Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine


Subscribe to Holyrood
by Mandy Rhodes
02 March 2021
Love and hate: Helena Kennedy on tackling misogyny

Helena Kennedy photographed by Alister Thorpe

Love and hate: Helena Kennedy on tackling misogyny

Almost 30 years have passed since Helena Kennedy first published her seminal critique of the legal system, Eve was Framed, which detailed just how appallingly the law failed women.

Much has changed for women over those three decades, a great deal initiated by Kennedy herself, but progress has been achingly slow and fundamental discrimination remains persistent.

Back then, and concerned that she would not be taken seriously or would be pigeonholed as a woman only interested in women’s issues, Kennedy deliberately avoided the use of the words ‘patriarchy’ and ‘misogyny’ as jargon of the day. 

Today, as a veteran human rights lawyer and a respected QC who has taken ground-breaking cases of equality through the courts, both at home and abroad, she has been tasked by the Scottish justice secretary, Humza Yousaf, with examining those very words and making a recommendation about whether Scotland needs a standalone crime of misogyny.

“I think my avoidance of using those words then, compared with now, is a reflection of the journey we have taken in terms of women’s rights,” says Kennedy, speaking two days after the first meeting of her misogyny working group. 

“Remember, that although Eve was Framed was first published in 1992, I started work on all of this stuff around the abuse of women way back in the 70s when it was early, early days, and I waited until I became a QC in the early 90s before I eventually published the book, which was completely rooted in the experiences of the women that I had represented, the hell of their lives and the fear that they lived with. 

“I waited until the year after I was awarded a Queen’s Counsel because by that time no one could dismiss me as being just a mad feminist, as they would have then, because I was recognised, I’d done lots of big trials – terrorism, espionage, all manner of stuff – and I was by then deemed a serious lawyer and could, therefore, talk about the failures of law for women without it, you know, being seen as a woman’s issue, a fringe issue. 

“I’ve revisited the content at different times over the years, 10 years on in 2003, and a whole new book more recently because of the advent of social media and of evidence coming via people’s Facebook entries which changed the evidential nature of so much of criminal law.

“That journey was interesting, because if you look at that book in 1992, I deliberately avoided using the word ‘patriarchy’, I avoided using a word like ‘misogyny’. I was not going to use that language because if there’s one thing I know as an advocate, it is that words matter.

“You can really put people off with the language that you use, or you can mystify things with words, and so on. Some people love that; I can’t stand it. And one of the skills that I like to imagine I have is that I am able to talk about law and to put it into language which is accessible and sort of unpick it, not make it mysterious and complicated and only for very smart people, which is ridiculous.

“So, I look at those earlier books, and I know that I made a deliberate choice not to go down that linguistic road, but the interesting thing now is that the world has caught up and young women, and it’s a great thing, they want to talk about why this attitude towards women is so persistent.

“And it’s persistent because of the patriarchal nature of our societies, and the gendered nature of law is because women weren’t in there in the beginning making law, and so it’s not going to surprise any of us that it hasn’t been embedded with the lives that women really lead and in the nature of the relationships that we have, and so this business of misogyny is one of the manifestations of that patriarchy. 

“The idea that somehow women are lesser and that there’s a sense of entitlement for the male sex, by and large, is being eroded with the efforts we’re making to create a fairer, more just society, and that there’s some equality, but we’ve still got a way to go, and its manifestation is in the conduct of men, in the main, and the misogynistic nature of their behaviour.

“Now, we know that the word, if you were to be absolutely sort of purist about it, it’s probably called epistemology or something, if you were to actually look at the word, then of course, it means hatred of women, but that’s not what any modern definition means, it is more about the continuing lesser status of women and ‘sub’ is in front of almost every one of the words that I would invoke here, you know, like ‘subordination’, ‘subjugation’, the idea that women are lesser, and the conduct is almost always about making sure that women do not achieve equality.

