MY current book at bedtime is a biography of the American writer Lillian Hellman.
It's titled A Difficult Woman, which says a lot. By all accounts Hellman was difficult, which is one reason I'd be very happy to have her to dinner. She did not suffer fools at all and gave short shrift to anyone she thought merited it. We could do with a few more like her around nowadays.
In the 1950s in the United States Hellman stood out against the political witch hunts, declaring: "I will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashion." She made enemies like some do cupcakes, most famously Mary McCarthy – another difficult woman I'd love to have met – who stated on national television that Hellman was an unreconstructed Stalinist who never wrote a word, including "and" and "the", that wasn't a lie. Incensed, Hellman sued McCarthy, but she died before the case reached court.
Reading A Difficult Woman, which was written by Alice Kessler-Harris, what most impressed me was Hellman's determination not to play the role which an accident of gender had bestowed upon her. For example, her plain appearance did not curtail her love life. On the contrary, she had innumerable lovers, including Dashiell Hammett.
Nor did she wait for a man to make the first move. Invariably she took the initiative herself. Even as an elderly woman she had no embarrassment in coming on to men much younger than herself. Sad to say, after her death several former lovers could not resist bitching about her. The hypocrisy is too obvious to be stated. What is regarded as normal behaviour in men is seen in women as something else entirely.
Hellman came to mind when I read the reports yesterday of "sexual goading" directed at two female students who were taking part in a debate on female equality at Glasgow University Union. In particular, comments were made by male students on the women's appearance and choice of clothes, which just goes to show how infantile men of any age can be.
There is nothing unusual in this, of course. Until fairly recently it was the norm for female MPs to be subjected to a barrage of innuendo and what Cardinal O'Brien could copyright as "inappropriate behaviour". Some of the women laughed it off, while others were cowed and bottled it up. The recent case involving Lord Rennard is hardly remarkable. But it is instructive. Women who want to gain power must be prepared for the worst.
Despicable and disheartening as this is, it also offers an opportunity for women to reassess their position in the modern world. When in the 1960s feminists took to the streets they were humourfully enraged. In the US, they crowned a sheep Miss America and did not burn bras – as the received wisdom has it – but discarded them along with high heels, curlers and trashy magazines, which they described as instruments of torture. Women's liberation from these was supposed to be the first step to broader equality, at work and in the home.
Henceforth women would no longer be in thrall to men. Everyone would receive the same pay and glass ceilings would go the way of prefabs. Much was achieved, but only a fool would have interpreted the outcome as a wholesale victory. On many fronts battle was still to be waged. And so it goes.
What is apparent is that, far from women's lot improving, it shows every sign of retreating. The nearest we have to a modern heir to Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan and Kate Millett is Caitlin Moran, who shifts lots of books but whose concentration on hair, shoes and the crushes women apparently have on Aslan the Lion is hardly the stuff of revolution.
The fact is that if women want to have equality they're going to have to fight tooth and nail to get it. For no-one is going to help them. There is a need for a new sort of new feminism to emerge, in which women like those at Glasgow University do not sit idly by and allow themselves to be howled down by boors. You can imagine what Lillian Hellman's response to them would have been.
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