‘I kicked and fought for my life’: Sue Kedgley reveals all in new memoir

Me too. Young women didn’t say those words out loud when Sue Kedgley was at university, not even to each other. It’s time, she says, for her to say them now.

Let’s call the assault what it was: an attempted rape by a powerful, entitled older man used to getting what he wanted and who probably didn’t give her a second thought after she fled his hotel room. Sound familiar? The parallels with Harvey Weinstein don’t stop there.

There’s far more to Kedgley’s new memoir, Fifty Years a Feminist — an intriguing insider’s view of gender politics from the emergence of women’s lib in the 1970s to the hashtag feminism of today. But after decades of silence, she’s chosen this as her moment to open up publicly about the incident for the first time.

“The MeToo movement is so important we all have an obligation to speak out,” she says. “I salute every woman who has put herself out there and come forward. So many who have been raped or sexually assaulted have internalised it and felt shamed. It’s so powerful sharing the experiences and putting the spotlight back on men.”

In 1972, Sydney-based promoter and celebrity agent Harry M. Miller was back on home turf, defending indecency charges in the Auckland High Court over on-stage nudity in the musical Hair, which he was bringing over from Australia. A charismatic larger-than-life character, Miller had made his name in the 60s touring some of the biggest names in the business, from Louis Armstrong to the Rolling Stones.

Kedgley had just turned 24 and was an emerging figure in the University of Auckland’s fledgling feminist movement when she got a call from television presenter and producer Max Cryer. Miller was interested in auditioning Kedgley for a radio programme, he told her, suggesting they meet for dinner at Miller’s hotel. Afterwards, Miller invited them both to his suite for a drink. But when Cryer slipped away, Kedgley found herself alone with Miller.

“Sensing danger, I told him I had to leave,” she recounts in her book. “As I began to walk out of the room, he grabbed me, threw me on to the bed and tried to pull up my dress and force me to have sex with him. An almighty wrestle ensued as I kicked and fought for my life.”

Miller eventually capitulated, Kedgley says, ejaculating over her dress. Breaking free, she grabbed her shoes and ran, shaking with anger and fear. “All these years later, I cannot pass the hotel without reliving the experience and the memory of running down those long corridors to escape. I suspect his assault caused me far more damage than I cared to admit at the time.”

No charges were ever laid. In fact, it never even occurred to Kedgley to report Miller to the police. Being groped – and worse – was something women simply put up with and rarely spoke about, she says, even to close friends. To put that in context, rape crisis centres didn’t exist at the time and it was still legal for a man to rape his wife.

That night, though, she told her flatmate what had happened. And a few weeks later, she confided in Australian feminist Germaine Greer, who’d just published her seminal book The Female Eunuch, and flew into Auckland for a whirlwind visit Kedgley and her fellow women’s libbers had helped organise.

Greer was appalled and wanted to write about it but Kedgley says she couldn’t face the media scrutiny. Miller, who was jailed for fraud in the 1980s, died three years ago. No other sexual allegations against him are on public record. However, he admitted to being a serial philanderer in his 2009 autobiography, Confessions of a Not-So-Secret Agent. When Kedgley met him, he had just become engaged to his third wife.

Does she regret never holding him to account? “No, it would have been terrible to be dragged through the courts and still is,” she says. “The horror women go through, even now with #MeToo. Prosecutions are so low you could almost say rape is legal, because you know you can get away with it.

“But I do think we all have a responsibility to speak up — not to get sympathy but because it’s the experience of so many women. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced [some form of sexual assault]. And it does have an affect on you. The fear that these young women feel and the distrust around sex. It must have an incredible impact on their lives.”

For all the very real gains made towards gender equality, it’s the extent of male sexual aggression towards women — and the lack of any significant shift towards shared parenting — that Kedgley finds dispiriting. Her narrow escape in that hotel room isn’t the only disturbing incident detailed in her book.

The prevalence of sexual violence seems to have barely shifted since the 70s, she says, becoming almost normalised by the pervasiveness of online pornography. The day before our interview, the results had been released from an online survey run through a Wellington Facebook page: 44 per cent of those who took part said they’d been sexually assaulted and 17 per cent had been raped. “Why do men feel that entitlement?” asks Kedgley. “Why do young women have to develop an entire strategy when they go to a concert to avoid being raped?

“Fifty years ago, it was a man’s world, where we were expected to be a servant class. It was so normal we didn’t question it. Looking back, women have undergone a massive change when you think of what our limited roles and expectations were then. Men’s lives haven’t really changed much at all. All these decades later, there’s still this lingering mindset of patriarchy that men are naturally dominant and superior to women. And we’re still running the home.”

It might seem incongruous to be sitting in the front room of her colourful art-filled Wellington home overlooking Oriental Parade, talking about unwanted digital penetration and blood stains on a white miniskirt. But in her public persona, at least, Kedgley leads with her head. In a wide-ranging two-hour conversation, she talks with conviction, rather than emotion; coolness rather than heat.

Long-time friend Maggie Eyre, a communications trainer and former actor, says Kedgley has a “beautiful grace and eccentricity about her”, with a love of glamour running alongside her fierce commitment to the cause. “If she makes a stand for something, whether it’s healthy food or feminism, I’ve never seen her waiver or compromise her values.”

