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“Justice for women isn’t just about the law – it’s about cultural attitude”

Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws (Photo: UK Parliament)

From feminist pin-up to elder statesman – Sarah Langford meets human-rights barrister Helena Kennedy QC and discovers a woman still firmly intent on unpinning the patriarchy

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Back in 1993, the human-rights barrister Helena Kennedy QC published her seminal book, Eve Was Framed: Women And British Justice. A wide-ranging account of the law’s failure to protect women, it swiftly turned Kennedy into a feminist pin-up and (according to the tweets I read upon news of its re-release) prompted many women to follow in her footsteps and become a barrister. Kennedy’s experience of discrimination was personal, as well as professional. One of four sisters born to a working-class Glaswegian family, she qualified as a barrister in the 1970s only to discover that no chambers would take her on because she was a woman. In typical fashion, she responded by starting her own.  

Last year, Kennedy decided it was time to update her book. Unlike her last revision in 2004, this time there was also a rename. When I meet Kennedy in her barristers’ chambers, I ask her what had happened that meant that the Eve of her title was no longer “framed”, but “shamed”.

“In 2004, I updated the book because a lot had taken place,” Kennedy says. “I like to think that people like myself played a part in that. It was entering the political agenda, so we did manage to get some legal change. But what I’m saying in this book is that legal change doesn’t actually deliver. It’s really about something much deeper and more embedded, which is a cultural attitude. So you really do have to look at what it is which pins the patriarchy down.”  

Unpinning the patriarchy begins, in part, by naming it – something she says she was afraid to do in her original book, such was the stigma. Then, equality was less about men changing their behaviour, and more about women doing so.  

“One of the things that happened in second-wave feminism in the 70s,” says Kennedy, “was the way women were encouraged to consider themselves free – like Germaine Greer saying, ‘Go out and get as many orgasms as you can’ – and so the business of women seeking to have greater sexual freedom often exposed women to, in fact, a lot of exploitation.”  

It may seem of little relevance to us today, so readily do we take it for granted, but Kennedy says we shouldn’t underestimate the impact that contraception had upon the way in which women were seen by men. Kennedy suggests that, for her generation of men, it encouraged a carelessness in the way in which women were treated: “The availability of women came without cost or risk. And that’s how they were perceived.”

There have, of course, been huge changes in the drive for gender equality since then. “No doubt about it,” says Kennedy. “We have made enormous headway. Fantastic. But I think that we have still got serious problems and it is about that thing, that whole slut-shaming thing – that whole business about how she was drunk, so she had it coming. So, the parameters have shifted, but so much of it is still the same or couched in the same way.”

Deep-rooted attitudes towards how women behave have, she says, “gone even more hyper since the internet”. It is the transference of our lives – particularly our social life – from real to virtual which Kennedy thinks has increased the risks women faced. She laments the number of hugely capable, wonderful women she knows who are single in their mid- to late thirties. “The nature of work has changed so much that actually meeting guys has become much more difficult and visa versa, and people work much longer hours,” says Kennedy. “I know so many fabulous young women and I say, ‘Well, where do you meet a guy?’ and they say, ‘I don’t get to meet anybody.’ So, a lot of it is done online and then it carries all those risks with it.”

We have made enormous headway. Fantastic. But I think that we have still got serious problems and it is about that thing, that whole slut-shaming thing

Then, just as Kennedy was in the middle of her rewrite, along came the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

“As I was working on it, Harvey Weinstein happened,” Kennedy explains, “and that then gave rise to a much more febrile debate. It was not just about celebrities – it was everywhere. Then the BBC women were talking about equal pay, and in parliament you were having challenges made to the behaviour of men, and there was just far greater exposure of all that stuff in the workplace”.

The #MeToo movement even made its way down the dusty corridors of the law. Kennedy’s chambers, Doughty Street, was instrumental in setting up its own response. The first meeting of “Behind the Gown”, says Kennedy, was held in the room we are sitting in. Its remit was to investigate whether sexual harassment was a problem at the Bar. For someone who had to deal with being a professional woman in the 1970s, it says a great deal that the stories Kennedy heard “would make your hair curl”. She makes reference to Charlotte Proudman – the barrister whose perfectly normal LinkedIn picture prompted a (significantly older) male solicitor to write his approval of it in an email. “You put yourself on a professional site and get old guys – the age of your father – saying, ‘You look rather gorgeous.’” Kennedy raises her hands, palm upwards, and rolls her eyes.

Women then began to speak out online. Hashtags became one of their tools. Not just #MeToo and #TimesUp but #IBelieveHer, in support of the complainant who alleged two Ulster rugby players had raped her and, more recently, Christine Blasey Ford, who made the allegations against the newly sworn-in US judge, Brett Kavanaugh. The Ulster players’ lawyer threatened to sue anyone who used it – it was, of course, defamatory in light of the not-guilty verdict – but it seems that women didn’t care. Others took to the internet to call out the bad behaviour they had endured, and to name and shame. In her book, Kennedy calls this “civil disobedience”. But, I ask, for someone whose life has been lived out through the prism of human rights and access to justice, surely this disregard for due process must stick in her throat a bit?  

Kennedy agrees, emphatically. “You and I can’t be lawyers without recognising that that’s the way to go,” she says. “This is not how you do justice. The risks associated – the collateral damage if you like – are great. In among the ghastly behaviour of men, there will be guys who will be called out unfairly. They are not in huge numbers, but there will be an occasion when an allegation is made which is unfair. You have to have proper processes, wherever they may be. Whether it’s a complaint that’s made at work or in parliament or wherever, you have to have proper processes. In lots of places, of course, there weren’t.”

How, then, do we reconcile the need for a fair trial against the difficulties in proving an allegation of sexual harassment? Could there be another way: a way of recognising – and marking – the wrong without both parties’ lives being turned upside down? She frowns. Maybe there could be, she suggests, a new strand to the Equality and Human Rights Commission – one tasked to investigate the allegations and rule upon them. It is an intriguing idea, but, as we talk more about the difficulties of sex and the law – and the ever-difficult task of meeting the high burden of proof when it’s one person’s word against another – there is knock at the door. It is a journalist waiting to interview her. Kennedy looks pained and apologises, but the book promotion has begun and our time is up.

As she says goodbye with an embrace, I think of how amused she was at the way she has become, as she put it, “an elder statesman of the women in the law”. It is, she thinks, “kind of nice”. I can see why, with her warmth and approachability, she has been gifted the trust of the next generation of women. Given the changes she has already managed to achieve – and her seat in the House of Lords at the heart of the establishment – they are right to trust her to lead this renewed charge. If her new book is anything to go by, she certainly isn’t taking her foot off this pedal any time soon.  

Sarah Langford’s book, In Your Defence: Stories Of Life And Law, is out now.

Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws (Photo: UK Parliament)
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