Looking at Christine Lagarde on the front page of The Times this week, I had a flashback to the words uttered by Prof Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady: ‘Why can’t a woman be more like a man?’ Sung in the key of irony by the elegant Rex Harrison, this was no mere misogynistic rant. It posed a serious question for feminists in the age of Lerner and Loewe, who would need another generation to realize that being more like a man was not all that liberating.
True, we wanted independence, economic and intellectual equality, the common prizes of equal education, which came late to the land of Pygmalion, but we also wanted someone to come home to, someone who’d open the wine as we chopped the onions, someone who could look after the children for a week without believing that they were doing something amazing. I have flashes when I wonder where I lost my Sisterhood is Powerful T-shirt. When standing in line in the lighting department of Peter Jones or steering a laden trolley through Waitrose or fixing supper after writing this as my husband watches highlights of the Test match. Like Atlas in the U. A. Fanthorpe poem, he does his share of maintenance -files the taxes, does the insurance, answers letters, operates the boiler-but I still have moments when I think that feminism never really got off the ground. And then I look at Madame Lagarde, first female finance minister of a major global economy.
Just studying her elegant posture and her beautifully cut jackets, her great haircut and her understated but very good jewellery, I understand that feminism worked, that women have become something rather better than ‘more like a man’.
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I’d like to think I have something in common with Madame Lagarde. Like her, I was a swimmer. She was a synchronized swimmer, something I scoffed at, but it requires strength and coordination, qualities that now serve her well. She’s also teetotal and vegetarian, whereas lamb suffused with garlic and rosemary and a good Pinot Noir are my raison d’être. Other details-her father died from motor-neurone disease when she was 17, she failed twice to get into the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration, she has two grown sons from her first marriage- suggest that she’s lived in the real world where sadness and happiness rub shoulders. There is another quality I admire. She combines intelligence and charm with common sense. I’m not sure a man could have told the Greeks ‘Enough sympathy-pull yourselves together and pay your taxes!’.
It requires a steel magnolia who, when asked ‘But what about their children?’, replies: ‘Well, hey, parents are responsible, right? So parents have to pay their tax.’ I hate to think that if only I’d done synchronised swimming instead of the crawl, I, too, might be solving the global debt crisis. Especially as I believe I have the answer: Greece should become the permanent home of the Olympics. The seafront at Kallithea outside Athens-for two weeks in 2004, a vibrant Olympic venue-is now deserted.
The white-elephant sports stadiums, surrounded by chain-link fences and rusting barbed wire, are now home to graffiti, weeds and stray dogs. The Games were the starting pistol for the country’s debt-fuelled binge-spending, but the cure for the Greek tragedy is simple: locate the Olympics in the mother country on a 50-year lease, aided by investment from the competing countries.
They would still have to slash their overweight state whose civil servants retire at 53, and I’d also insist on outsourcing tax collection to independent agencies. There would be the added bonus of giving the International Olympic Committee the farewell it deserves. Ah, the feminine mystique. Not more like a man. Just blessed with more common sense.
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