The more things change, the more they stay the same. As a fan of myths and ancient cultures, I am struck by how women have almost always been portrayed as deceitful, manipulative, and plotting the downfall of men. Just think of Pandora, Aphrodite, and Helen of Troy, not to mention Medusa.
Thus the very specific language, words of abuse and attitudes that are all too often to be seen in today’s media aren’t a new phenomenon. Still, for all that we affect to have progressed in our social attitudes, a level of misogyny, verbal violence and brutalising that goes far beyond anything male peers ever receive appears now to be on the increase.
Against this backdrop, and the rise of authoritarian leaders around the world, standing up for anything if you are a woman comes at a price. Research by Radio 4’s Women’s Hour in 2018 found that 42 per cent of women wouldn’t get involved in public life because ‘they’re not that type of person’; a view particularly expressed by marginalised groups. So, what did these women mean by that phrase?
The answer appears to be rolled up in outdated notions that power and influence are fundamentally masculine preserves. Traits that are still too often also associated with leadership, influence and power – forcefulness, aggression, ambition, confrontation, toughness, self-promotion – are also seen to be fundamentally masculine. Women are too often expected to be “one of the boys” when it comes to succeeding in a man’s world – how often did you hear masculine attributes ascribed, for instance, to Margaret Thatcher? – and often that can mean having to brave alien environments such as macho pubs or the company box at a football match.
The challenge is therefore to balance femininity with masculinity, being collaborative but not conceited, well-informed but not a know-it-all, amiable but not desperate to please. One of my modern-day heroines, Baroness Helena Kennedy, has achieved that balance. Women respect her and so do men. The men also know not to mess with her.
From humble beginnings in Glasgow and becoming the first member of her family to go to University, Helena is now one of Britain’s most distinguished lawyers, and internationally respected and consulted. She has spent her professional career in the Law giving voice to those who have been denied a voice or representation and championing civil liberties especially for women and children.
She has successfully acted in cases of terrorism, medical negligence and protecting human rights, most recently training judges in Brazil and she was part of a UN team of international experts who visited Turkey to investigate the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Helena combines eloquence with intelligence, determination with grace, humanity with humour, and a passion for people that is infectious. She is a shining example of a modern-day heroine who I am proud to call a friend. She is also, above all things, very good at being human.
From: Harper’s BAZAAR UK