Aged 23, I got my first job in London. The work wasn’t exciting, but the firm paid my accommodation, travel and relocation expenses. All grand and glamorous, if it hadn’t been for the fact that in those days, travelling alone was quite a weird experience for a young woman
My first ‘home’ was a corporate hotel near Tower Hill where about 95% of the guests were male. The few women who were there were accompanied by men and the very few who dined alone were objects of curiosity. People stared. It wasn’t a mean or suggestive type of staring, but genuine bewilderment. What was a young woman doing in a hotel dining alone? It made me uncomfortable and self-aware, so I ended up taking most of my meals in the hotel room watching Oprah Winfrey (whom I’d never encountered back in Denmark). Eventually, as I got to know a few people in London, they would come to the hotel and have dinner, however, there were quite a few ‘club sandwich’ nights before this happened.
But it wasn’t only outside the workspace that things were different in the early 1990s. The tone in offices was also a little less ‘sensitive’. It was quite common for some male colleagues to be a bit ‘touchy’ with women, and many constantly and openly made comments about our looks. It probably sounds mad, but in those days it never dawned on us that some of this was wrong or even illegal. Perhaps some people have a different experience, but I personally cannot recall ever having a conversation about it with my girlfriends or female colleagues. However, I do remember getting fed up with one particular person and after having considered my options deciding to deal with it in a hands-on way. One morning, I went up to him and grabbed his bottom from behind, whilst everybody was looking, giving him a big smack. Afterwards, I spent an hour or so washing my hands (he was fully dressed, of course, but still….).He never bothered me again, in fact, we ended up having a good working relationship.
The most difficult situation I encountered was on a business trip where I was the only woman in the group. It was all going well, the work was enjoyable, and all the guys were very kind and professional, until at one stage, when we were alone for a moment, a very senior person – whilst preparing a presentation and stone-cold sober – asked me if I thought it would be a good idea for us to kiss. I was shocked, he was twice my age and married, but that wasn’t what shocked me. It was the fact that he said it so completely out of the blue, in fact I thought I’d misheard him at first. Then he repeated the question. I said ‘no’, very politely, (in my own opinion). He then just smiled and said ‘fine’ and we continued working as if nothing had happened. I remember feeling relieved that he didn’t get upset or insulted and I also remember feeling that it was a little unfair of him to put me in that situation.
After a few months in the hotel, I moved to a company flat in Whitehall. I had been looking forward to cooking for myself after all those hotel dinners, however, the only foodshop in the area was a Europa Foods, an overpriced chain specialising in booze and fags with the odd vacuum pack tortellini (the plasticky variation that tastes the same whether it’s parmesan, asparagus or red peppers). Because of the meagre shopping options, I ended up having most dinners in the hotel restaurant in the next building.
At the weekends, I took day trips, walked around London or went to the end of tube lines. One Saturday, I went as far as Stratford, which – fairly or unfairly – was considered quite far from ‘London’ in those days. When I discovered how far I had ventured, I headed back towards what I thought was going to be the comfort zone of Whitehall. Sadly, that was the day of the poll tax riot.
As I left Charing Cross station, the police were cordoning off the streets and I was physically prevented from returning to the flat. It was clear that something was in the air and I ran into a shop, which was a good decision as the riot kicked off soon thereafter and the owner started barricading the doors using tables, chairs and ladders. What followed was about four hours of hiding and running from people who were throwing scaffolding, bricks and broken glass at others. The police didn’t get control of the situation until the specialist riot officers arrived, and towards the end of an extremely violent day I found myself hiding under a desk in a betting shop together with a young boy who couldn’t find his mother. We were eventually escorted out by a police officer and I ended up back at the flat with four random people who lived far away and were very shocked. Luckily, the flat had a well stocked bar and we sorted ourselves out with gin. My clothes were soaked in blood and I had a large scratch on my forehead, my legs were black and blue and my feet too covered in bruises, but I didn’t realise until we had been sitting down for quite a while. I think I was just so relieved to get away from the chaos and violence.
It wasn’t until the next day, when I didn’t dare to go out, that it dawned on me I might need some help. Luckily, the company I was working for put me in touch with a great doctor who I talked to a couple of times about the experience. But it took a while before I was able to go outside and obviously that was a problem in terms of going to work, shopping and eating. Again, the firm was great, they organised for a chauffeur to take me to work and back everyday (my job was very junior and all this luxury was completely beyond anything my job title could justify, but it was much appreciated nonetheless).
The porter in the building explained how I could get to the hotel next door without going outside (through all sorts of interesting staircases and fire escapes etc.). By now, I didn’t mind the staring in restaurants. Being stared at because you’re a girl alone is a lot easier to cope with than having scaffolding thrown at you by an angry mob, and I was just so relieved that I hadn’t ended up in hospital. To this day, I still can’t watch a demonstration on TV without getting the shakes, and even the sight of a banner or a group of people chanting or shouting is enough to send me into a total state of panic.
After a couple of years in London, I spent a summer in Paris doing a language course. From a female perspective it was awful. In Paris, some men didn’t just stare, they actually harassed us. It was only girls on the language course and after the lessons we sometimes took our lunch to the park, but we were hassled all the time, sometimes by young men with knives. A girl on my course got stabbed because she didn’t want to give out her phone number. After that, we ate lunch at home for the rest of the summer!
Nowadays, when I travel, I always appreciate the generally non-threatening environment, and although the world is a much scarier place than it was in the 1990s, it’s great to see young women out and about on their own who take it completely for granted that they can do whatever men can do; travel, dine alone in a cafe or an airport and enjoy a sunny day in the park without being hassled.
There has been some progress!
Posted by Mette on June 7th, 2017