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Alternative Role Models for British Women Politicians?

Posted: 16/10/11 19:56


During the Labour Party conference last month, I raised the question of whether some of the party's leading women, such as Yvette Cooper, Caroline Flint and Harriet Harman, are better speakers than the party's current generation of leading men.

Shirley Williams
On hearing the 81 year old Shirley Williams speaking at the Wells Literary Festival the other night - along the lines of the above from a similar speech she made at the Stratford-upon- Avon Literary Festival - I realised that there's nothing particularly new about effective women speakers holding their own with their male contemporaries and rising to the higher reaches of the Labour Party (and later, in her case, within the SDP and Liberal Democrats too).

Long before Williams and the three male members of the 'gang of four' had broken away from Labour to form the SDP, she had been a cabinet minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments. And, from quite early in her political career, she was sometimes mentioned as a possible first woman Labour leader and even as a possible first ever woman prime minister.

Although these both eluded her, she's still not only a very engaging speaker, but also one who's retained an energy to rival many, if not most, speakers who are very much younger than she is. During her brief stay in Somerset this weekend, she was making speeches and taking questions from 1930-2130 on Friday night and from 0930-1130 and 1230-1400 on Saturday (i.e. for about 50% of the waking hours she was here).

As if that wasn't enough, she was planning to spend her train journey back to London reading a few more hundred pages of the health bill and its amendments in the current House of Lords debate in which she is playing a very active part.

Barbara Castle
Twenty years older than Shirley Williams was another leading figure in Harold Wilson's Labour government, the late Barbara Castle. I haven't been able to find any clips of her speeches on YouTube - where there seem to be more of Miranda Richardson playing her in the film Made in Dagenham than there are of the real Mrs Castle - but some of us are old enough to remember that she too was a much better than average public speaker.

Here's a typically assured performance from her in a TV interview from the early 1970s about the resignation of a defence minister and press intrusion in the private lives of public figures - a curiously topical coincidence to remind us that some issues are still making the headlines four decades later:


Castle, Williams and the Thatcher solution
In Our Masters' Voices and some of the blog posts below (especially HERE), I suggested that Margaret Thatcher had found a solution to the professional woman's problem of being damned if they behave like a man and damned if they behave like a woman by being tough and decisive in her actions while being uncompromisingly female in her external appearance - and that this was summed up by the nickname the 'Iron Lady', capturing as it does both 'strength' and 'femininity'.

In this respect, Barbara Castle, regarded in her day as being as tough, glamourous and well-dressed, came much closer to the Thatcher model for women politicians than Shirley Williams ever did.

The Williams alternative
At the time of writing Our Masters' Voices, I remember suggesting somewhere that Mrs Williams represented a rather different available role-model for women in politics than the one offered by Thatcher and Castle: the 'intellectual', ' blue-stockinged', 'untidy', 'verging on scruffy' stereotype of the female Oxbridge don (or Women's Institute lecturer).

As for whether she consciously developed such an image, there are at least two pieces of evidence that she is certainly aware of it in retrospect.

One is that she actually referred, without any prompting, to her erstwhile reputation for having untidy hair during the talk she gave on Friday night.

Clothes + fashion = frivolous waste of time peddled by supercilious saleswomen
The other evidence comes in the first chapter of her autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves (of which I'm now the proud owner of a signed copy), where she reveals that she already had little or no interest in clothes and fashion by the time she was 10 years old. Comparing herself with her mother, she writes:

'... she did allow herself some moments of frivolity. She loved clothes and used to take me with her while she tried on the elegant polka-dotted silk dresses and emphatic hats of the 1930s. A new hat or pair of gloves could lift her spirit for days. It was a pleasure I did not share. After the first ten minutes of each encounter with a supercilious sales lady, I began to think about ponies and tricycles, and to resent the waste of my time. These early experiences immunised me against both shopping and fashion. For years I bought the first thing that looked even vaguely as if it might suit me, though often it didn't.'

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