Memoir of a ‘bloody difficult woman’
Harriet Harman’s compelling account of her battles for gender equality
IF YOU are the kind of political geek who scours the autobiographies of former Cabinet ministers for snippets of gossip or microrevelations on who said what to whom during periods of infighting, then Harriet Harman’s memoir A Woman’s Work is probably not for you. Beyond one splendid anecdote about spin doctor Damian McBride (she overheard him smearing her while standing on a balcony above hers), she has few titbits to offer and her three-page account of the Iraq War has all the depth of a Newsround bulletin.
As an account of what it means to be a “bloody difficult woman” pushing for gender equality, however, the book is compelling. The all-consuming guilt Harman experiences as she tries to juggle the competing demands of her children and Westminster, and the way relentless negativity chips away at her self-esteem, will chime with anyone who has struggled to gain a foothold in a male-dominated profession.
Harman was one of four sisters. Their mother studied law at Oxford, but was a stay-at-home mum, so growing up the girls received mixed messages: be clever, (but not so clever as to be intimidating); be financially independent (but marry well). Harman never tried to hide her brains and qualified as a solicitor, working for Brent Law Centre. As for “marrying well”, she hooked up with trade unionist Jack Dromey – then known as ‘Jack of All Disputes’ – who, despite her parents’ reservations, turned out to be a steadfast support.
Harman was pregnant with her first child when she was elected Labour MP for Peckham in a 1982 by-election, and she went on to have two more after being promoted to the Opposition front bench. Those first few years sound awful: one of just 17 female MPs – and the only young feminist – she felt isolated. Her championing of women’s rights, and her attempts to change Westminster culture, engendered hostility. She was falsely accused of trying to smuggle her baby through the lobby, was portrayed as “stand-offish” because she didn’t go drinking, and faced the constant insinuation that her parenting duties were a distraction. Sometimes, they were; on one occasion, she spent the journey to an interview chatting to her daughter about her My Little Ponies and arrived completely unprepared.
Another time, she went awol from the House of Commons. It was 1989, during an ambulance workers’ strike, and, as deputy to Robin Cook, she was required to respond to the Health Secretary’s statement in his stead. But she had promised to take her son to the cinema, so she ignored her pager knowing she might be fired on her return. When she told Cook she had been “unavailable”, his expression changed from fury to “conspiratorial glee.” That’s when it dawned on her: he thought she was having an affair and, in Westminster, extra-marital sex was more acceptable than looking after your children.
Harman also suffered at the hands of Gordon Brown, who refused to make her deputy prime minister after she was elected deputy leader in 2007 (her predecessor John Prescott had been deputy PM and she expected to follow suit). She describes walking into Brown’s first Cabinet meeting, seeing a place card for Jack Straw next to Brown instead of her, and having to slink down to the end of the table. She couldn’t complain: how petty would it look to whinge about something like the seating arrangement? And yet the seating arrangement was a clear statement of her perceived worth (or lack of it).
She did make a fuss when Brown tried to make Peter Mandelson deputy prime minister; furious, she told him the move would happen “over her dead body”, and pointed out the irony of being treated so shoddily as she was preparing to defend him over MP Caroline Flint’s allegations he used women as “window dressing”. Brown appeared to back down, but then made Mandelson First Secretary of State, which came to the same thing.
Only when Brown resigned after Labour’s 2010 election defeat – and Harman became acting leader of the Opposition – were her talents acknowledged. Then, somewhat belatedly, some MPs tried to persuade her to stand for the top job, but she’d lost her confidence. “It’s hard to be exposed to such criticism for so many years and not be affected by it,” she writes. “I thought I’d done a good job as acting leader, but I didn’t think I was up to being party leader.”
A Woman’s Work is strange mix of honesty and evasion. Harman is brutally frank about some of her own failings. She doesn’t take the easy option of blaming them all on sexism and her sense of inferiority is apparent in her frequent self put-downs. But she glosses over some of the most controversial aspects of her career. Her decision to send her son to a grammar school is presented not as a moral quandary, but as a catalyst for press intrusion. Though she talks at length about her role with the National Council for Civil Liberties in the late 1970s/early 80s, she doesn’t address its failure to kick out the Paedophile Information Exchange, a scandal that came back to bite her in the wake of Jimmy Savile’s death.
Yet, when you tot up what she helped achieve – extended maternity rights, better childcare provision, improvements in the handling of rape and domestic abuse cases, more women in parliament – it is impossible to feel anything but respect for her tenacity.
Having lived through the Militant era, Harman is frustrated to see her party back in the electoral wilderness, as she believes there is still much work to be done. “It’s difficult for new Labour MPs when men indignantly declare themselves to be feminists...and yet somehow still contrive to block change, “she writes.
She ends the book, not with a bon mot or fitting adage, but with a point-by-point manifesto for the modern women’s movement. “Once a feminist”, as they say. If the years have mellowed her, she hides it well.
Harriet Harman says she was portrayed as “stand-offish” because she didn’t go drinking, and faced the constant insinuation that her parenting duties were a distraction