Disappointed in the omission of women in the memoirs of men (aside from wives and/or mothers), Harriet Harman offers her own observations of politics as a key player for women’s rights in her new book “A Woman’s Work”.
On Thursday 16th March, Harman came to the Sallis Benney theatre in conversation with Guardian writer Polly Toynbee as part of her memoir’s promotional tour. These evenings also offer an informal way for the public to respond, query and debate a politician in a personable environment. Her memoir is a departure from the typically self-aggrandising, vainglorious autobiographies of male politicians, and acts more as a history of women’s struggles in the political sphere as told by the politician herself. She was keen for attendees today not to lose sight of the inequalities of women in recent memory, and despite Westminster’s slowly changing gender attitudes, they still may not have changed enough. Harman came to politics at a time where women were conditioned to see other women as rivals, while men regarded them as subservient and subordinate. Her motivations differed to the Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, as while the PM worked to beat men at their own game, Harman endeavoured to change the game completely by creating avenues to let women in.
A front-runner of what she terms the “irresistible force of sisterhood”, Harman’s experiences of sexism during her early career only invigorated her dedication to bringing “women’s issues” into the House of Commons. The first question Harman posed to Thatcher concerned school holidays and access to childcare, a question which received dismissive chuckles from the Tories, as well as her own Labour colleagues. Joining only 10 other women in the Labour party as a young woman expecting her first child, she was an entirely new breed of politician for 1982. Within a culture which considered women responsible for their own misfortunes, her campaigning was instrumental in overturning women’s lower minimum wages, improved childcare arrangements and brought in harsher sentencing for violent crimes against women.
Her methods were not without opposition, as her admittedly draconian tactics of securing positions for women at the expense of qualified male candidates led to backlash from men who felt she ruined their lives. Harman unapologetically bears the brunt of her decisions, including criticism of enduring support of Tony Blair, and her stance on Brexit. The discussion covered lamentation over what she should have said or done throughout the years, though these difficult moments were moved past with her optimism and commitment to her cause.
Speaking on social inequalities, the future of Labour under Corbyn, and the inexorable influence of Trump, Harman’s unique placement within politics offers a refreshing perspective on contemporary issues. Her characteristic conviction of purpose was evident, as she remembered the 1950s as “just like UKIP” and dismissed Tory decisions as simply “wrong.”
Her charismatic manner throughout her career clearly resonated with the women in the audience, many who posed compelling questions to Harman concerning the safety of female politicians on social media and the current lack of women in the Labour party. Harriet Harman is a compelling speaker, who, for over 30 years has not compromised her tenacious personality to gain foothold within a patriarchal order, and is certainly a figure to watch as contemporary feminism continues to present itself as a force to be reckoned with.