'We became expert at fending off men' - Women reflect on feeling unsafe in their youth

Businessman's Sexually Harassing Female Colleague By Touching Her Shoulder

Unwanted attention was rife in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, say our writers, with women often just putting up with it - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

We asked five women to reflect on their experiences of dealing with unwanted attention in the 1960s, 70s and 80s

March 2021 will be remembered as the month in which the tragic murder of Sarah Everard opened up a new debate on female safety and the treatment of women in public in today's society.

In the last fortnight, young women have spoken out on their experiences and ways of coping with unwanted attention and abuse, often from men.

But how does today's situation compare to life for previous generations?

Christine Webber for headshot

Christine Webber - Credit: Archant

'I didn't feel safe as a young woman'

Journalist and broadcaster Christine Webber:

"What has happened to Sarah Everard is beyond tragic.

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"A lovely and lively young woman has been brutally murdered, and nothing that anyone does or says will bring her back.

"It’s an utterly shocking event. Small wonder that women of all ages are feeling a sense of outrage as well as fear. It’s hardly surprising either that vast numbers of decent men are equally appalled that such a thing could happen.

"But are things worse or better now than they were 50 years ago? It’s hard to say. Fifty years ago, CCTV was only just beginning, and few could have imagined how ubiquitous it would be today. It should make us feel safer. But does it?

"I grew up at a time when there was a much more obvious police presence on the streets. Indeed, many of us were familiar with our local Bobbies. These officers knew their patch. They knew the community. How different life is now. But did I feel safe as a young woman? No. 

"My recollection is that public transport was populated by lecherous guys who would either sit so close to you they squashed you into a corner, or sat opposite and leered at you. I was often followed too. It was terrifying. And I regularly encountered a flasher in an underground passage near my music college.

"To my shame, I never tried to inform on any of these men. I just hope none of them went on to attack and violate other women. I think though, that the most worrying element now is how much violent and abusive porn is freely available online. Young lads these days have often seen digital images of extreme and bizarre sexual practices before they’ve even kissed a girl.

"But people of all ages can routinely access this kind of material. This has, I believe, skewed their minds, and rid them of a sense of what’s normal and what’s not. To me, that’s the biggest change over the past 50 years, and the biggest anxiety.

Norfolk Federation of Women's Institutes. Mary Dorrell.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Mary Dorrell of the Norfolk WI

'We were warned to stay in groups'

Mary Dorrell from Norfolk WI:
"The Norfolk Federation of WIs remembers Sarah Everard and all women who have lost their lives due to violence. Tackling violence, domestic and otherwise, has been a long-standing concern for the WI.

"Fifty years ago, I arrived in Norwich for the first time, part of a group of trainee teachers staying in Wensum Lodge for a few nights. None of us thought it unusual, that first evening, when we were warned not to walk into the centre of Norwich in less than groups of four. Although, we did notice that cars crawled very slowly down King Street where we were staying.

Read More: EDP reporters share views on safety after Sarah Everard murder

"That was the week that I fell in love with this county and was so pleased to get a job here a few years later. Newly married, we bought our first house near Anglia Square; the process of discovering a lender who would consider giving a woman a mortgage was quite intimidating.

"Perhaps we ended up a little too close to Rick's Place at closing time, but I never really felt unsafe. Although the power cuts of the Three-Day Week sometimes made it tricky, I always stuck to well-lit routes. An instinctive precaution that has stood me in good stead walking alone in London, Paris and New York. The only time I have ever felt threatened was out one evening in Norwich with my son and felt the direct fear of homophobic taunts.

"The WI campaigns to make sure that women and girls can live the lives they choose, free from the fear of abuse.

"For me, however, it is not a problem that is specific to gender, sexual identity, age, race or disability. All members of society should have the right to live their lives free of the fear of violence or harassment."

Helen McDermott. Photo : Steve Adams

Helen McDermott - Credit: Steve Adams

'My skirt was slashed with a knife'

Broadcaster and journalist Helen McDermott:
"How sad it is that women are still feeling threatened in so many ways. I don’t believe that it was any worse in the 70s than now, and my younger self would have hoped that women today wouldn’t have to put up with the sort of treatment that many of us did all those years ago.

"The first encounter that made me feel threatened was when I was about 11 or 12. We used to live near a canal in Hertfordshire and I frequently took the dog for a walk along the towpath in the daytime. One morning I heard a voice calling after me asking for the time.

