Portrait of a sexy lady

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ONE of the great seducers is retiring from the public domain. For more than 30 years her cantilevered bosom, ripe face and robust campaigns have thrust sexuality into public fantasy.

Mary Whitehouse shadowed Britain's revolution in sexual manners. Indeed, the chronicle of sexual politics cannot be written without her. For someone so adrift from popular culture, she stayed spectacularly connected to it. Preoccupied with what we could or should be allowed to see, she became a spectacle who was never so much the object of our collective gaze as the mistress of it, a star of stage and screen: Wogan, Dame Edna Everage and Songs of Praise all rolled into one.

The progressive portion of British society tended to regard her as a puritan fury and was not above misogynist mockery of the middle-aged woman as a totem of tendentially frigid femininity. But the progressive portion was wrong. Her transgression was to test the limits drawn around femininity. She carved her image out of a paradox, as the woman you loved to hate, a woman who located herself at the centre of society's argument with itself.

Mary Whitehouse's public quarrel with sexuality was a kind of confession - born not of her distaste, perhaps, but of her desire. Her crusades may be seen not as a condemnation of sexuality so much as a quest to control it. She had an ecstatic prime, radiating into public fantasy the turbulence and difficulty of sexual desire. She herself was an outrage, a woman without shame who took her pleasure in sexualising public discourse. Contrary to conventional wisdom, she did not simply represent repression, she embodied an eruption of speaking, scrutinising and seeing sex everywhere, a volcanic interest which sought to regain control over sexuality by subjugating it in language, in talk.

To talk about sex was not to silence it but to have it; to circulate it in speech. Her public persona was always in a dialogue with desire and danger, and her obsession with the media as the transmitter of sex, violence and bad language located her - like the public - on the edge of temptation.

We have been too quick to entomb Mary Whitehouse with some of her fellow-travellers on the rageful right, from the late misanthropic Malcolm Muggeridge to the agonised Victoria Gillick and the angry Ann Widdecombe. Like Muggeridge, she represented a populist scorn for intellectuals. Unlike him, though, she didn't belong to it. Like Gillick she endorsed women's experience of men's bad behaviour. She, too, recruited the imagery of marauding masculinity, sexually incontinent and incompetent, that cemented the right's alliance with fugitive women. But her mission, her body language, her glorious grey quiff and her charm transcended Gillick's pessimism and Widdecombe's apparent contempt for her own gender.

Contrary to the myth, Mary Whitehouse did not emerge innocently from the shadows of modest middle England in revolt against sex education and swearing on television. The Sixties were also the decade of empowerment versus authority, of proliferating sexualities and liberation theologies. Her counter-revolution was animated by all of these.

But she was driven by a larger political and personal project. Quite Contrary, her latest autobiography (one of many), passes in silence over the most important clues to her genesis: her passionate love affair with a married man and membership of the Oxford Group, a precursor to the fundamentalist Moral Re-Armament movement, through which she met her husband, Ernest.

She was a political activist before the Second World War, almost 30 years before her second coming in the Sixties. Her 1971 autobiography, Who Does She Think She Is?, contains a riveting snippet on her college days, when she was free from the restraints of her religious upbringing. 'I was determined to find out what life was all about for myself,' she wrote. Setting aside the Oxford Group's injunction to let God 'put thoughts in your mind which will transform your whole life', she fell in love with a married man. It was a catastrophe and in her unhappiness she reflected again on the Oxford Group's promise. She 'asked God to take my life'.

She threw herself into the movement, which became Moral Re-Armament. But that movement always promised much more than the guidance of God, and gained a reputation for being uncomfortably close to the extreme right.

Mary Whitehouse became associated in the Seventies with the evangelical Festival of Light. But a veteran Whitehouse-watcher, the Rev Kenneth Leech, has suggested that she had much in common both with MRA tactics and its assiduous ability to harvest attention. Her campaigns have said little about any connection to the extreme right, but her populism appeals to powerlessness and pain and celebrates authority rather than empowerment.

She succeeded, however, where the far right failed. Shunning any connection to a Dr Strangelove sect of crazy cold warriors, she stuck with women's work (men, sex and violence) and made herself into a household name. But she could never be crowned queen of the moral majority because there wasn't one. Britain was always more secular and saucy than it thought it was.