As someone who grew up in the 1950s, when women had to be compliant, non-critical and accepting of male domination, I thought I would share with you one two experiences that illustrate not only the sort of treatment we received, but the submissive way in which many of us dealt with it. Here goes:
I am a student at University. One of the lecturers, a distinguished and gifted writer and teacher, also had a drink problem. He preferred to conduct his seminars in a bar that tolerated his exuberant behaviour. This bar, however, had a firm ‘No women’ rule. The lecturer simply decreed that he would not accept women in his seminars. Not one woman felt she could complain about the attitude of the lecturer or the bar!
I am a newly married woman, and also a professional university graduate. I want to open a bank account. I have to fill in a form. In the slot marked ‘Profession’ I write ‘Secondary school teacher’. The bank clerk says, ‘What is your husband’s name?’ I meekly tell him, and he crosses out my profession and enters ‘Wife of’…and my husband’s name.
The third is the most scarring of all. Even fifty years on I shrivel with misery when I think of it. I grew up in a poor family and didn’t have many pretty clothes. One day, my aunt asked me to call. She worked in a dress shop where she got discounts and she presented me with a pretty flowered skirt – full and flouncy with a nipped-in waist in the fashion of the day, and a pretty frilly-necked top. I felt wonderful and she was thrilled too, to see me look so nice. She put my old clothes in a bag and I walked home in my new clothes feeling a million dollars.
On the way, an acquaintance of the family passed on his bicycle, nodded, and went on his way. I thought no more of it, until I met him a few days later, and he planted himself threateningly in front of me. ‘I want a word with you, young lady,’ he said. ‘I saw you the other day – you had no business to be walking down the street looking like that. You’d better be careful, my girl, you’re going to get yourself in trouble.’ Then he walked away. I was shaken and bewildered, felt sick with guilt – but what should I feel guilty about? I was prettily dressed – in an outfit chosen by my devoutly Catholic aunt, for God’s sake. I just didn’t understand, at that young age, what I’d done wrong. I realise now what his problem was: he’d known me from childhood, and I suddenly appeared before him as a pretty young woman, with breasts and hips.
He probably didn’t expect the reaction I produced in him – lusting after a fifteen year old girl. He felt guilty about it and then decided to transfer the guilt to me. He didn’t use the ugly term ‘jailbait’ but I know now that’s what he meant. It affected me for years, making me afraid of my body, afraid to trust my sexuality, suspicious of men, fearful of the reactions I might unintentionally provoke for which I would have to bear the guilt. My fault, I’m female.