The death of the killer of thirteen women has elicited an apology from the police for the methods and the language they used during their investigation. The role of the press and they way that they portrayed the victims has also come in for some heavy criticism.
Which is right. When you hear their language in the context of today, it is shocking. But in the context of the time it was happening, the police and press fitted right in with the culture that affected all women.
Those who had the advantage of class and money had at least some protection from the effect of sexist attitudes on their psyche, their sense of self-worth. Working class women had no protection at all - except perhaps the best kind; each other. But women isolated at home or those in male-dominated jobs had very little. For women reduced to sex work to augment their meagre incomes, their lives were beset by the attitudes of the day in the most direct way imaginable, and the fact that thirteen women who were murdered by a toxic man were afforded no respect from the rest of society is a glaring proof of how women were regarded in those times.
One man did the killing. Many more did the sneering, the insulting, the dismissing and the judging.
I was working in Coventry Head Post Office at that time and was a rep for the Union of Postal Workers. For a while I was the only female rep on the branch committee despite there being many women workers (walkers, sorters and canteen staff). The most memorable personal and anecdotal experience of male toxicity, and there were many, came on one day when I sat in a branch committee meeting with my fellow reps.
We were discussing attempts by management to speed up the work which we were unanimously resolved to fight. Mail bags that came into the building from the vans would be hooked onto a moving belt which travelled throughout the building eventually dropping onto a great slide from where they were lifted by workers and emptied of their contents onto sorting tables. Managers would stand at the slide where the bags were dropped and chivvy workers to empty them faster.
Everybody was fed up with this and the union was planning some action. The meeting was going well until one particularly unpleasant rep interjected with a great self satisfied smile: “Bag dropping, that’s the Yorkshire Ripper’s job isn’t it!”. The other reps and officers either laughed, smirked or looked embarrassed but said nothing.
I left the room. The murders were in the news every day. The details of the trial were there for all to read. It was considered a joke, an entertainment, at least in my union committee room.
But you knew it was not confined to that room. You could go to the annual union conference and be whistled at as you walked to the podium to speak. Each region of the union had a social evening at conference which often had a comedian telling sexist jokes in their act. If you attempted to stop it you were derided and jeered at. This was no isolated incident. This was the norm.
The things that would change this situation were just beginning to gather: the Employment Protection Act; the Sex Discrimination Act; the formation of the National Abortion Campaign; the Domestic Violence Act enabling court orders against violent husbands; the conferences of the Women’s Liberation Movement; Reclaim The Night; Rape Crisis; Women’s Aid; all this was in its infancy when those thirteen women lost their lives.
Those, and the battles that working class women led such as the Grunwick Strike, which forced the labour movement to change their attitudes to women in the most direct way, began the shift in culture in which the police and the press were operating.
Violent men continue to attack and kill women. The social context in which this occurs and the way that society responds to it is also what matters. The fact that the police today have felt it necessary to apologise for their behaviour forty years ago is an indication of the changes that have happened in that time.
However, it is not enough to just note or even celebrate the changes that women have fought for. You can lose what you win unless you keep it up.
Rape convictions, even getting rape cases into court, today are at an all time low. The police can say sorry. The press may have learned how to speak better. The labour movement may have better policies. But these can be a cover for the actual living reality of the lives of working-class women.
Societal change has to match the words.