Brigid Brophy: Writer, Critic, Activist

Richard Canning explores Brigid Brophy's thoughts on feminism and a woman's place in society.

The third in this 4 part series, Richard Canning discusses Brigid Brophy, feminism and her thoughts on a woman’s place.


In the sixties it was a common topic of conversation and political, intellectual and journalistic enquiry. Today, perhaps less so. That doesn’t mean we’ve found all the answers.

Indeed, with a male Prime Minister, invariably heard rhetorically puffed up and “testosteroney”, and a Cabinet featuring fewer women than in recent times (weighing in at 27%), there is surely a sense in the UK that we’re going backwards?

Brophy would be rolling her eyes. In one of just a handful of TV appearances now to be found of the Anglo-Irish woman of letters, activist and critic, she wryly provokes her male interviewer on the subject of A Woman’s Place, the title of a 1965 BBC documentary.

In line with key feminists of her generation, Brigid Brophy went out of her way to debunk conservative notions of the “naturalness” (i.e. inevitability) of any given social or relational norm. Consider this:

“As far as I can see, the absolutely distinguishing thing about the human species is that biology doesn’t lay down any pattern either for our societies or our marriages. We’re infinitely flexible. We’ve had all sorts of marriages and all sorts of societies.”

Her interlocutor responds in jest: “Perhaps it isn’t natural to be married?” Brophy fires straight back, poker faced: “I think it’s highly unnatural to be married.”

Seemingly unable to integrate Brophy’s intellect, clarity or wit further into proceedings, the documentary drifts on, focusing on clothing, jewelry, cosmetics and… stereotypes, so as not to scare the horses?

Brigid Brophy, a supreme animal lover, would never have scared the horses. But she always put the wind up defenders of the status quo. How much we lack a woman in public life with anything like her erudition, personality and conviction! 

Richard Canning is author or editor of nine books and is presently Visiting Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham. He has specialised in twentieth-century LGBTQ literature, and his critical life of Ronald Firbank is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.

Brigid Brophy: Avant-Garde Writer, Critic, Activist, co-edited by Richard Canning and Gerri Kimber, is published by Edinburgh University Press.

Carla Hepburn
Carla Hepburn
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