Who’s the boss?

Hillary Clinton’s totally understandable response to being asked at a press conference in her capacity as Secretary of State has provoked reporting about her ‘extraordinary outburst’ (e.g. The Times). What’s extraordinary about it other than the fact that most government figures would not expect to be asked for their spouses views on an important matter rather than their own? It would never happen to Bill, or to any other male politician. I don’t think her response was anything other than a clear expression of how unacceptable the question posed actually was – if  I was Hillary it would drive me mad and – unlike Hillary – I would probably lose my rag and respond with the kind of hysterical response that she is being credited with. Extraordinary is that her response is a bigger deal to the press than the idiocy of the question.

Harman v Prescott – Below the belt

Political commentary is not really my thing on this blog, but I just cannot let the very public online spat between Harriet Harman and John Prescott go unremarked. Let me say at the outset that I’m not a member of any political party, although you may discern from this blog that I am generally leftish. I generally have quite a deal of respect for John Prescott and his determination but I am afraid he is not in my good books.

.

This begins with Harriet Harman’s interview in The Times on Sunday (also here) . I take the point that Harriet’s turn of phrase that ‘men cannot be left to run things on their own’ sounds pejorative and is foolishly sexist. She does know how to put her foot in her mouth. But let’s look at the bigger picture. It is a fact that the business of politics and governance remains overwhelmingly male dominated and that HAS to change as a matter of urgency. As Harriet says – and this is plainly the thrust of what she says rather than the detail that detractors are homing in on – ‘it’s thoroughly bad to have  a men-only leadership’. The idea is that, even if women in government are outnumbered by men, things are still run in accordance with the principles of equality. To use the lingo this government is ‘striving to be’ an equal opportunities government (aka work in progress).

.

So I ask you, does John Prescott’s response on his blog smack of committment to and deep understanding of the importance of substantive equality of opportunity both in government and in the country as a whole? Does it ‘eck. Harriet Harman has stated an obvious and uncomfortable truth, and one which would be a significant vote loser amongst the female electorate were it not for the fact that all the other main parties are similarly terrible at getting women elected. And Prescott reacts by criticising her for doing damage to the party. Prescott’s clumsy attack on the only person prepared to put her head above the parapet on this is extremely unattractive and as a female voter a massive turn off.

.

What Prescott completely misses is that Harman is promoting a long needed public debate about this – and one which if embraced could be a positive campaigning line. Male and female members of Parliament alike should be engaging with this constructively to work out how we can redress the balance, how we can eliminate actual and perceived imbalance and male centred policy making, how they can win the trust and votes of women.

.

But, says Prescott, the all boys team have been successful, have done important stuff (and by implication this women’s issue is no more than a distraction). Waving your sporting trophies and sneering at what the girls want to talk about by reducing it to pink fluff is schoolyard stuff. It is unsophisticated and unconvincing.

.

And to attempt to undermine a woman’s own success by saying she got to the top by being a woman is utterly unimaginative (I am referring here to the significant phrase ‘in theory you were selected on merit not on gender’ which I am disappointed to report my other half finds completely unobjectionable – he is mystified at my wrath). What’s more, it fundamentally misses the point: lets assume that Harriet Harman was in part elected as a result of her committment to equality or to what Prescott may view as ‘women’s issues’ – that is not the same as getting elected because of your gender. A male candidate who was equally able to demonstrate his committment to the same ‘women’s issues would compete on a level playing field. That one remark from Prescott, rather emphasises the reason why we need more women in government. The John Prescott’s of this world don’t even get why there is a problem – he doesn’t understand what Harriet or the rest of us birds are whineing on about. ‘The system works fine’ says Prescott. If the system worked fine John, there would be a representative proportion of women in government. What’s your problem with that?

.

