She had the habit of keeping a basin under the bed and a nightly ritual of wiping her vagina with a wet cloth before settling down beside me, where unable to move or turn, though both fascinated and repulsed at the same time, I tried not to look. Silent, I hugged the margin of the mattress.Throughout my entire six week stay at that house the practice continued.
The summer before I started university i was in Italy. I had won a bursary from the Italian Department of the University of Edinburgh, but never got as far as a classroom desk. Nothing had prepared me for a priest whom I respected as chaste and God fearing; conditioned as I was by the nuns that educated me, to trust the wisdom of a dog collar; and who after a drink at our first meeting in Milan and some minutes in his car, since he had been commissioned by my aunt to meet and drive me to my destination in Garda, pointedly removed his dog collar and announced his freedom. And nothing had prepared me for the man sitting opposite me with his wife, all of us on the pontoon stretching over the lake, who on my first afternoon after my arrival at my pensione, suggested while she had disappeared indoors, that I shave the pubic hair escaping from the around edges of my too prim swimsuit. Up until that moment, I had never considered my pubic hair…and apart from a general look around that area I had paid it scarce attention. But the sexual messages from these two men, my first experience of males outside my family circle, made me feel vulnerable, insecure; and my inability to find words, to adopt a convincing expression or pose which might counter such intrusive behaviour left me feeling unattractive, gauche and ultimately ugly. I was rendered inferior; reduced; lost in a place that I did not understand; that I did not have the language or skills for. I had then to be rescued and I stayed at the home of a family friend in the south of Italy, near Naples, with whose mother I was obliged to share a bed.
There is an honesty now, in relation to unsolicited sexual attention and harassment and my problem was partly a generational one, part of an era well gone. I applaud women who have grown in confidence to the point where uninvited male attention is named, exposed and condemned. I glory in women who do not seek definition by men; who make their own choices; who are mildly confident of how they look; their attractiveness; are not drawn in by the words, sideways glances or behaviours of men. And I regret not having had that strength and resilience through the years. But while being frightened and confused, I needed admiration and compliments. I needed that attention in order to feel ok. My feminism was never in question, it came naturally and was well rooted. But it was my behaviours, my decisions and neediness which compromised it, disguised it or betrayed it. So faced with a man, rather than assert, I either punctured or adopted a grateful, submissive approach…listening to his orations, understanding his firm and unquestioning pronouncements as infallible, and offering some stability in a world I was discovering but did not understand. I performed the femininity expected of me. Male attention had passed me by as a teenager but overwhelmed me when I played the game of the flirtacious, second class being who flattered egos, satisfied male need for domination and being central to any conversation or gathering.
As a child, I never for one moment considered myself in any way less than my male cousins, less than my colleagues; than the husbands of friends; or indeed inferior to my own. My difficulty arose rather from my lack of self-belief both intellectually and as a woman. My mother had always told me that I was special and different to other people but I didn’t believe it and she used those words more as an exhortation to do the right thing…whatever that was. Her intention was I think, to make me conform to norms and expectations rather than create in me a certainty about and confidence in who I was sadly.
I still see, young women who carry the values and stigma of my diffident generation of women who mothered them; who are complimented when a man touches her without her consent; who regard an invitation to drinks, bed or a club as affirmation of their attractiveness. But more and more, the intolerance of sexual subjugation, of a lack of respect for womanhood, women’s choices and own needs, the impatience I see among women in relation to male dominance…men putting their needs first…. is now spoken, acted upon and illegalised. We are witnessing currently a massive show down, a reckoning …the unveiling and vocalising of female experiences historic and present day; and across the Western world, the public shaming of furtive, forward, ignorantly impudent, dodoesque menfolk. Maybe some pity is in order.
On reflection I recognise that I have not been a good feminist. Susie Orbach, Roxane Gay, Caitlin Moran and worthy authors of such books as Reclaiming the F Word and Come as You Are, would despise my cowardice. While in the seventies, many women were challenging norms, claiming ownership of their bodies and their equal status with men, I was not only swaddled in middle class wifeliness which despite my professional journey, I was happy to inhabit then, but I was critical of the politics and iterations of that first wave of feminism. There are of course mitigating circumstances. As an Italian Scot..a senior professional.. having arrived in a competitive professional world, gaining promotions over men, having travelled from the counter of a café/ice cream shop to tidy, polite Morningside, left the rawness of an immigrant family behind, I did not, would never then, take what I saw as a backward step to left wing extremism, to presentations of myself as a woman who could not afford better and in ways that reminded me of where I had come from.
My social foothold was not yet entirely secure, my birthright still only a breath away. My purpose then was to display what I had fashioned for myself and parade what I could afford. I had lived and done the other. That breadbin with our Christmas money, salvaged from the pubs that my pitiful, drunken father visited; the screaming disagreements and hair pulling; all were not far enough away. I found then, that capitulating to the norm, giving way to role stereotyping, relaxing into society’s expectations of womanhood was not only easier but undemanding and very pleasant. There was an order about it. No confrontations, no hard edges. My nights were peaceful, my days untroubled by any thoughts other than planning my next lesson, the contents of my freezer and how to fill a cheeseboard. Though while I indulged a superficial, materialistic identity, I remained at all times, starkly realistic about myself and my lifestyle. I knew what I was doing; I had made the easy choice. So the battle was won by others while I fiddled, so busy was I to make, feather and gild my nest. It was maybe too, easier to stand for a cause from a firm middle class footing at that time or so I thought. But so much braver to challenge sexism, class and elitism when you are financially and socially vulnerable; to articulate and pursue your beliefs when those around you, men and women see you wrongly as motivated by envy perhaps.
