Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Harriet Harman plays while big cheese Gordon away

I admire Harriet Harman for using her interim role as leader over the summer recess to push through important aspects of her personal agenda.

What is sad is that she needs to do this in the first place. The idea that the only way that policy can be directed to favour women is when the men are away is depressing and anachronistic.

The fact that her agenda items are marginalised by an all-male cabinet is shocking.

We're almost at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. A hundred years ago women were chaining themselves to railings to get the vote. 100 years on a woman is deputy prime minister and making headlines by dealing with issues which matter to women - but should matter to everyone.

We have come a long way but is it far enough and how will we move further?

A debate on Times Online today is discussing whether feminism has lost its way or merely disappeared under a push-up bra reinterpretation of women's freedoms. Are young women today fully capitalising on the freedoms which the suffragettes and then the women's liberation movement created for them? And do they even realise that there is more work to be done and that there can be no let up? Especially for those women who intend to have children and don't want to be marginalised to a shadowy and sometimes debilitatingly difficult existence as a working mother trying to forge ahead with a senior corporate career?

Alan Sugar thinks it's ok to ask women if they plan to have children in an interview because of the disruption of maternity leave. But what is going to happen to tomorrow's workforce if today's high performing young women, who consistently outclass young men in academic endeavour as well as in the pursuit of work experience and external projects - what if these women are excluded or their role downgraded in the workplace because nature has denoted that they have children?

The battles for today's feminists are much harder. Yesterday's feminists - suffragettes, women's liberationists - were primariy single issue campaigners with one overwhelming goal to change the law, politics or society to remove barriers to women.

The barriers today are much more subtle. Many would say they are invisible, and often because they are about perception and opportunity rather than fundamental right to access. We can vote, get jobs, study, control our sexuality - what are we fighting for now?

As the campaign has become nuanced so it has become diffuse - hard to articulate and thus hard to martial support for.

It is ironic that the symbol of the women's liberation movement was the burning of underwear. In a Times article today Janice Turner argues that "feminism has never had it so bad. Britain is riven with porn culture and a generation is in thrall to a sexist agenda".

She makes many good points but the article collapses in how the argument is threaded together to my mind. As with the burning of the bra, women's clothing and appearance has always been a feminist issue. Today it is being interpreted to mean that we can choose to be overt or covert about our sexuality. Our right to sit in a board room and wear high heels and fishnets whilst being respected for our views. Arguing that women can only be taken seriously as feminists and support the feminist cause if they are drab or plain - to quote "[Natasha Walter's] main handicap as a feminist is her excessive prettiness" - is not to get away from the fact that appearance should be irrelevant and should not be a weighing factor in opening or closing opportunities or access to women, politically, socially or economically.

I should be able to care about handbags and direct foreign policy or run a multi-national. The same way that many men care about golf and rugby and somehow manage to run the country too.

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