I asked my mother – born in 1908 – why there were so few women in public life and she replied: ‘because they spend so much time combing their hair and looking in mirrors.’
I asked my father, a doctor – born in 1889 – and he replied: ‘because they have a space in their middle called a womb, and it leads to all sorts of complications.’
True, Angela Merkel seems not the sort to spend much time looking in a mirror, and she has no children, and so has time and energy to run Europe. Though one must remember that Mrs Thatcher managed to run Britain and still spend a lot of time on her appearance – never a hair or a handbag out of place – and also had two children. Angela, I’ve noticed, never lets herself be seen with a handbag: she’s as free of fussy encumbrances as any man.
But times change. Prettiness and fertility are no real bar to public office, at least in the West. The current prime minister of Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the one with the long legs, the one who took time out to do a selfie with David Cameron at Nelson Mandela’s funeral – ‘just a bit of fun,’ she said – has two children. But then she lives in Denmark where child care is cheap, good, and readily available, and takes up only 8.45% of family income (in the UK it’s 43%), so if a woman wants to rise to the top, having children is no practical or financial bar and she can even believe in her right to have fun.
And the man/woman divide is simply not what it was; it blends and blurs. Lots of girls these days have traditionally male, left-brain characteristics – they like categories, order, and rationality; they train as accountants, they want to play football, join the army, go into the city, and can. Lots of boys want to do traditional, right-brain, female things – hairdressing, cooking, nursing, dancing – and can. Lots of men favour the male sex as sexual partners and are put off by women. Lots of women favour other women likewise, and can’t stand men. Fewer of either gender want to have babies. (Denmark’s ‘total fertility rate’ of 1.80 is even lower than ours at 1.82 – Egypt’s, by the way, is 2.87: replacement rate being 2.1 – and the Danish government feels the need to put out ads urging young couples to have sex on holiday.) The sorry fact is that the higher a woman’s educational qualifications, the less likely she is to have children at all.
All would seem set fair for a massive increase from our miserable 17% of women in parliament to something nearer Denmark’s 40%, were it not for – worse even than the wage gap – what I see as a generational gap. At constituency level more women than men put themselves forward as candidates, but it’s the men who get chosen. And those who do the choosing are older men and women, who are set in their ways and ill-equipped to keep up with changing times. Whatever their gender, presented with a man or a woman, the older person will vote for the man, because the man will be stronger and taller: he’ll have a deeper voice and inspire confidence. Women have high pitched, squeaky voices: they tend to gabble or on radio speak in the irritating tones of a reproachful nanny. How will they ever, if they do get to go to parliament, manage at Question Time? And everyone knows that men are single-taskers and get things done: women are multi-taskers and too easily get lost in detail. It’s hard to take them seriously. They either don’t have children, so how can they represent the speak for women in general, or they have babies and will be always taking days off and not paying proper attention to their constituency or affairs of state. That’s the way it looks to the older generation. The new gender free world is hard for either party to keep up with.
In the meantime, while the world catches up with itself, let us be grateful for our two new female Cabinet ministers, easy enough on the eye to suit the Daily Mail and whom I imagine spend quite a lot of time in front of mirrors, with any wardrobe malfunctions planned in advance by their spin doctors.