Mary Kenny, a women’s liberator
The one-time feminist firebrand talks to the spiked review about her radical past and conservative present.
‘Because the world has changed, and moved on. Because, while I certainly continue to support the emancipation and liberation of women, I began to find obsessive feminism narrow and sectarian. Because the hound of heaven finally caught up with me.’
These are some of the reasons journalist and author Mary Kenny gives when asked why she changed from ‘a fiery revolutionary to a conservative’.
It’s also how she ends her memoir, Something of Myself and Others, written in 2013. Since then, her husband, and fellow journalist, Richard ‘Dick’ West, passed away after a long illness following a stroke in 1996. She’s now 72, and she really has changed. The ‘wild Irish girl’ she played in her youth is long gone. In her stead, stands a woman who has taken a more considered ‘historical approach’ to politics and life in general.
I sat with Kenny on a balcony overlooking the foyer of the Barbican Centre in London, away from the bustle of the Battle of Ideas festival. She’d just taken part in a debate on the morality of abortion. With blazing purple hair and matching glasses, the famous, rebellious feminist is still recognisable, despite her claim to have become more conservative. I handed over the coffee and she stirred the drink with the arm of her glasses.‘This is an old horrible Fleet Street habit’, she tells me.
Old habits or not, there is certainly something about Kenny that conjures up the excitement and mania of a Fleet Street newsroom. She speaks at a mile a minute, doing that give-away Irish thing of continuing to talk on an in-breath so as to cram more words into a sentence. She’s a showman, and a great entertainer. She’s also serious about politics and journalism.
‘It was a man’s world’, she says of the beginning of her career in journalism in the 1960s. ‘But all the men were rather nice to us, especially the older men – terribly sweet to us, actually, because we were unusual.’ In her memoir, she recalls the time she told Charles Wintour, the then-editor of the Evening Standard, that he wouldn’t know what he was missing if he didn’t hire her. Luckily, he had, what Kenny calls, ‘a soft spot for the Irish’, and, aged 22, she began a full-time job as a reporter. This took her far and wide, from dancing with the British foreign secretary on a cruise ship in New York to cycling from London to Paris to report on May 1968. It’s fair to say that Kenny has a formidable history in journalism.
But, as well as her reporting work, it was her role as a campaigner in the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement (IWLM) that set Kenny apart from her peers. The movement, which began with a small meeting in Gaj’s restaurant on Baggot Street in 1970, gradually attracted more and more young feminists who, in the summer of 1971, pulled a stunt famously known as the ‘condom train’ – an attempt to challenge Ireland’s rigid anti-contraception laws. Kenny, and 48 other comrades, took a train from Dublin to Belfast, purchased condoms and spermicide, before catching the train back. While passing through customs, stocked with contraceptives, Kenny and friends challenged customs officers to arrest them.
At the time it was said that Kenny had played the rambunctious feminist on the train home, inflating condoms in excitement. In fact, as she writes her memoir, this isn’t true. She actually felt quite bad: ‘I knew how upset my mother would be – how mortified to see her daughter in the headlines, even identified as a ringleader, in a stunt which involved buying French letters from Belfast.’ This is an important aspect of Kenny’s story. Going against the constraints and decorum of Irish-Catholic society in the 1970s took guts; and going on national television to defend smuggling condoms was seriously brave. Kenny realises this now. ‘I was born in 1944 and so I grew up in full-throttle rebellion against that kind of Doris Day outlook [which prevailed at the time]’, she tells me. ‘We had so much to rebel against.’
Kenny’s full-throttle rebellion puts the feminist rebellions of today into perspective. Think of the endless awareness-raising and stigma-combating actions of contemporary feminists, who ‘free-bleed’ (refuse to use tampons) in marathons, or ‘speak out’ about body hair. Such protests pale in comparison with those of Kenny and her peers. ‘In my generation, the word was women’s liberation’, she tells me. ‘That was the focus – liberation, freedom from the fetters. That’s changed. The emphasis is now on equality. [Feminists] don’t talk about liberation anymore. They talk about equality, and I think that’s a much more complicated thing.’ Indeed, Kenny and the IWLM were truly radical, and, with that seemingly silly stunt, they successfully challenged anti-contraception laws that had held Irish women back since 1935.
So, what does she make of the feminism of today? ‘I don’t like old biddies constantly grumbling about the younger generation – it’s a bit sour to do that’, she says. ‘But now isn’t then, and the things that we were animated about were different things. And in some ways, because we had so much to rebel against, it made it very interesting; it made it very stimulating. It made you think a great deal about what was going on in the world.’
She admits, she has mellowed. ‘I’ve gotten older and I’ve gained experience and I’ve evolved in different ways.’ Yet I can’t help but get the impression that the whiny, infantile outbursts of contemporary feminism annoy her now as much as they would have done in her youth. ‘I do admire a lot of what young women are doing, but this very demure and fragile construct of feminism…’ She tails off.
Instead, she tells me of the importance of women standing up as strong, independent individuals. ‘The nuns who taught me would praise women like Joan of Arc – they emphasised that the female saints of the past were very strong and purposeful and driven. So that was an interesting influence for me as well.’
Yes, Kenny’s views have changed. Most strikingly, she’s turned against the radical pro-choice argument that animated her younger days. ‘I’m in favour of a very open discussion about [abortion] but obviously men and women are not equal physically. So the notion of anatomical equality is not really recognising the realities of nature.’ In her speech during the debate on abortion, she told the audience that her views had changed after seeing what an abortion looked like at 24 weeks. Similarly, her own personal battle with alcoholism has changed her earlier relationship with drink, something written about extensively in her memoir. ‘My mother used to say “an inebriated man is one thing, but a woman drunk is just dreadful”. I rebelled against that because, I thought, you know, why shouldn’t I? I can drink just as much as any man.’
But her belief in women’s freedom – and her taste for fun – is still paramount. ‘I think women should be free to get out of their heads if they want to. You use alcohol as a way of being reckless – drinking gives you permission to do all the crazy things. It literally lifts the inhibitions.’
So, what next for Kenny? She’s working on a new book and continues to write for the Irish Independent. She’s a serious campaigner for free speech and has written in favour of Brexit, marking her out as more of a political rebel than she might think. Yes, she may have had a change of heart about some of the goals of modern women’s liberation, but she remains a fierce reminder that a woman with gall is unbeatable – young feminists, take note.
Something of Myself and Others, by Mary Kenny, is published by Liberties Press.
Ella Whelan is assistant editor at spiked. Follow her on Twitter: @Ella_M_Whelan