“And we know that this is part of women’s daily lives, being abused and insulted, and it is the constancy of it which means that it is totally undermining and diminishing for women, that business of being abused in a particular way, and which almost always goes after us as in our sexual being.

“So, for instance, and you’re not going to be able to print any of this, but, you know, it’s almost always going to be sexual, things like ‘I’m going to fuck you’…’I’m going to fuck you into kingdom come’… ‘Fuck the living daylights out of you’…‘What you need is a good fuck’…

“You know, it’s always about that, and it’s always addressing us in the most violent of ways and going after us to do with our sex or our gender, and sometimes, it’s both, in that ‘You’re too ugly’ and ‘Nobody would want to fuck you’, ‘Why would anybody want to fuck you, you’re such a great fat, ugly cow’. 

“It’s always those sorts of abusive things which are to tell you that you don’t reach the standards in terms of gender stereotyping of what it is to be a woman. So, it’s a mix of all that stuff and one of the things that I feel quite strongly about is that I know that this makes up a part of women’s lives that when men get angry with women, this is what is thrown at them.

“Women don’t, on the whole, start talking about what they’re going to ‘fucking’ do to men. It just isn’t like that, and there’s a violence combined with our sex, and by that I’m almost always talking about sexual organs, but I don’t think this is confined to biological women and I don’t think you have to get into the debate about who is a woman, because to me, it’s about perceptions, and if somebody is perceived to be a woman by a man who is giving vent to, or is conducting himself in ways that are abusive and full of hatred, it can be experienced by trans women too.

“So it doesn’t matter whether they’re trans women who are self-declaring trans women or whether they’re trans women who have gone through a transitioning procedure, it doesn’t matter.

“If women are the real issue here when we’re talking about hate crimes, then the real issue here is about the protagonist, the person who’s doing it, and it’s usually a him, and the manifestation of that is his conduct, and that can be directed at anybody who, you know, is perceived to be a woman.

“So, yes, I understand the debate that is going on, but I am going to include in this work trans women as well as women who are born female. I am not going to make any distinctions between the two because that’s for other people to fight over and argue over how you deal with things like safe spaces, what you do in refuges, what you do in prisons. 

“People can argue about all of that elsewhere, but it’s not the task that’s been set to me. The task that’s been set to me is to look at whether there is a gap in the law and if so, does it need a new law or can it fit somewhere else.

“And sometimes, you know, the law is there if you root around looking for it. There is also the possibility that exists with the new hate crime bill to insert sex in a later stage. And it’s always a possibility to not do anything at all. But that’s the range of options for us and that’s how we intend to proceed. Nothing is set in stone, all to be explored.

“You know, I’m still learning stuff about human rights and how women are treated all the time. I went out, a year ago, to the refugee camps that the Yazidi women are in, these women who were multiply raped by ISIL, and to meet those women and to sit and talk to those women, and you think you know it all, but you are sitting with these young women telling you about being raped so much that their bodies are destroyed.

“And then, of course, there is the fact that they belong to comparatively small communities, and normally, if a girl had been raped, and often they have had babies, she would be rejected because she is no longer pure, and some of the families would say, we want you to come back but we don’t want you to bring back the product of some ISIL assassin, because the men and boys in these villages were slaughtered and were beheaded, these are people who have suffered so much and I suppose, basically, you are dealing with levels of horror that you start thinking, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, let’s all talk about all of this as being about our common humanity and how to treat people equally and with compassion and respecting the very essence of who they are’. 

“I feel very strongly that my most recent experiences have sort of reminded me of the full horror of all of this, but it doesn’t stop you getting back to the guy next door, it doesn’t stop you getting back to the men with whom you share a workspace or hearing things in the street and seeing that these things, this constant abuse towards women, are all of a piece.”  

Kennedy has dedicated her career to giving a voice to those with the least power by championing civil liberties and promoting human rights.

And after 45 years in the game, her passion remains undimmed.

As a respected barrister, she has been involved in some of the country’s most high-profile cases, including the Brighton Bombing, the Guildford Four appeal and the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in London.

