we learn about totaliarian regimes shows how easy it is for individuals to think that evil has nothing to do with them. That’s why the philosopher Hannah Arendt, who wrote about the Nazi trials at Nuremburg, coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. It’s easy to think it’s OK if you can tell yourself the awful stuff is happening somewhere else. In Scotland, it’s easy to think, perhaps, that all the really dreadful stuff is happening down South. Brexit. Dodgy MPs. Playing nice with monstrous regimes that offer trade deals off the back of exploitation and corruption. Visiting a Scottish friend who’s been living in London for most of her adult life – and has always loved it, actually, in the way she was able develop her career there, expand her horizons, “grow up” as she put it – is now, as a committed old leftie, desperate to get back and leave it all behind. She sees Scotland as a kind of utopia, now – in that it seems to represent the very opposite of Westminster politics, as indeed it might, to someone who has always viewed her dual citizenship, as a Scot and a Brit, to her personal advantage.
But that’s not ethical thinking. Ethics are about more than just me too, or what I want. It’s about finding solutions more than apportioning blame. Otherwise what was fine once – a big job down South with a big salary, or putting up with a dodgy remark or more in the interests of keeping a job – stays the norm. That’s not the way for, as the hippies used to sing, the change that’s gotta come.