If you lived through the 1960s and 1970s, and are a woman, it’s really hard to be shocked or surprised by the tolerated sexism back then that’s currently crawling out of the woodwork. It wasn’t in the woodwork at the time. It was just there, in the air you breathed, in the world you walked about in. It wasn’t just DJs and comedians. It wasn’t even only the touching up, the comments, the boss who called you in to deal with a pile of filing that needed putting away in the bottom drawer of the cabinet right opposite his desk (think 1960s miniskirts). The men who felt you up on the Tube at least knew they were doing something wrong, even though they didn’t think it was very wrong, or only wrong because it was in public. You could say, in a loud voice, ‘Take your hand off my body,’ and they would look ashamed. You could strategise to avoid those you knew were trouble, you grew a tough skin walking about the street being shouted at, having your body commented on, being sneered at when you didn’t respond. Learning to deal with loathsome men in public and at work was part of being a young woman. But it was more pervasive than that.
When I was 19 I worked in the production department of Granada publishing. One December evening I went out with one of the editors intending to go for a meal. He said he wanted to stop off at a Christmas drinks party for publishers. When we arrived at the club in which it was being held, I wasn’t allowed into the room, where I could see a hundred or so men, some of whom I knew, drinking, smoking and talking. My companion said he hadn’t realised that it was a men-only party, and that I should wait outside the room while he went in for a quick drink. I said I wouldn’t be doing that and walked in with him. There was a sudden hush in the room, then everyone tried to carry on as if nothing had happened and I wasn’t there. No one spoke to me, and soon I was asked to leave by some official, not because I hadn’t been invited, but because ‘women weren’t allowed’. I said no. My companion insisted that we leave. He was getting anxious. We went, but I skipped dinner.
The next day I was called in by the head of the department (the one with the filing for the bottom drawer) and told off; shouted at, actually. He had been at the party, too. I had behaved ‘very badly and immaturely’. ‘People’ in the profession had been embarrassed by my childish stunt. I was warned I had better not show up the company again.
Even if the underlying contempt for women has not exactly disappeared (read the tabloids, look at trolling on the internet), it is one of the great social improvements of the 20th century that it must be almost impossible for a young woman now to imagine a time within living memory when the superiority and dominance of men was so completely embedded into the normality of the world that I was faced with a man’s seething indignation simply for having walked into a room full of them.