HARRIET Harman is a prickly, ambitious, work-fixated woman who refuses to go with the flow, speaks out when it would be wiser to keep her own counsel and is presumably talked about behind her back as “her own worst enemy”.
Those are the things I like most about her. She doesn’t understand that the way to make herself popular with her male counterparts is to laugh at their jokes and not question their judgment or, if she does, she doesn’t care. Every time she complains about the way women are treated, she unleashes a fresh round of “Harriet Harperson – what a whiner” jibes, yet she carries on regardless.
Last week, she was at it again, raising hackles by “banging on” about the sexism she has encountered at Westminster. It didn’t matter that, as an MP since 1982, when there were just 23 women in the Commons, she was well-qualified to hold forth on this subject or that a few days later a newspaper reinforced her point by devoting an entire article to Home Secretary Theresa May’s “optical illusion dress”. The overwhelming response was to dismiss her complaints as the delusions of an obsessive or a cunning ploy to secure the post she craves if Labour wins the next election. That’s so much less taxing than trying to address parliament’s failings.
In their determination to portray her as a bit of a joke, her detractors, led by former spin doctor Damian McBride, focused on her weakest gripe: that when she was appointed deputy leader of the party under Gordon Brown, she should have been made deputy prime minister. That’s what happened to John Prescott under Tony Blair and no man would have been denied the same post, she said. Well, it’s plausible, but impossible to prove. Having waited so long for power, Brown may simply have been disinclined to share it. Or he may have felt he and Harman wouldn’t gel. He wasn’t exactly renowned for his people skills.
But the shadow secretary for culture, media and sport raised other, more valid points, too. She described how a fellow MP reported her to the serjeant at arms for trying to smuggle her baby through the division lobby though the only thing she had up her jacket was a post-pregnancy bulge and claimed that when a bout of mastitis prevented her from voting, it was leaked to the papers (those bloody useless women with their infected breasts, eh?). She railed against the dearth of female political journalists, described how she’d been told not to “bang on too much” about women’s issues, berated David Cameron for gathering the party’s few female MPs around him at PMQs and referred to Caroline Flint’s claim that Brown used women as “window-dressing”.
That was brave, given the last time “window-dressing” was mentioned it prompted Rod Liddle to ask himself (in print) if he would have sex with Harman, and conclude that, even drunk, he’d have too much “self- respect”.
Finally, Harman said she had been shocked to discover that her role at the 2009 G20 would be limited to turning up at a function for the leaders’ wives. The Harriet-haters pounced. Aha, they said, she is twisting the truth because she wasn’t asked to attend the dinner as a wife, but as a “leading woman”. I can’t express how much that misses the point. Harman and other female politicians have to operate in a world where it is taken as read most leaders will be men, that their wives will be happy to tag along after them and that, when they do, they will want to be entertained by other gals. At the following year’s G20, was Angela Merkel’s husband expected to hang out with Julia Gillard’s partner in the company of “leading men”? Of course not. That would be considered ridiculous. You see? The G20 snub was not some trifling, one-off slight Harman ought to have sucked up like a big girl. It was symptomatic of an insidious sexism that infects every aspect of political life.
And so to the fatuous arguments marshalled to discredit Harman and, therefore, her feminism. Most of them are well-worn, but it is unusual to see them used en masse as if her critics have picked up a How To manual and ticked them off one by one.
1) Harriet doesn’t care about women, she only wants to advance her own career. Leaving aside the fact ambition is rarely seen as a fault in men, she has a track record in female-friendly policies and pushed through the Equality Act 2010.
2) Harriet is a man-hater. She has been married to the same bloke for more than 30 years and has two sons, so it seems unlikely. It is possible to like men, but hate the system.
3) Harriet should check her privilege. Why is a posh woman who has made it on to the front benches moaning about her lot? She should be focusing on female healthcare workers on the minimum wage. Fair enough, but if you can’t secure equality in your legislature, how are you going to secure it anywhere else?
4) Harriet shouldn’t have attacked Gordon Brown because he’s helping those girls in Nigeria. Really, that’s the best you can do? Don’t bother the former prime minister with claims of everyday sexism while he’s busy with the big stuff?
The energy that has been expended in trying to make Harman look foolish is as depressing as the sexism she seeks to expose and justifies her interventions. The condescending tone of men who have never had to deal with discrimination in the workplace or elsewhere is exactly why we need irksome women like her to keep on banging on.