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15 December 2016

There’s no point celebrating women’s power, until reality reflects it

If women were the ones with power – the kind that men are coached to inhabit from the second their penis is identified – Theresa May would not be embroiled in a row about her trousers.

By Sarah Ditum

Just over a year ago, Germaine Greer gave a lecture on women and power, or rather, as she put it: “women and their total lack of power… isn’t that bloody absurd and ridiculous?” Now she’s at number four on the Woman’s Hour 2016 Power List, announced yesterday, a ragtag collection of female influencers which in a way proves her point. For the first time, the list (which has been running since 2013) includes dead women along with the living, so Thatcher came in at number one, followed by Helen Brook of the Brook Advisory sexual health and family planning centres (d. 1997) and Barbara Castle, the Labour MP who introduced the 1970 Equal Pay Act (d. 2002).

In fact, of the top seven (to mark seven decades of Woman’s Hour), only three are not-dead: Greer, Beyoncé and Bridget Jones, who being a fictional character never has to confront the inconvenience of mortality. All of these women can lay claim to huge achievements (apart from Bridget, obviously, whose accomplishments can only be counted in calories drunk, men bagged and young women readers of the 90s and 00s gigglingly seduced into thinking that calories and men were the stuff of life). But what this list doesn’t do is explain the world we actually live in. What it shows is that women’s power has remained constrained and conditional. Heck, there’s even an outright anti-feminist on the Women Equalities committee thanks to awful Philip Davies.

Want to understand how we got to Brexit? Thatcher oversaw decisive moments in Britain’s integration with Europe, and her eventual downfall was triggered by her own growing Euroscepticism: her own career holds all the seeds of 23 June, but it’s not her power that took us there. The Equal Pay Act, as momentous as it is both in legal use and for its symbolism, still hasn’t given us equal pay. Women’s average full-time pay still trails men’s by nearly 10 per cent in the UK, while at home, British women continue to put in over twice as many hours as men on the unpaid slog that keeps life ticking over: cooking dinners, washing clothes, having and raising children.

When it comes to birth control, women are still cast as supplicants, asking other people (men, mostly) to grant us control over our own bodies. Cuts to public health budgets mean that certain forms of contraception just aren’t funded anymore. That means that more women are likely to need abortions in future, and when they do, they’ll have to persuade two doctors that they’re either sick enough in body or brain to justify the termination under our absurd and paternalistic system. If women don’t even get to be the dictators of what happens inside the bounds of our own bodies, how can we really be powerful in any realm at all?

It’s especially galling to celebrate women and power when we’re still getting our stomachs back from the sickening thing that happened in November. Seeing Hillary Clinton first undermined by Bernie Sanders, then shivved by a last-minute attack from the FBI, and finally beaten by a groping, tantrumming, kleptocrat manbaby is the ultimate kicker for any belief that women have equality in the public sphere. America could have had its first First Man. Wifework would have finally, publically, become husbandwork. Instead it’s got a First Lady whose fans see her as the ultimate “sugar baby” – a woman who uses her looks to bag a hot man and live off him.

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In the UK, we might have our second female prime minister, but there’s still no sign of Labour’s patriarchy giving up the reins and letting women take a turn in charge. Angela Eagle’s experience and strength counted for nothing when the Labour centre looked for a Corbyn challenger this summer: instead, she took the flack of misogynistic and homophobic abuse while Owen Smith swept up the outside to make off with the nominations. May notwithstanding, women’s hold on power feels as flimsy and tenuous as I can remember. The hate that roils under the surface ready to explode when a woman crosses the bounds of gender gathers force, spitting out from comments sections and social media.

Let’s face it, if women were the ones with power – the unquestioned, easy kind that men are coached to inhabit from the second their penis has been identified – a supremely talented singer, songwriter and visual artist like Beyoncé would spend less time dancing in her knickers, Margaret Thatcher would never have had to make savvy mention of her ironing board, and Theresa May would not currently be embroiled in a row about her trousers. If women were truly powerful, it would be Helen Fielding on this list rather than her fictional creation. On the other hand, with things as they are, maybe Bridget is the role model we need after all. Slosh out the chardonnay, because (to quote a great woman) it’s all bloody absurd and ridiculous.