If I had to name the half a dozen women who most inspire me, Dame Helena Kennedy’s name would definitely be on that list. As interviewer and fellow human rights lawyer Philippe Sands pointed out tonight, Helena has been a trail blazer, opening a door that made it possible for others to enter. Barrister, journalist, patron of the arts, author, member of the House of Lords: ”high achiever” doesn’t quite cover it.
It’s 20 years since Kennedy published her first book, ‘Eve was Framed: Women and British Justice’: a critique of the treatment of women in the British courts. She was one year into her career as a QC and desperate to talk publicly about the law’s shortcomings in respect of women. Rape cases, in particular, troubled her greatly: “Some of the judges were horrendous, making assumptions of contributory negligence”.
Two decades later, Kennedy was at Daunt Books to promote her new book, ‘Eve was Shamed: How British Justice is Failing Women’. It was interesting hearing how her background inspired her: “I grew up in Glasgow and entered the world of law as an outsider”, Kennedy recalled. “I believed that the law had failed the working class – and during my 20s, I discovered that women were doubly affected, by their class AND by their gender”. Having been brought up in a Catholic household where women were “blamed for all of the world’s wrongs”, the young Helena understood only too well how women were burdened by society’s expectations of them.
Starting out, however, she avoided the word “feminist” because “it would have invited a backlash”, even though she wanted to talk about the experiences of women. Over the years, Kennedy says, she has come to realise that reform of the law is not sufficient. And even now, women still feel let down by the law – as we’re seeing in the #MeToo movement.
Kennedy was outspoken in her defence of #MeToo, emphasising that what women are complaining about is the constant, degrading way in which they’re spoken to. Why, she implored us, should women tolerate this? As Kennedy pointed out, #MeToo was born out of the sense that society isn’t working for women; in other words: “We tried that – and it didn’t work.”
Returning to the subject of rape – a recurring theme – Kennedy described the current way in which rape victims are treated as “unbelievable”. While there are generations of women emerging wanting something different, this in itself is a challenge to the law. “It’s the equivalent of the suffragettes throwing stones through windows”, she concluded.
It’s not just in this country, mind you, that we have such problems. Kennedy perceives no differences in the legal systems of other European countries: “They fail just as badly!” That doesn’t mean that Kennedy is a fan of Brexit; far from it. “It’s not good news for women”, she reflected. “So many advances around maternity law have emanated from Europe”. Saying that she has no reason to doubt Theresa May when the PM says she won’t make any changes while she’s in power, on the flip side we have no idea how long that will be for.
“Brexit is not in the interests of the majority”, Kennedy sighed, “and I’m concerned that we’re dismantling something of incredible value for which we’ve fought for 40 years”.
Another concern of Kennedy’s is the numbers in which women are leaving the law – particularly those in their 30s, who are finding it a real challenge to combine motherhood with a legal career. “When I was at the bar, I was privileged – because I was legally-aided”, she told us. “It’s hard to believe that we’re in 2018 and we’ve only just got a third woman into the Supreme Court: it’s been a real battle”.
Pressed on how we can persuade more women into law, Kennedy responded, “I’ve changed my views about quotas: we need them. There’s no shortage of brilliant women out there, but life in many law firms is not conducive to a happy life for women OR men. We need a better world for both sexes and I’m an advocate of a four-day working week.”
Although this talk covered many troubling topics, I found it inspiring rather than depressing. As long as we have the likes of Helena Kennedy fighting the good fight on our behalf, I believe we will continue to make progress in our quest for equality – maybe not as fast as we would like, and maybe not in the way that we might have anticipated: but progress, nonetheless. And that, surely, must be welcomed – wouldn’t you agree?