Politics

Speaking of Women

October 14, 2016

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Speaking of Women

“You write novels. I can’t do that. I can only do this sort of thing,” she said, meaning her just-published memoirs. Margaret Thatcher knew the potency of flattery, knew how to appeal to male vanity. Naturally I was indeed flattered, even while I knew that she didn’t really rate the writing of novels that high, that her knowledge of my novels came from her briefing, and that she was playing the politician’s game of getting the interviewer on her side.

It was early on a Sunday morning, and I was there to interview her for The Daily Telegraph. She arrived late, in high spirits, calling for coffee. She had just come from appearing on David Frost’s program: “So kind, they gave me pink champagne, but I must have coffee.” Coffee having been supplied, she settled in her chair, switched mode, put the nonsense aside, and gave a terrific interview performance: on the ball, cogent, quick-witted, and steely. She was out of office, her career was effectively over, but she was still working, still impressing. It was easy to understand how she had dominated her almost all-male Cabinets for eleven years, easy to understand how Ronald Reagan, on the receiving end of powerfully expressed disagreement, or even rebuke, had turned to his aides and said, “Isn’t she wonderful?” Kenneth Clarke, who served in her Cabinets for years, recently described Theresa May, the second female prime minister of the United Kingdom, as “a bloody difficult woman,” before turning to his old colleague Sir Malcolm Rifkind and saying, with a laugh, “but you and I served under Margaret Thatcher.” She too was indeed often a bloody difficult woman, but Clarke, who had many robust arguments with her, now writes of her in his own memoirs with admiration and, I think, affection.

It’s difficult now to remember just how remarkable Margaret Thatcher’s election, first as leader of the Conservative Party, then as prime minister, was. Other women had become prime ministers elsewhere—Indira Gandhi in India, Golda Meir in Israel, for instance. But in 1970s Britain, and indeed in the Conservative Party itself, there were still many who took much the same view of female politicians as Dr. Johnson did of a woman preaching in church, which, he said, was “like a dog’s walking on its hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Margaret Thatcher changed all that.

“It sometimes seems that in Western Europe the only top job out of the reach of a woman is the papacy.”

Look around the world and you see women competing with men in politics, doing so on equal terms, and often winning the competition. If Hillary Clinton wins in November, the leaders of the U.S.A., Germany, and Britain will all be women. Angela Merkel’s decade-long domination of German and European politics may be on the wane, but if she chooses to step aside, the favorite to succeed her as Christian Democrat leader and perhaps as chancellor is another woman, Ursula von der Leyen, currently the defense minister. A German female defense minister—it’s a thought to make Bismarck and von Moltke spin in their graves; but a second female chancellor will disturb few and surprise nobody. France is a bit behind the times, not surprisingly for a country where women didn’t get the vote till 1945. Even so, the most formidable French politician today is the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen. Women may not yet make much of a show in politics in Russia, where President Putin still plays the alpha male, but it sometimes seems that in Western Europe the only top job out of the reach of a woman is the papacy.

Lots of us men dislike or resent this feminization of politics, indeed the feminization of modern life. But you might as well set your face against a northeasterly gale and command it to stop blowing. The reaction within the Republican Party to the video of Donald Trump talking boastfully about women proves the point. I daresay that many of those who have now disowned him and withdrawn their support have themselves spoken in the same locker-room style in the past. Certainly there are presidents who have done so: Jack Kennedy, LBJ, and Richard Nixon; Bill Clinton himself, of course. I don’t disbelieve Trump’s assertion that the 42nd president has spoken on the golf course as crudely about women as he himself did in that videoed conversation with Billy Bush. It’s understandable if Trump is aggrieved and feels sorry for himself. He was speaking and acting as he has spoken and acted all his life, and it’s not that the past has caught up with him; it’s rather that the present is leaving him behind.

It’s natural for men to find women beautiful and desirable. It’s natural for women to feel the same about men. A good deal of popular entertainment is based on the recognition of these truths. There can be few of us of either sex who haven’t fancied film stars. Girls scream at boy bands and drool over footballers’ thighs. I remember more than forty years ago sitting with a friend watching a Wimbledon semifinal between Chris Evert and Evonne Goolagong and debating which we would rather go to bed with. (Evert, I think, won the match, Goolagong the debate.) But in all these cases what we are talking about are images, not real people. It may be mildly distasteful to indulge in such fantasies of desire, and undoubtedly becomes more distasteful the older you are, but it’s natural and harmless. The locker-room, or girls’-dormitory, talk becomes nasty only if you go on to regard, and treat, real people as objects, reprehensible if you use power or celebrity to have your way with them.

What is natural is not always right. When Russian soldiers raped German women in 1945, as tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of them did, Stalin shrugged his shoulders and said it was natural for boys who had fought their way across Europe to have a bit of fun with the women of their defeated enemy. It was no fun for the women, of course. Now, writing in The Daily Telegraph, the former British foreign secretary William Hague recalls visiting “war-torn countries like Bosnia and Darfur” and coming across “one of the great injustices of this planet: the evidence of deliberate mass rape without any penalty for the perpetrators when hostilities were over.”

Hague says that “the empowerment of women is often seen as a left-wing cause, but it shouldn’t be. Conservatives don’t believe in equality of outcome, but we very much believe in equality of opportunity, and that cannot be secured without extending it to half of our society.”


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