A leading historical novelist and mother who raised a daughter and a son in a ‘feminist household’ wonders if the struggle for gender equality should be reframed for a new generation
At the height of the #MeToo movement, as some 12 million women worldwide were sharing their personal experiences of sexual harassment and assault, we went as a family to dinner with some friends. During dessert I overheard another guest, a woman my age, warning the teenaged girls at her end of the table of the dangers of predatory men. If we had learned anything from #MeToo, she said, it was that men wanted only one thing. “Never, ever go back to a drink you have left unattended,” she told them. “Chances are, someone will have spiked it.” She told the grim story of a girl she had found outside her basement door during the Notting Hill Carnival, half-dressed, drunk and distraught after a sexual attack. This, she said, was the modern world. Girls had to be relentlessly vigilant; they should trust no one.
As the girls squirmed and shot each other embarrassed glances, my son, Charlie, the only boy among them, stared at his plate. It was not a subject any of them felt comfortable discussing with someone else’s mother over apple pie. But it struck me then that at least the girls had the right to reply. They had a voice in this debate. If #MeToo had taught us anything it was that every woman’s story deserves to be heard. My son, by contrast, was not entitled to an opinion. The sole representative of manhood at his end of the table, he hung his head, his expression an uneasy blend of guilt, resentment and shame.