We all find our own way to feminism. I did not come to the Bar in the early seventies as a feminist looking for slights against women. When I started studying law I was not particularly conscious of women’s issues, except inasmuch as they were part of my general concern about what happened to working-class people when they sought justice. I was a child of the Glasgow tenements with strong class politics, which informed my way of seeing law. When the women’s movement gathered steam I was in my early twenties, I went to the meetings, read the books and carried the banners, but it was at the coal face that I really learned a deep and visceral understanding of feminism, in the cells with my clients, in community advice centres and refuges, and most of all in courtrooms. Those experiences in turn fired memories from my childhood of blighted women’s lives.

Two decades later I published Eve Was Framed, my book about women and the British justice system, and I was overwhelmed by the response. Laying out the law’s failure to provide justice for women was highly contentious, especially within the profession and among the judiciary, but many women wrote to me, confiding in me their experiences of abuse and violence, which they had never taken to the courts. Some had told people in authority but had not been believed, though most remained silent because they knew that they would be accused of lying, exaggerating or fantasising. This response to the book seemed like a victory, but you don’t need me to tell you that these concerns are exactly the same as the ones still raised by women today.

My passion to reshape the world has never subsided and, despite halting progress, I am still subject to surges of real hope. Over the last few decades the wall of silence about the abuse of women and children has been breached. Domestic violence and rape are now firmly located on the political and public agendas. And every now and again something happens which persuades me that at last we are reaching the uplands in the struggle for women’s equality. The #MeToo campaign which went viral after the Harvey Weinstein scandal rocked Hollywood in 2017 has captured a mood that has been gathering force for several years, at least since the original Me Too movement was started by Tarana Burke in 1997. It is not just about celebrities and the abuse of the casting couch.

It is about much more than predatory men with power in the film industry. It is about the way women have to live their lives and the debasing wretchedness of continuing gender inequality. The new element has been the Internet and social media. It has stirred a rage that has reverberated around the world and led to a huge wave of online disclosure. It has turned the spotlight on the harassment of models in the fashion industry and then moved on to Parliament, with political heads rolling and systems put in place to deal with sexual harassment there. No workplace seems safe from the naming and shaming of men abusing their power. It has turned to Oxfam, Save the Children and the charity world with the disclosure of male workers in crisis-stricken Haiti using young desperate women for prostitution and men in the upper reaches of these organisations behaving in disrespectful ways towards women. The whole Weinstein tsunami has been described as a ‘watershed’, a seismic response to law’s failure.

The surge of confidence was growing well before the #MeToo campaign. There was the Oxford student Ione Wells who was attacked and almost raped in London. She threw off the mantle of anonymity and expressed a public refusal to be silenced and ashamed for being on the receiving end of a sexual assault. There are the incredible women from minority communities, like the Southall Black Sisters and members of the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, who challenge discriminatory asylum and immigration policies as well as cultural practices like female genital mutilation, forced marriage and ‘honour’ killing, which are violations of human rights. Or the fabulous women in the Glasgow Disability Alliance who have unveiled the extent to which women with disabilities are exposed to disproportionate sexual abuse and domestic violence. There is Laura Bates’s brilliantly inventive Everyday Sexism Project, which provides a space for sharing the ways in which offensive remarks and conduct are a persistent feature of women’s lives and are normalised. There has been the launch of the Women’s Equality Party, and the creation of the Centre for Women’s Justice by the tireless solicitor for women Harriet Wistrich. There are the students in universities who are demanding a change in the culture of entitlement they feel is enjoyed by young men. There is the growing clamour of voices in television and sport demanding that the salaries of men are published so that women doing the same jobs can see if they are getting equal pay.

It was in 2012 when the deceased celebrity entertainer Jimmy Savile was exposed as a paedophile and gross abuser of women and children that we seemed to reach a tipping point. As more cases emerged, suddenly the institutions – from the BBC to Parliament, from hospitals and schools to young offender institutions, from local authorities to universities and churches, all of which had colluded in keeping the lid on such crimes – were in retreat. Every one of these pillars of rectitude had put institutional reputation ahead of safeguarding women and children. The outrage was so deeply felt and the torrent of memories, anger and sorrow so great that a public debate raged, of a kind that had never taken place before. A public inquiry was set up by the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, in recognition of the extent of the problem. I kept hearing the same questions. How could so many predators have got away with it? Why did people do nothing? Was it because things were different then?

Now it was as though people had been waiting for permission to talk about their experiences and a flood of historic abuse and discrimination was laid bare. I thought then that maybe we were turning a corner.

