Abusers prey on the sense of shame many women feel. Lady Trumpington has gloriously ditched hers
When Lady Trumpington was a young woman fresh out of finishing school, she worked for a while as a second world war land girl on a farm belonging to David Lloyd George. It was a rather odd set-up, to say the least. The former prime minister kept his mistress in a bungalow near the main house while his family were resident, moving her back in when they departed; the young Jean Campbell-Harris, as she was then, was stabled with the mistress. She describes in her autobiography how Lloyd George would make her stand against a wall while he measured her with a tape, which she thought was probably the “nearest to flesh he could get” with a watchful mistress around. Not quite Harvey Weinstein territory, but creepy nonetheless.
Trumpers, as she was known, retired this week from the House of Lords at the age of 95, after a gloriously eventful career that took her from working as a translator in the Bletchley Park codebreaking huts to becoming one of only a handful of senior female ministers under Margaret Thatcher.
But she will be immortalised for future generations by that film clip of her cheerfully sticking two fingers up at her old friend, and a former minister, Lord King. (He referred ungallantly to her age; she forgot there were cameras around.) Which is quite as it should be – for every young woman should have a Trumpers in her life: an indomitable great aunt figure, unashamedly enjoying the luxury of being old enough not to worry all the time about what others – men, especially – think.
No wonder older women were once feared as witches, given the devilish difficulty of controlling them otherwise. The compensation of old age, once the male gaze moves on, is the freedom not to care.
And who wouldn’t secretly thrill to the idea of addressing disagreeable arguments over lunch (as Trumpers reportedly did) by putting down one’s gin and shouting “Balls!”? Never mind wearing purple when we are old, as the Jenny Joseph poem has it, with a red hat that doesn’t go. How tame that seems in comparison with wearing ermine, flicking Vs, and effortlessly embarrassing young comedians on Have I Got News For You by making fruity jokes, as Lady Trumpington did at the age of 90.
What extraordinary strength of character they must have had, that pre-war generation of women raised and educated only for marriage, who overcame considerable obstacles to make something exciting of their lives.
And yet it’s not a generation to be viewed through rose-tinted glasses, still less used to rebuke younger women. If they were tough, it’s because they had no choice, and precious few chances to complain. In her 90s, Lady Trumpington could comfortably tell the Lloyd George story to the world. The young Jean presumably didn’t dare. Some things never change, and yet they could.
The Trumpers figure in my own life was quite literally a great aunt, whose war years were spent as an army nurse in Africa before driving home overland across Europe with a dashing looking young officer, whose role in this adventure was only ever vaguely explained. If it was a wartime affair, it can’t have survived the peace, but at any rate this road trip furnished her with some tremendous stories.
By the time I knew her, she was thrillingly immune to disapproval of any kind and at family parties would swear with impressive creativity, fluency and disregard for the presence of children. (Small ones clearly rather bored her, at least until old enough to be introduced to the Telegraph crossword.)
The older I get, the better I wish I’d known her. But it was from her I learned the story of another relative, a sweet old lady whose sole introduction to the facts of life had been a warning on her wedding day from her mother that her husband would want to do something beastly to her, that must be endured in order to get a baby. “But what nobody told me,” this woman confided to my great aunt, “was that it would be such fun!” Old ladies are so much less shockable than the young think.
We patronise them at our peril, that generation whose lives were so rich in hidden depths and so fraught with dangers. They dared not get too close to men – shame lurked at every corner, and pregnancy spelled unmitigated disaster in a time before freely available contraception or abortion – yet risked destitution without them.
A bad marriage was to be endured not ended, and opportunities for work were still heavily circumscribed by class. At Bletchley they chiefly recruited daughters of the landed gentry, on the grounds that posh girls were thought less likely to gossip. A less well-connected woman might conceivably have struggled to achieve Trumpington’s impressive late life career in politics too, which she entered via a life peerage.
Nostalgia for that era is, then, misplaced. It is a far, far better time to be a young woman now, as Hollywood’s predators face days of reckoning and old barriers are starting to be dismantled. But there are lessons to learn from the Trumpington generation all the same.
There has been much talk about courage in the Weinstein case, of how victims must be brave to come forward. But perhaps it is more useful to talk about the absence of shame, the emotion on which Weinstein’s modus operandi relied.
Why do women still feel so mortified when this happens to us, so embarrassed about discussing it publicly, when it’s obvious we weren’t the ones doing wrong? Yet still we worry that somehow we might have been; that we sent the wrong signals, or should have made more fuss, or else are fussing about nothing. At least it wasn’t rape. Maybe we misunderstood.
There’s always something to apologise for. It’s striking how many victims describe Weinstein telling them, before lunging, that they needed to lose weight if they wanted to get better roles. They were primed from the start to feel there was something wrong with them, rather than him.
And that’s why the one vital lesson younger women can take from older ones is not that they should be tougher or more courageous. It’s that life is vastly improved by no longer being made to feel shame for things that are not rationally shameful. Contrive somehow to care less about what others think of our bodies or our behaviour, get rid of that useless anxiety – and living wouldn’t require half so much courage.
It’s striking how many victims describe Weinstein telling them that they needed to lose weight
Trumpington’s ‘immortal’ gesture to Lord King