Four women in the cabinet? You cannot be serious

May 13, 2010
Theresa May?
Theresa May?

It turns out that it still doesn’t come naturally, putting women into government. The chaps tried—a bit. They scratched their heads and ransacked the cupboards anxiously and came up with four new ministers. Presumably they all scratched their heads too.

As they surveyed the tidal wave of feminine ability storming up the beaches of work and life, they presumably knew that the fact of more women at university doing better, more women in the civil service and in the city, more women in journalism, law and medicine, meant that they had to do something about putting a female face to politics that did not contemptuously involve a nice hairstyle and a maternity dress. But it feels as if it felt a bother.

They may even have been dimly aware that out there in the badlands of the economy, a long way away from the glossy strains of middle class professions, most women now work. It may not yet have occurred to them—but it ought to—that all those cuts to public services we need are likely also to disproportionately affect women .Women are going to be on the front line of an acutely unpleasant reshaping of society and economy. So you might have thought, on those grounds, that reaching for a female to represent these people might have felt a bit more necessary. Apparently not.

But quite the most dispiriting thing about the election, and the end of the Labour government before it, is that the women are not there as equal citizens: they are parachuted in, pasted onto the face of government. They were never part of the campaign, which was jolly interesting but oddly pallid with few great piercing revelations of values. For better or worse, none of the new women in government have the irritant populism of a Clare Short or a Mo Mowlam. No doubt one or another of them will emerge as a slightly disapproving headmistress in the Virginia Bottomley or Patricia Hewitt mode. No doubt the search for some females to put in place will turn up some inadequate or banal women.

I am instinctively anti-tokenism; I thought we had got beyond that. I was the kind of feminist who liked men (and so was beyond the pale in the seventies). I was the kind of feminist who wanted to be able to write and think about anything: yes, women and children, but wars, policy, and politics as well. I did not think that there was a “lads’ end” of the playground of ideas that I was not allowed into. But hold on a minute. Without tokenism, the chaps, it seems, just forget women. And the women do not seem to have marched into politics either. But this is all trivial. The real problem is how, in the 21st century, women have become so marginalised from the political bloodstream? Put your thinking hats on folks, because politics without women is quite simply dangerous for democracy.

And I am really fed up with throwing shoes at the Today programme.