When the subject of a column is another column, it’s usually regarded as a soft option, but this week, Libby Purves struck such a chord that I’ve hardly had another thought. Writing in The Times about the hoo-ha of the Con-Lib mainly male Cabinet that followed the General Election, she described a phonecall from an editor who wanted a rant about the meagre representation of women-four out of 23-in the new Cabinet.
As a beneficiary of the generation who came of age just as the pill and the Women’s Movement changed the roadmap forever, her gut instinct was to say yes. Then she thought for a few seconds. Her reply inspired the headline to her column: ‘Too few women? Read my lips: I don’t care.’ Perhaps it’s because I’d listened to an indignant woman snorting about this outrageous injustice the night before, one of those Channel 4 interviews that go on way too long, but, as I read those words, I felt my fist rise in the air as I shouted ‘Hey! Neither do I.’
Although somewhat faded from the bright red of its heyday, my ‘Sisterhood is Powerful’ T-shirt still fits. But when I look at Miss Purves, I feel I could have tried harder. This is a woman who writes novels, broadcasts weekly, has produced a weekly column for 20 years and a regular column for this magazine, and sails serious boats to faraway places.
I can speak about her in such glowing terms because I don’t know her. We sometimes take the same train from London, and I once watched in admiration as she made her way through a bag of crisps and a stack of books between Liverpool Street and Ipswich. But the gist of our mutual defection from the sisterhood on this point is simple: now is not the time for gender politics. Everything that could be done to make a parliamentary career accessible to women has been done.
The hours are no longer ridiculous and those old anecdotes about the lack of women’s loos when Nancy Astor was elected no longer elicit a tired smile: there is now a family room, a hairdresser’s and a gym in the Palace of Westminster; a crèche is being created. Although her Cabinet table was no gathering of the sisterhood, when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, the glass ceiling was well and truly smashed. Forgive me if I don’t feel sisterly pride at the achievements of Margaret Beckett as Foreign Secretary (as head of Defra, she was a disgrace) and Jacqui Smith as Home Secretary. If this is tokenism, you can keep it.
So if I don’t care if there are lots of women in the Cabinet, what do I care about? I care about the under-class of women who see having babies as their job. After 13 years of a government full of women, we have a country where a job paying the minimum wage leaves a girl with a disposable income of about £60 a week-if she lives with her parents. If she produces two babies, however, she gets accommodation and ‘earns’ benefits of £130 a week. What’s the choice? Until there is mandatory job training and a system of good public nurseries, the self-perpetuating system of welfare addiction and dysfunctional families will only grow.
In general, my gloom is gargantuan, but I think that the appointment of Frank Field as the new poverty tsar will do more to tackle this spiral of decay than a politically correct line-up of female Cabinet members. In my red-hot feminist days, I thought getting women into high office was the ultimate goal, but when the choice was bet-ween Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, I didn’t care about gender. I cared about who was most likely to solve the big problems. I’m glad Obama chose Hillary as his Secretary of State, but not because she was a woman. He happened to think she was the best man for the job. Read my lips: this is how it should be.
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