Still intensely engaged with the feminist movement globally, Kedgley has a secure sense of her own place in it and few regrets. Although, if she had her time again, she’d call out the sexist, bullying culture in Parliament, where she spent three terms as a Green MP. And she’d have demanded a decent salary, instead of meekly settling for a two-thirds drop in pay, when she joined TVNZ as a news reporter in 1982 after eight years at the United Nations in New York. It might come as a surprise for some to learn one of Kedgley’s self-perceived flaws is that she should have been stroppier.

Now in her early-70s, she remains an imposing presence, with her blonde bob, sharp mind and private-school vowels. There’s a black and white photograph in Fifty Years a Feminist of her coming out as a debutante when she left Marsden, an elite school for girls in Karori. A year later, she was at Victoria University with her twin sister Helen, protesting against the Vietnam War.

(A quick aside: Kedgley says she was “persona non grata” at Marsden after writing an article about how snobby and elitist it was until a few years ago when she was asked to be inducted into the school’s hall of fame. Keynote speaker on the day was another old girl, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, currently on the verge of becoming Samoa’s first female prime minister.)

It didn’t take long for Kedgley to become actively involved in student politics but it wasn’t until she moved to Auckland University to do her MA that she had what she calls her “feminist click”. On Suffrage Day in 1971, she and Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (then Ngahuia Volkerling) led a mock-funeral procession to Albert Park, including pallbearers carrying a coffin, to mourn the lack of progress made since New Zealand women won the vote in 1893. A shot of Kedgley, dressed in black and carrying a white lily, followed by long-time friend and ally Sharyn Cederman, features on the cover of her book.

The public attitude towards these second-wave feminists ranged from patronising to sneering ridicule. Those “attractive young things from Women’s Liberation”, wrote the New Zealand Herald in one article, describing them as “a sort of female Viet Cong set on inciting suburban housewives to rise up and dominate men” in another.

The media swiftly singled out Kedgley as the leader – a “knockout” who could have aspired to modelling (the Herald, again) — creating simmering resentment within the movement, which was deeply rooted in equity and consensus. Despite attempting to play down her profile, Kedgley naturally stood out, and not just for her looks. “In those days, you couldn’t decide whether to have tea or coffee at a meeting without getting consensus about it,” a contemporary recalls. “Sue would just walk in and say, ‘I’ll have coffee.'”

Inevitably, comparisons have been made with US feminist icon Gloria Steinem, whose stylish appearance was sometimes used to undermine the authenticity of her message. For Kedgley, was being considered attractive a blessing or a curse?

“It was definitely a double-edged sword,” she says. “The implication was the only reason the media focused on me was because of my looks. But it was just assumed women’s libbers were man-hating lesbians with chips on their shoulders, so it did mean they couldn’t dismiss me in that way.”

Kedgley’s memoir gives some fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses into a time she clearly found exhilarating. In 1973, she was one of four New Zealand activists from the New Zealand chapter of NOW (the National Organisation for Women) to attend a four-day global conference on feminism at Harvard University in Boston. Yoko Ono brought John Lennon, who was the only man to take part. Later, in New York, Kedgley was among a group invited back to their apartment on the sixth floor of the Dakota Building, overlooking Central Park.

Bedding down in New York, she worked at the UN General Assembly as a freelance reporter then landed a full-time job promoting International Women’s Year. Romantic liaisons ensued, including relationships with future UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and American TV show host Phil Donahue.

By the time she comes back to New Zealand, we’re still only halfway through the book. During her years away, the feminist movement had been tearing itself apart, with lesbian feminists splintering off and a bitter division over abortion rights.

It was a period of change for Kedgley too, who was delighted to find herself pregnant with son Zac at the age of 42. She and husband Denis Foot joined the Green Party, and — to the disappointment of some — her attention switched to issues around animal welfare, health and the Safe Food Campaign. She’s still furious over National reversing the healthy food guidelines for schools she helped get across the line — “I must talk to Ayesha about that,” she says, referring to Ayesha Verrall, Labour’s Minister for Food Safety and Associate Minister of Health.

Kedgley cites the passing of her Flexible Working Hours Bill as her proudest political moment but says a post-feminist backlash meant there was little traction on women’s issues. Today, she’s generous in her praise for the “spunky young feminists” leading a revival, describing them as less judgmental and ideological than their 70s predecessors, who followed a fairly prescriptive code. “Wherever you locate yourself on the feminist continuum, there’s room for everyone.”

The new wave has a big job ahead. A recent United Nations study concluded progress has slowed to such an extent we may have reached an “inequality plateau” and the World Economic Forum predicts that, at the current rate, the gender pay gap will take a further 217 years to close.

A friend who was part of the second-wave scene describes Kedgley’s book as “a very readable and coherent account of feminism over a period of time which was, as a lived experience, confusing and difficult for many of us. And for the first time in a long time, I feel excited about what feminism might mean for my grandchildren.”

*Sue Kedgley and Māori academic and activist Ngahuia te Awekotuku reflect on five decades of feminism at the Auckland Writers Festival in “A Long Road”, chaired by Alison Mau, at the Aotea Centre on May 14. Fifty Years a Feminist, by Sue Kedgley (Massey University Press, $40) goes on sale on May 13.

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