I am not sure at what point my feminist revolt began. It had a lot to do with an underlying ever present sense of outrage at the abusive men of my early life and my post natal depression; worse after the birth of my second daughter and which no one except my GP knew about or even noticed. That was a devastatingly lonely time with no one I felt I could tell…I had a pervasive and spiralling fear that Roberta would die while I slept. I therefore chose not to sleep except to doze with her cot firmly beside my bed. However by the time my third daughter was born, less post natally affected, I had made my move; I stopped the dinner parties and the duck a l’orange replacing them with walking boots; I started smoking cigars; I finally ventured full of fear into the feminist and lesbian community. I had laboured within the patriarchal environment of my Italian Catholic family and upbringing; suffered the sexism of the family of my husband where, as long as I remained a classroom teacher and maintained …did not seek equal professional status with …a powerful solicitor husband, then I was being a good wife; and I had finally escaped from the Italian community, in general, a repressive experience where the women have been deluded into believing that ultimately, given a well stocked kitchen and a designer dress, with the merest flick of a stirring spoon, they hold the power.
I started to challenge male behaviours, male oracles and dogma. To my astonishment however, if the heterosexual world demanded conformity, the radical feminists and the lesbians were not far from that mark either. Not for them the brave new frontiers of sexual behaviours, of gender bending, androgeny, transitioning, queerness and sexual fluidity; and had I even wanted or indulged in it, polyamory would certainly not have won me many friends. I found the Scottish lesbian community in particular, uncompromising and illiberal, with set rules for living; bizarrely replicating heterosexual patterns with clearly assigned roles and uniforms; and feminists generally loudly radical, often angry and unrelenting. And so, having hoped for open mindedness, liberalism, creativity, individuals defining their lifestyles beyond all norms rather in the manner of Marge Piercy in her amazing Women on the Edge of Time; having hoped for a network where I might meet like-minded women, for these women had been brave indeed in asserting their sexuality, somewhat bruised, I retreated. By my love of clothes, fashion, make up and large dare I say sophisticated gatherings around my table: I favoured whole artichokes dipped in a wonderful vinaigrette rather than a humble pie; by my love of classical music, my enjoyment of the company of both men and women, I stood judged, both by feminists who would have preferred me threadbare rather than clad in Jaeger tailoring; and lesbians who would probably have taken to me more readily had I deserted my husband, home and children. My closest relationships have though, always been with women; the closest fit emotionally and instinctively; my even closer relationships have been with my daughters.
Two years ago, I was reading from my memoir and poetry collection in London. In order to open the conversation up, my eldest daughter asked if I would call myself a feminist. “Oh no!” I said, “I don’t like labels”. As soon as I said it, aware that I had not met the challenge she set me in public, I was shamed. Since then, with her occasional guidance, I have made it my objective to read some of the literature and poetry around the current feminist wave. To my sheer delight, I found a language, an outlook on life, a way of seeing the world, a way of both understanding, being with and countering men which had silently been developing within my own consciousness and mind as an academic, a successful professional and more recently as a writer. The discovery was both empowering and overpowering. My reading in preparation for my doctoral thesis had aroused my awareness of feminist qualitative research methodology and of the gendering of practices, systems and institutions that we take as is. That academic preparation also awakened me to the patriarchy which I had long experienced or rather instinctively sensed working within government, making me generally subversive within my organisation. The lack of self doubt or intellectual enquiry that I saw in the large, inflated men around me infuriated me; equally, I became quick to detect the professional weakness which underlies mansplaining; and prompt in empowering fellow female able professionals.
With the honesty that comes with age and achievement, with no need to be defined by men or indeed women now, I find I am now finally equipped, both to meet men on equal terms, eye to eye and hand to hand. Both to dispense compliments and to be gracious in receipt of them. If I dress in a way that you think is provocative or inviting, I do so not to impress or excite you but because I want to feel like a woman for myself. I want to enhance my own sexual appetite and fanciful imaginings. My presentation is my ritual, my identity and my chosen currency. It has nothing whatsoever to do with you. Most importantly, I am at the last, not only ready but most anxious to embrace, despite it all….whatever is imagined, invented, is said, unsaid or known about me… the “sisterhood”, the scarved woman in French cotton upstairs, the testosterone loaded men with cash in their back pockets, the symbiotic couples whose horizons stop at each other, the smoothly intoning mummies supping lattes in buggyland, the communities I visited but was never part of; and ultimately the sisterhood…..that word of the seventies and eighties which at one time gave me such nightmares. Loudly, proudly, reliably. And finally!