"When I turned round in all innocence there was a man exposing himself. I ran like the clappers to get home. I told mum and dad about the flasher but whether he was ever traced or not I have no idea. I’d never been worried before that but after it I never walked that path alone again.

"Later, as a student, I felt pretty safe travelling the underground; safety in numbers, I thought though I would be pretty wary of travelling down there alone, especially in the dark evenings. There were a couple of unnerving incidents in a London street.

"In one a man came up behind me and for no reason at all slapped me violently on the back and ran off. Another time, after a train journey I got home to find the back of my skirt had been slashed with a knife. I hadn’t felt a thing but I can only presume that it happened while going up the escalator.

"I wasn’t actually harmed in either case but they were pretty scary discoveries, both of them having happened in daylight.

"As the years went by I’m sorry to say that there were more incidents, here and abroad, as I tried to forge a career. I survived, of course, but I really do hope that we’ve reached a turning point, and that girls and women should no longer feel vulnerable."

Moira Richards

Moira Richards - Credit: Submitted

'Bad behaviour was accepted as normal'

Moira Richards, who has lived in Norfolk for the past 50 years:
"It’s not a new thing, sexual harassment, and it happens to young men as well as well as women.

"My first experience in the 1950s was being told by an older friend to watch out for “that man” as he is a flasher.

"I started work in the office of a merchant bank when I was 16. In one department some men used to ping rubber bands at the breasts and bottoms of the young ladies who had to pass through their area to the ledger room. There was no way to avoid it and no manager took them to task.

"Nowhere was free of menace. We all kept our eyes open for perverts. I recall a man with wandering hands sitting next to me in a packed cinema. I just kept pushing his hand away from my leg and then left at the interval.

"On several other occasions I was groped climbing the stairs on the bus or being in a queue. Wolf whistles, suggestive remarks and catcalls were commonplace. Our dress was conservative and trousers hadn’t become fashionable.

"Kerb crawling happened at anytime walking the half mile from town after dark.

"This bad behaviour seemed to be accepted as normal. I didn’t tell my parents. We all became expert at fending men off."

EDP Columnist Rachel Moore byline picture 2017

EDP Columnist Rachel Moore - Credit: Archant

'Harassment was a daily experience'

Columnist Rachel Moore:

"A Saturday job as a silver service waitress at a local hotel dinner and dance when I was 16 soon opened my eyes about what working with men could be about.

"It was my first introduction to the workplace in 1980 and it was terrifying.

"Dodging lunges and wandering hands, avoiding going anywhere near a cupboard or empty office alone. I lasted three weeks. It [felt like] a case of put up and shut up or quit. Horrified, I ran like the wind.

"At the same time, an acquaintance was on a Youth Training Scheme in the accounts department of a company with an almost all-male workforce. On pay day, when pay came weekly in brown paper envelopes, her job was to hand out the packets through a sliding window.

"One day a notorious grabber pushed his hands through the window to make a grope of her breasts. Terrified, she slammed the window shut. All the men the other side of the glass fell about laughing.

“Oooh moody today are we?” the groper laughed, as if he had been denied his right.

"Talking to my sons today, they cannot believe this behaviour happened in my lifetime.

"Outside work, the streets never felt safe to me. The catcalling, wolf whistling, kerb crawling and lewd remarks of men in cars happened frequently, in broad daylight. We were outside and exposed far more than today, walking, cycling and taking public transport far more in the 70s and 80s.

"Harassment was a daily experience. After dark, in Norfolk, Suffolk, Sheffield and Manchester wherever I was living, I’d be terrified walking even short distances alone in the dark. Like women told this week, my door keys were – and still are – gripped between my fingers ready to stab any attacker.

"Back then, in the days before mobile phones we carried rape alarms in our pockets and handbags that let out an ear-piercing screech and walked in the middle of the road where we could, so if anyone jumped out of the bushes or alley ways, we had a head start.

"I remember using phone boxes near venues to call parents, housemates and boyfriend I was about to set off, so they knew what time to expect me. Three rings were always used once I’d got home.

"It’s so sad that 40 years on, women still have to compromise how we live, fit our outdoor time alone to daylight hours and busy areas, and still live on our wits fearing attacks from men, day and night, wherever we are."