An interesting juxtapostion between this article in The Guardian by Martin Kettle on Tuesday, The Amazing Gender Gap
http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,1886199,00.html and coverage of the Conservative Party Conference.
In his article Kettle asks:
"Why, nearly a century after women got the vote and were able to stand for parliament, do so few women get to the very top? Is it prejudice and glass ceilings, as a survey on British business suggests today? Or is it that, in some significant way, most women politicians aren't as good as Thatcher? And if not, why not?
He goes on. " yet remarkably few of the several women who have risen to cabinet level in the post-Thatcher era could credibly be described as potential party leaders or prime ministers.
I'm not arguing that men are better at political leadership than women or that politics isn't also awash with men who are merely average. But what wouldn't Labour give for its own Ségolène Royal right now - and why hasn't it got one? And what wouldn't the Liberal Democrats give for another Shirley Williams?
Given that all the doors are open to them and that the system actively craves effective and charismatic women, the amazing thing about Mrs Pritchard is that she is a fiction, not a fact."
Good questions and there are a range of factors which may explain why but I think one of them is the current cult of media celebrity and the political wife. Take coverage of Samatha Cameron in Monday's Daily Mail. We were informed that her acidulous yellow coat had been purchased in Top Shop during her lunch hour and she doesn't bother with designer wear. Subtext, she's young, trendy and not a big freebie grabbing spendthrift a la Cherie. Further, this information was clearly made available with a purpose by Cameron's PR outfit. What is so distasteful about this is that it tries to replicate political rivalry in the form of trivial point scoring about women's lifestyles. Even the fact that they both have successful careers doesn't stop them somehow being demeaned as their skills in juggling their work/life balance are compared.
Then there was the kissing for the cameras after the speeches which now appears essential. Why? Given that we are now supposed to have more equality between men and women and we have openly gay MPs how has this anachronistic, heterosexual ritual suddenly sprung up?
Where does this fit in with Kettle's article? There may be more women in Parliament and in the Cabinet but to emerge as leader you also need the charisma and to become known and something of a "political celebrity" with the media. In today's environment, however, the feminine political celebrity is the male politician's wife. It not only raises questions for women but also for single men - gay or straight. A clinging, adoring wife is a political must have for those big political occasions. Thirty years ago you had Barbara Castle, a flamboyant political celebrity who was a serious politician but also very feminine and Edward Heath who was unmarried and you didn't hear a lot about Callaghan's or Wilson's wives (except that Mary W penned the odd bit of poetry). A look at the way the prospective leaders and their wives are now packaged for media consumption makes me wonder if we've gone backwards, not forwards.
One interesting foonote. Although Welsh politicians always point out that half of the 60 Assembly Members are women, almost half the cabinet and half the Labour group, all the names being mentioned for Rhodri's successor, as I mentioned in an earlier post, are men.