Mem­oir of a ‘bloody dif­fi­cult woman’

Har­riet Har­man’s com­pelling ac­count of her bat­tles for gen­der equal­ity

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Har­riet Har­man Allen Lane, £20 Re­view by Dani Gar­avelli

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

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