Sunday, January 28, 2007

Woman is a political animal, not just a desperate housewife

Last week, Harriet Harman visited the Welsh Labour Women's Forum. "What a tonic it was," she says, "to spend the day with them. They are the champions of women in Wales and have transformed the political agenda so that it looks to and understands the lives of women in Wales, as well as men." She goes on to list the accomplishments of the Welsh Assembly, saying that Labour women have pushed forward the agenda on pledging more nursery places, tackling the gender pay gap, and caring for the elderly. Don't get me wrong, I'm delighted that these things are being prioritised, and I'm proud that we've elected strong, competent women to see them through. But it isn't a woman's job to do it, it's a politician's, and the more that gender is brought into the equation, the easier it is for a male politician to pass the buck. Women don't benefit politics simply because they're women. There is no magical component to estrogen that makes us more susceptible to the plight of the underdog - our first female PM was Maggie Thatcher, for heaven's sake, and she wasn't exactly known for her cuddly, gentle side.

The language men use to talk about political women is telling, but more interesting is the language these women use about themselves. Nancy 'two heartbeats away from the Presidency' Pelosi, the first leader of the House of Representatives, recently spoke out about the political corruption in Washington and suggested that she was the right person for the job because "It takes a woman to clean house." Thatcher, who once so famously claimed that "I owe nothing to women's lib", frequently cast herself in the role of the housewife in charge of the pursestrings. Except she wasn't a housewife, she was the prima inter pares, 'the first among equals', the Prime bloody Minister of the United Kingdom. And no matter what I think of her premiership, I think it deserved more than shoddy gender stereotypes and playing down her considerable strengths. I'm not playing down the experiences of housewives - as anyone who saw my reluctance to scrub the kitchen floor today will tell you, it involves some serious hard graft. But Pelosi and Thatcher have some major political nous and when I see their achievements being put into traditionally female terms, it demeans everything they have achieved as politicians, not just as women. Anyway, his wife might have been the Britain's most famous housewife during the 80s, but I bet Denis Thatcher wielded a mean scrubbing brush in his time.

I'm not disputing the idea that women can bring a different political agenda to the table, I just don't believe that they automatically do. For every Harriet Harman, dedicated to making men and women as equal in the eyes of public policy as they are in reality, there's a Margaret Thatcher double-glazing over the hole she made in the glass ceiling. To assume that all women are going to protect the feminist agenda is not only narrow-minded and hopelessly optimistic, it gives men a carte blanche to ignore it. I want more women in the Houses of Parliament, in Congress, in the Senate, and in the White House. But I also want the men and women we vote for to shoulder their social responsibilities equally, because for the foreseeable future women will always have to operate within a political structure that benefits men most of all, and it can only be changed when everyone takes a stand and not just those who it adversely affects.

It's true - or at least I believe it to be true, and since this is my blog we shall assume that I am right - that many female politicans are more sensitive to issues that primarily affect women, and that their being in power means that women's issues can play a larger part in how our countries are run. That's one of the reasons we campaigned for the vote, it's one of the reasons I'm gunning for Harriet as Deputy PM and Hillary for POTUS. But that doesn't make abortion, unequal pay, nursery places, low rape convictions, and maternity/paternity leave issues that only women should deal with. These women have set a great example, it's time that men stepped up to the plate and supported them, whether as fellow party members, partners, brothers or sons.

Because it doesn't take a woman to clean house, and it sure as hell doesn't take a man to rule the country.


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