The continuing story of A Walk on the Wilder Side
The Women’s Liberation Movement centre at Gambier Terrace, a three-storey Georgian building alongside Liverpool’s majestic Anglican cathedral, is warm and welcoming. Around the walls are Feminist publications – magazines, leaflets, posters and newsletters and Dot looks around she notices, striding towards her, a stern-looking woman who holds out her hand when she reaches her and they shake vigorously. ‘You must be Dot Sykes from The Star agency. I’m Sue Crockford,’ she announces, her face breaking into a beaming smile. ‘I hear you want to hear everything about the Women’s Liberation Movement. Well, you’ve come to the right place.’
This is Dot’s second major feature: not only that but it is her idea, so she is determined to make a success of it. She had decided that a good starting point would be the Women’s Liberation Movement where she is hoping to get one or two success stories together with views about what career women want from society and what they are aiming for.
She walks around the room with Sue Crockford looking at the various publications. They stop and Dot picks up a leaflet with a headline announcing: ‘Fair pay for the fair sex.’
‘This is fair enough,’ she says waving the leaflet at Crockford; ‘but my focus really is attempting to define the role of women in 1970’s society. That is what the feature I am writing is all about and I thought I would talk to somebody from the WLM as a starting point because I’m sure you have defined views on the subject.’
‘Yes, we certainly do. As a starting point we challenge the idea that youthfulness and sexual attractiveness to men should define either a woman’s social and economic value or her erotic potential. I can imagine as a reporter you have to fight every inch of the way to be equal to your colleagues or to be promoted fairly.’ Dot nods in agreement. ‘I can’t argue with that,’ she says.
They walk into an adjacent room where there are cubicles. ‘This is our pregnancy testing area,’ Sue Crockford explains. ‘It’s also a place where women can hold meetings, run workshops or just generally socialise. Would you like a coffee by the way?’ Dot would and they walk to yet another room where there is a short bar with coffee and tea-making facilities. They sit at a nearby table.
‘I want to explode the scary Feminist myth,’ Crockford says. ‘It is not that we don’t want to be attractive or appreciate beauty in others, but equally it does not mean that we want to slavishly follow the beauty industry.
‘All too often women are measured by their looks and not by their brains. That is what we want to change.
‘We also resist ideas of beauty manufactured in the marketplace and instead we embrace beautiful women of all ages, sizes and types, and focus on physical, mental and spiritual self-possession and confidence.’
‘I am interested in gender equality, at work and in the home too,’ says Dot. ‘What does the WLM say about that?’
‘They are included in our seven aims which you will find outlined in that leaflet. Take it away with you and study it.’
‘You’re not from Liverpool, are you?’ asks Dot suddenly, making it more of a statement than a question. Crockford smiles. ‘No, I’m just visiting. I originate from Surrey and I help set-up centres like this one. There are local women’s centres all over the UK and any campaigns grow out of small groups like this.’
‘What else are you doing to further the cause?’ asks Dot.
‘Well, I’m making a documentary film which will be called A Woman’s Place. It covers the first national conference held at Ruskin College, Oxford, and it examines the movement’s demands.’ She pauses reflectively. ‘It’s my first film and doing all the research into the WLM has made me realise why I want to make films. I want to see whether people can be engaged by what I believe in.’
‘When is it likely to appear?’ asks Dot. ‘It should be finished by next year all being well. You must come to the premiere.’
They are joined by another woman. ‘This is Alex Fenton. I asked her to join us because I thought you might be interested in her story. She invented a product which is now sold internationally.’
Dot smiles and they shake hands. Alex is tall and slim with short ginger hair. ‘I would love to hear your story,’ she says. Alex smiles slightly and nods. ‘I grew up penniless in a one-bedroom flat and started working at the age of ten, running a paper round.’ She says it in a matter-of-fact voice without any bitterness.
‘At the age of 12, I worked in a fruit shop. When I was 15, however, my dad suffered an illness that left him paralysed so I left school, with no qualifications to support my family and started working as a model.’ She sighs as Dot looks askance. Alex smiles ruefully. ‘It’s sounds romantic and glamorous but quite honestly it wasn’t and it didn’t last.’
‘When I was 17, I met my husband and landed a job at Labatt’s, the Canadian brewers, by lying on my CV. Within 18 months I was head of sales and marketing, but the company was taken over and I was made redundant.’
‘That is remarkable,’ says Dot, impressed. ‘To achieve a senior position like that so young has to be exceptional.’ She looks at Crockford who nods in agreement.
Alex looks somewhat bashful and grins playfully. ‘A little later I bought a cleavage-enhancing bra for a dinner dance, but it was really uncomfortable, and I was convinced I could make a better one. So, I put together a team and began lengthy research which in fact took three years and put me £100,000 in debt. It ended with the “perfect” bra.’
‘I wouldn’t mind trying that,’ smiles Dot.
‘I will send one to you. Let me know your cup size before you leave.’
