Monday, October 08, 2012

A Foreign Country

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

That is the opening line to L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between which was published in the year that I was born. With all that has been in the news recently about that dead celebrity I have found myself thinking back to what life was like for women and girls back in the late 1960s and 1970s for things were certainly done differently then.

There was a change in the air. What was known then as the Women's Liberation Movement was beginning but it was many years before the effects of that filtered down to the ordinary woman. Women's Libbers were mocked and trivialised and in the home and workplace the old attitudes continued for quite a long time.

Before 1970 a working woman could not secure a mortgage without the signature of a male guarantor because women were not expected to be in continuous employment. And before the 1970 Equal Pay Act it was legal to pay women lower rates than men for the same work. In the workplace women were often sexually harassed and had no redress other than leave the job. This was seen as quite acceptable then.

The other night I heard a story of sexual harassment that shocked me. This happened to a friend of mine. She is sixty-one now and was eighteen then.

My friend was working as a dental assistant in a surgery in a small English town. Her employer, the dentist, a man in his forties, was a person with a quirky sense of humour. Often while treating his patient and with my friend assisting him he would open his flies and bring out his penis. The patient, lying in the chair, jaws wide open, would not be aware of this. My friend was terribly embarrassed by this behaviour but, because she thought it was expected of her, she laughed it off. As she said, "I'd far rather he didn't expose himself but what could I do?" In those days an employer could get his jollies in this manner and pretend he was 'just having a laugh.' Nowadays he'd probably be struck off and have to pay compensation to his victim for constructive dismissal and mental distress.

But you know what also shocked me about this sad tale? My friend said that it was also normal practice for both her and the dentist to smoke cigarettes in the surgery while the patient was being treated. That dentist chap's bound to be nearly a hundred now if he's still alive (which is doubtful). And that is just as well. Imagine being treated by a dentist with his dick hanging out of the front of his trousers and a fag hanging out of his mouth.

The past is indeed a foreign country.


Grannymar said...

May that particular past be dead and buried rotting in the ground.

Nelly said...

Strong words Grannymar but fair words.

Mage said...

I'm totally speechless. This indeed is a shocker. I love your posts....even the scavenger in the next yard.

Cuidado said...

Until the mid seventies I had never been to a dentist who didn't smoke while he was treating you. Amazing how far we've come while still having those memories that seem so foreign or unbelievable now.

Nelly said...

Thanks for your Comments Mage & Cuidado. I missed the smoking dentist experience. Probably just as well as I was disgusted by cigarettes when I was young.