She was junior counsel for Myra Hindley and has also made something of a name for herself by defending a number of battered women who have killed their partners as a result of the domestic violence they suffered, and her infamy in this field led to her being mentioned during an episode of Inspector Morse as someone who could get a woman off with murder. This is not an accusation that bothers her.

She has also been a TV presenter – she fronted the 1990s cult live late-night discussion programme After Dark, which was briefly taken off air when a drunken Oliver Reed tried to snog American feminist Kate Millett.

And she went behind the camera to make the acclaimed documentary Mothers Behind Bars, which radically changed policy and attitudes towards women in prison. She also created the highly political drama series Blind Justice.

She is a former chair of the Human Genetics Commission, has her own charity, votes more frequently than any other Labour peer, sits on the boards of this, that and everything worthy and interesting, and finds time to be committed to cleaning up politics and the media.

From 1992 to 1997, she was chair of the constitutional reform group Charter 88, persuading the Labour government to make devolution and human rights legislation central to their manifesto.

She was tipped to be one Blair’s rising stars following the 1997 election but found it difficult not to be critical of New Labour. And since being elevated to the House of Lords in 1997 – which some saw as a way of shutting her up – she became something of a thorn in the side of what was then New Labour, constantly voting against the party whip.

When I last interviewed her 10 years ago, she told me that the party had been “mad” not to realise the kind of woman she was and that there was a plurality to her politics that the party could not control.

Indeed, so much so that she seriously considered a keen offer by the then Scottish first minister, Alex Salmond, back in 2007 to become the solicitor general but declined on the basis that she was also running an Oxford college at the time and her husband, the world-renowned facial surgeon Iain Hutchison, was based in London.

But despite having lived in London all her adult life and having always practised at the English bar, being Scottish matters to Kennedy.

She was born in Glasgow in 1950. She is one of four sisters and lived with her family – her father was a dispatcher with the Daily Record and her mother was a housewife – in a ‘two-room and kitchen’ tenement flat in a working-class area on the south side of Glasgow.

She attended Holyrood RC Secondary School, where she was appointed head girl and where, she says, the most important lesson she was taught was to ask ‘why’. It’s a question she has never stopped asking.

“I know that perhaps for somebody that lives away from Scotland now, I have a very romantic idea of Scotland and the place I come from and I will be, on occasion, accused of over romanticising it, but I do think that when people ask me about my values, they are very much Scottish values.

“My mother just had a very keen sense of who she was. She came down here to the House of Lords for the whole ceremonial thing and there she was, wearing her wedding hat, looking around and taking it all in and it was interesting because she knew who she was, and although she was just a wee working-class woman from Glasgow, she was not overly impressed with anything, not awestruck and she felt just fine that I was here.

“She was not overwhelmed by it because nothing could ever make her feel less of a person. She was a great egalitarian, my mother, and when she was asked what she thought about her daughter being a lady, she would say, ‘I hope all my daughters are ladies’.”

When her mother was once asked what she thought of her third youngest daughter’s many achievements and how she managed to juggle it all along with bringing up three children and maintaining a semblance of family life, she replied, ‘Aye, but have you seen her skirting boards?’.

Kennedy laughs at the memory and how this captures what being Scottish is all about: “It’s that whole thing that, you know, you don’t talk too grandly about your own children. You can praise your nieces or nephews or your next door neighbour’s children, but you don’t do it yourself about your own children, and it is such a Scottish thing. You just shouldn’t get too big for your boots, and my mother was very good at that.

“You know that even now, my family in Scotland still send me birthday cards and so on addressed to me as Mrs Hutchison. It is just to put me in my place, you know, in that tall poppy way. You may think you are this big, famous feminist lawyer but to us, you are just Mrs Hutchison. It is very funny.” 



Stay in the know with our fortnightly magazine

Stay in the know with our fortnightly magazine


Popular reads
Back to top