The scandals of Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford, Manchester, Newcastle and other cities were revealed, where girls, some as young as 13 and 14, were groomed and used for sex by gangs of men largely from ethnic minorities. The girls were white and usually from disadvantaged backgrounds, often in care homes. They would be staying out late, easily preyed upon in the night-time world of takeaway joints and minicabs. Plied with drink and drugs, given gifts of money or trinkets, they would be raped or coerced into sexual activity by men sometimes old enough to be their fathers. Yet they were treated by the authorities as girls making a lifestyle choice and the men avoided prosecution because the police did not think the girls or their families were credible witnesses. Again the question was asked. How could this have gone on without police action or intervention by social services? There were attempts to suggest this was culturally specific, as though it is only men from certain cultures who commit such crimes, when in fact these particular manifestations are just further examples of how ‘pass-around’ girls are a common feature of male gang networks. Many young Asian girls, like young white girls, suffer sexual abuse and, as we know, it is most commonly at the hands of people from their own family or community. A culture of impunity means serial abuse of women and girls has gone uninvestigated and unpunished for all my professional life. There is nothing racially or religiously inherent in male abuse. Yes, the police and social services were anxious in these cases not to be accused of racist conduct by pursuing Pakistanis or other ethnic minority men. The tabloids bleated about political correctness being the root cause of this systemic failure to pursue the offenders, and no doubt the police’s past record of discrimination towards minority communities means they are now being trained not to repeat history, but these cases are not just about sensitivity to potential allegations of racism or worries about feeding racial bigotry. Lord Ken MacDonald QC, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, described the male offenders as the ones who were racist because their victims were white girls. Yet it was the vulnerability and apparent availability of the girls that made them easy prey rather than the colour of their skin or the fact that they were non-Muslims. At the core of these shameful episodes were the deepseated attitudes about which I have written endlessly. Some women and girls are deemed unworthy of protection; some females are seen as fair game. Slut-shaming, shoulder-shrugging and victim-blaming are nothing new when women are sexually molested. And it happens to Muslim women, brown-skinned women and black women too. The police forces and social service departments that were involved had to examine their consciences and their practices in a way that had not happened before. Was this in fact the tipping point?

I think, too, about reading and watching the coverage not so long ago about the great athlete Oscar Pistorius, who shot his girlfriend in a fit of rage, or the footballer Ched Evans, who was acquitted on a retrial of rape, having been given the heads-up by a friend that there was a young woman available for sex who just happened to be very drunk, or the politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who walked away from a sexual assault allegation on an immigrant hotel worker claiming it was consensual, only to be later exposed as a man with an unquenchable appetite for aggressive sex with strangers. All these men were able to rally huge public support. I think of John Warboys, the taxi driver who was responsible for the assault of legions of women but was considered suitable for release by the Parole Board after nine years. Then there is Donald Trump, who boasted on tape that he liked to ‘grab women by the pussy’ and admitted he could do so without any consequences because of his power and fame; who also said that he thought women who had abortions deserved ‘some form of punishment’. He then went on to become president of the United States, supported by swathes of men but also a large number of women who think he speaks for them. I read and watch female journalists, paid assassins, turn on women who speak out about the ways in which lecherous men grope them, or I hear senior women at the Bar say that young women who complain of roaming hands should not consider a career in law if they cannot deal with it, and then I wonder how long it will take before there is equality. For millennia women have been made to feel shame. They have been told that what happens to them is their fault and it is they who are blamed for their failures, their shortcomings, their conduct. That is the power of patriarchy. Male dominance is maintained by this stuff. Women are made to feel soiled. They absorb feelings of guilt. The voice in their heads is mouthing cultural norms created by men and sold to women. ‘It must have been something about me that made him do that to me.’

While women are increasingly vocal and are refusing to be muzzled about the violence and abuse they experience, the extent of such crimes is not in decline. Two women a week are killed by a spouse or partner. The police receive one phone call per minute concerning domestic violence. Every seven minutes a woman is raped. New technology has brought the proliferation of pornography on a scale that is alarming and contagious. Boys and men are watching and sharing imagery on their phones in which intimacy is wholly debased and women treated as objects. They then act out what they see in their contact with women, thinking this is what good sex is like. The trafficking of women and children is being carried out on an industrial scale across the world and barely a town or city in the United Kingdom has escaped its reach. The truth is that a lot has happened but not enough has changed.

Patriarchy is a virus that lives deep in the body politic. We have to become more confident in naming it as one of the main blights on all our lives.

For men and women both.


Helena Kennedy QC is one of Britain’s most distinguished lawyers and public figures. She is a regular broadcaster, journalist and lecturer and throughout her career has focussed on giving voice to those who have least power in the system, championing civil liberties and civil rights. Her 1992 book Eve Was Framed led to a number of key reforms for women and was followed in 2004 by Just Law. She was the Master of Mansfield College, University of Oxford, from 2011 to 2018, and was awarded a life peerage in 1997. Born in Glasgow, she lives in London.

Misjustice is out now and available to buy