‘The story doesn’t quite end there,’ she says. ‘To get public attention, I hired nine actors, dressed as surgeons, to demonstrate in Oxford Street, London. They were all arrested, but the stunt worked.’
‘What would you say your company is worth now,’ asks Dot. Alex pauses and smiles modestly. ‘About £50m I would say.’
‘Rags to riches eh,’ says Dot. They all laugh. ‘I can just see the headline now,’ says Alex grinning hugely.
‘Alex is just one woman who beat the system,’ says Crockford. ‘As you have heard she is every bit as entrepreneurial as any man.’
‘I can’t disagree with that,’ says Dot. ‘And now ladies I am on my way into the Dragon’s Den.’ They look at her inquisitively. ‘The Athenaeum Club, to talk to the bosses,’ she explains pulling a rueful face.
They both burst out laughing: ‘The very best of luck with that,’ retorts Sue Crockford. There will be an abundance of chauvinistic pigs there.’
Founded more than 200 years ago in 1797, the club has been based on Church Alley since 1927 – and it’s grand rooms have acted as the backdrop for a number of film and TV settings. The club was originally created to allow businessmen to get the news from Fleet Street as quickly as possible.
Dot announces herself at the door and is met by a Mr Tulip who welcomes her graciously and escorts her up to the Newsroom. ‘We have invited three local businessmen to talk to you,’ he says quietly. ‘They have been told what you are writing and why.’
They walk over to a circular table with five chairs. Mr Tulip introduces her and then the three men in turn. The first is Paul Smith, a shipping forwarding agent. He is in his 40s, balding and short. The second is Paul Morrison, a merchant banker, in his 30s, good-looking, swarthy, almost 6ft who runs his eyes appreciatingly over Dot’s figure. The third is Dave Philips, a cotton merchant. He is Mr Average; dressed in a black suit, waistcoat, club tie, a puffy face and average height.
Dot begins by declaring what her feature will try and encapsulate and she asks if they have any views on the subject. Paul Smith begins.
‘Feminists were clear that some of the oppressions faced by women were structural, built into the economy, the state and social norms. But they also expected individual men to change their behaviour. Many anti-sexist men felt that they needed to meet in men-only spaces to gain the confidence to confront their sexism and homophobia, and to find new, more honest and loving ways to interact with other men, as well as women. They also took up practical forms of activism, such as providing childcare, picketing sex shops, defacing sexist advertisements, working at women’s refuges and marching with women on issues such as abortion rights.’
‘Is all that true.’ Says Dot. ‘If it is, you have kept very quiet about it. What I want to know is why so many women have to fight for equality, for equal pay, equal opportunity. Also, we all know sexism is rife and that women are the targets of abuse and innuendo. How is that going to change?’
Paul Morrison decides to take that on: ‘I think it is changing slowly. You have to change fundamental attitudes and how people think and that is not going to be achieved overnight. Women’s liberation challenged men to think about and act on inequalities between the sexes. For many men, this involved a painful examination of their relationships with women, their parenting and their work within the home. Change was required on several levels, by both men and women.’
Dave Philips is frowning. ‘The WLM has led directly to the growth of men’s groups. They read feminist literature, and attempt to listen and respond to women’s needs, but often found it hard to manage their relationships with feminist women. Separatist and revolutionary feminists were not interested in interaction, and many other feminist groups found working in mixed-sex groups unproductive.’
‘I think the men I work with would laugh out loud at that. Are you serious? If you went into a pub and came out with that you would be ridiculed. How do treat the women you work with? Do you treat them as equals? I bet you don’t.’ Philips does not respond.
Instead, Paul Morrison decides to answer. ‘Men are being blamed for everything. Let’s be quite honest here. If you employ a woman you must face the fact that she will highly likely take time off because of periods or other women’s problems. And then there is pregnancy. She may well be clever, hard-working and all the rest of it. But as an employer this is something you will have to face.’
Dot is about to argue back when Mr Tulip intervenes and asks her politely if she would join them for lunch. A free lunch in such plush surroundings is not to be missed so she accepts and an unspoken truce is declared. A small buffet appears and they help themselves. Morrison, in particular, is keen to develop his theme as to why women remain static in the workplace. The others obviously agree but obviously decide they have said enough. Dot is tempted to challenge Morrison but instead she just takes a note. She catches him staring at her legs when one of the others are speaking and moves her chair away gradually.
As they prepare to go their separate ways Paul Smith takes Dot to one side. ‘You’re from the Star news agency, aren’t you?’ Dot says she is and asks if he knows of it.
He doesn’t answer directly. Instead, he gives her sidelong glance: ‘Is Keith Wilder still the news editor there?’
Dot is suddenly aware of a frisson of trepidation. ‘Why, do you know him?’ she asks.
Again, he doesn’t answer directly. ‘In a manner of speaking,’ he says looking directly at her. ‘Give him my regards when you get back to the office.’
And with that he dons an overcoat and a trilby hat and walks purposefully to the door.
Dot stares after him. Why does the figure in a trilby hat remind her of something?