To my (at this point fictional) daughter,
I want you to know a few things about your old mum. First of all, I have been incredibly fortunate throughout my life. I have a loving family and wonderful friends. I have been fed, clothed, educated and supported. I sincerely hope that if you ever become a real person then the same will be true for you, and that you and I don’t argue very often. I hope that you haven’t inherited my crippling addiction to caffeine.
Secondly, I owe you an apology. I owe you an apology because I have already failed you, even though right now you don’t exist. I didn’t act when I should have and I want to make sure that you never repeat my mistake.
I was walking along a busy road in North London – you know all those stories your aunts and uncle tell you about your mother’s hedonistic twenties? This was around that time. It was a perfectly normal Wednesday and I was on my way to work. (This was before I was made Artistic Director of the National Theatre, by the way. I was still working at a box office back then.) I was walking along with my earphones in, listening to a podcast and generally minding my own business, when a man who was walking past me hit me on the arm and said “smile!”
This is the part where I failed you.
I tried to pretend that nothing had happened and I walked away. I didn’t say a word. When I got to work I told my colleagues what had happened in a throwaway, “isn’t London hilarious and weird?” kind of fashion. I should not have done that.
What I should have done was tell him not to touch me. I should have asked him why he believed that he had the right to tell someone what to do with their own face. I should have made it clear to him that everyone has the right to walk along a street without being accosted by an unpleasant stranger. (The other thing I should have at least considered was beating him to death with my lunchbox, but never mind.)
You may well be thinking, “God, Mum, you’re SUCH a drama queen! Why is this such a big deal? It’s not like he attacked you, you loser.” And you’d be right, darling, but please don’t speak to your mother like that.
It doesn’t matter that the physical contact was not particularly painful, or that the language the man used was not seriously abusive. What matters is that this man genuinely believed that he had the right to treat a stranger that way.
I am extraordinarily lucky because I am one of very few women who has only had to deal with these kinds of low-level examples of sexism and harassment. Millions of women have to deal with far worse than this, all the time, with little or no hope of being able to assert themselves. (Ask any barmaid in the world.)
Most women feel like walking around in the world makes them intruders into men’s personal playgrounds, and that at any point we can (and should) expect to called out as trespassers. Having the nerve to go to work, socialise, drink alcohol, wear clothes that we like and take photographs makes us “fair game”. Apparently. Men own the world and if we’re in it then it is because they permit it.
Not all men are like this, of course. Your father (whoever the hell he has turned out to be) is a loving and wonderful man. But the fact remains that men who genuinely think that they have the right to tell you what to do, touch you without your permission and make you feel threatened must not be permitted to get away with it. If any of those things ever happen to you I want you to make the biggest song and dance you possibly can. I want you to create a huge and humiliating scene for the stupid bastard. (Don’t tell your dad I swore.) If you experience or witness harassment in any form I want you to make the most unimaginable fuss about it. I would rather that a daughter of mine were arrested for disturbance of the peace than quietly walked away from a stranger who was trying to hurt her.
That’s it, really. I hope you can understand why I think that this is so important. I really hope that by the time I actually have a daughter this whole letter will be unnecessary and meaningless, because society will have disregarded harassment as a completely unacceptable and stupid thing, but you never know. This is just in case.
Also, please don’t get any tattoos until you’re eighteen.
Lots of love,