A Time of Huge Belief

Nell Dunn, Talking to Women

Silver Press, 215pp, £10.99, ISBN 9780995716216

reviewed by Bárbara Borges de Campos

First published in 1965, Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women is a collection of interviews portraying the reality of being a woman in the 1960s. This new edition edition features a mesmerising introduction written by Ali Smith that contextualises the interviews, the time and the work within Dunn’s oeuvre. Talking to Women is, as Ali Smith remarks, about the ‘radical necessity of giving and having voice.’

Nell Dunn created a space that enabled eight different women to speak. Some of them are well known, including the writer Edna O’Brien and pop artist Pauline Botty, but Dunn also spoke to ‘regular’ women like Kathy Collier, a butter factory worker, and Emma Charlton who made costumes for the Royal Opera House. At times the interviews escalate and familiarise until it feels as if one is listening in on a conversation. They openly discuss relationships, sexuality, death, class, abortion – nothing ever feels taboo. As Dunn explains, these women share a common belief ‘that a woman’s life should not solely be the struggle to make men happy but more than that a progress towards the development of one’s own body and soul.’

Throughout the interviews, women express concerns that are still contentious today: the right to abort, the pressure to have children, the restrictions on the body. Ann Quinn explains that ‘society seems to expect you to have children’ and that those who do have them ‘almost seem to think themselves as a clan in the right.’ Botty notes that ‘in books like The Carpetbaggers… it’s the usual sort of thing like: "Her nipples burst free of the restricting brassière into my hand,’ sort of practically as though nipples are gaily laughing."’ Reading this calls to mind Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award, but is also a reminder that often women are often poorly characterised in literature. Women’s magazines too seem to have changed very little in their relationship to the sexualisation of women’s bodies. Paddy Kitchen comments that ‘at the time when we were growing up, it all came down to women’s magazine level, that one must have a good sex life or else one is absolutely hopeless.’ Sex is one of the most discussed issues in the interviews: some women complain they are having no pleasure; others are having lots of it.

Dunn recalls that the 1960s were ‘a time of huge belief in freedom and self-fulfilment,’ and this certainly comes through in the irreverence of the interviews. When Dunn asks Suna Portman if breaking social convention is wrong, she replies: ‘It’s not, surely. It’s so dead.’ It is not just in their social attitudes that these women embody the decade – even their jobs could have only existed then: Paddy is a hat-check girl at the existentialist nightclub, Le Club Contemporain; Suna is a yoga teacher. This is a world away form the apolitical glamour of Mad Men: these women are dedicated to their civil and social rights. They crave independence from male dominance and discussions about the ways in which society needs change.

Sexuality is key. Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl was published in 1962, followed and a year later by Betty Friedman’s Feminine Mystique, both books encouraging discourse surrounding women’s sexuality. Talking to Women first appeared in this context; it is an essential read for anyone interested in second-wave feminism as it illustrates exactly how both the cultural elite and the ‘common’ women experienced this period individually.

The women interviewed in Talking to Women are exclusively white, English and, though some of them consider sexuality to be fluid, they are nonetheless overwhelmingly heterosexual. The sexual conservatism still prevalent in the Sixties is exemplified in a number of comments throughout the book, some of which make for uncomfortable reading from a 21st-century perspective. One interviewee wonders: ‘do you think people are born queers or lesbians or do they just turn that way from bad influence?’ Another remarks that ‘man’s greatest and deepest satisfaction is not in suckling or arse-probing – homosexuals are always dissatisfied.’

Although the book would have benefited from greater diversity in respect of race and sexuality, it is complete in its approach to class. Dunn herself was a ‘social chameleon’: she was born into the aristocracy but later moved to Battersea to work in a factory and have a family. All the interviewees were her friends, and there is an undeniable intimacy that crosses class barriers. There are some marked differences between the women from the lower and upper classes. For one of the women even considering suicide was financially prohibitive, because the gas would ‘cost . . . two or three bob in the meter.’

Nell Dunn’s interviewees had been ‘brought up to feel a second-class citizen, inferior to a man in every way, encouraged to think of oneself as the object of a man’s pursuit and therefore with no vital life if your own.’ By collating a polyphony of first-hand accounts, Dunn created a powerful and authoritative document of what it meant to be a woman in the Sixties.