John Prescott should take a long hard look at himself and the effect upon the female voter of publicly attacking female colleagues for raising legitimate equality issues, and consider who it is that is damaging the party’s prospects of retaining power at the next election. He may have attracted some unpleasantly misogynistic comments on his blog post (which one rather suspects may reflect his views in rather rawer form than appear on a carefully crafted blog post which produces an uncharacteristically polished result in contrast with the off the cuff Prescott we are used to seeing on telly), but I can tell him that there are more women voters, than misogynists out there, more voters who want to see representative government and true equality than there are voters who want to keep everything as it is or fill a cabinet full of Prescotts.

MS is not a four letter word by Lucy Reed (neé Reed)

I despair sometimes at ever being properly addressed by my given and chosen name. It’s only short but it causes oh so much trouble.

.

Every time I attend an unfamiliar court I go through the motions when I sign in: I enunciate ‘Ms…Lucy…Reed…no it’s double E D…I’m counsel for the Respondent / Applicant…’ (it’s only four letters but 99% of people want to spell it Reid – my husband’s utterly unspellable name fortifies me against abandonment of both my principles and my surname for the sake of an easy life) and then I sigh as they write down ‘Miss Reed’. Even when the court staff don’t ignore what I say the judge inevitably does. As do most colleagues at the bar. I don’t even bother in my local court any more. Diversity training in the court service evidently covers the range of religious books upon which one might swear an oath, but not the respect for gender neutral nomenclature that one might wish to see from the machinery of justice.

.

And I am steeling myself for the inevitable day when I realise I look too old to be a Miss anymore, and will be forcibly promoted to a Mrs. Depressing, but at least then it will accurately reflect my marital status, even though it’s nobody’s business but mine (and my other half’s).

.

There seem to be very few women in my profession who do not describe themselves either as Miss or Mrs. Ms is not the done thing at the bar. It’s an awkward term, and for some I sense it marks the wearer out as a member of the awkward squad. Perhaps that’s a first impression which may be disadvantageous to the advocate trying to smooth her way into favour with the Judge? I don’t really think so – generally those who hold such views are quite capable of making assumptions about uppity women with or without the tag ‘Ms’ – but if it is the case, so be it. More fool anyone who prejudges an individual on such irrelevant trivia. In a profession where seniority is marked only by the starkness of ‘junior’ versus ‘silk’ and the gradual accrual of years of experience, for which a ready reckoner is the age of an advocate: titles matter. ‘Miss Reed’ is very junior and the term can be skillfully intoned (by Judge or opponent) to delicately undermine an advocate by connoting inexperience, just as ‘Mrs Reed’ can use her marital status to command authority (and particularly in family law to insinuate maternal experience or solid good sense). These nuances go unnoted by many, but they do exist and are and in play by way of both conscious manipulation and as a subconscious manifestation of gender or age based preconceptions. But if I’m to be prejudged I prefer it to be on my principles, not on my marital status: so Ms it is..

.

I know it’s difficult to remember – ‘Ms’. And I also know it’s an irritating sounding word, but I don’t have a better one that doesn’t divulge irrelevant information. We all get names and titles wrong (including  to our mutual mortification when I have, on more than one occasion when a newbie, called a female Judge ‘Sir’. This however was not so embarrassing as when a learning disabled client in an employment tribunal case I once did picked up on me addressing the Chair as ‘Madam’ and persistently referred to her throughout the hearing as ‘The Madam’ which has altogether less respectable connotations). So I don’t generally make a fuss (Unless someone is using ‘Miss’ in a particularly condescending ‘she doesn’t know what she’s talking about’ tone). I generally don’t want to point out that someone has been unintentionally inconsiderate or make a mountain out of a simple mistake. But it is annoying. Today I heard my opponent, a solicitor, gently correcting the usher ‘it’s Ms actually’. I sometimes do the same, but often make light of it to spare the blushes of the court staff who frankly have more important things to worry about. This article in the Guardian which I came across this evening says a lot I agree with (and has an astonishing 200+ comments, expressing a wide array of views on the issue – it is an emotive topic).

.

So no, I don’t stand on principle about my title. I don’t get all narky or insulted when people get it wrong (although I might occasionally write long rambly blog posts in order to relieve my moderate levels of frustration). And I have long since given up taking my wedding ring off during the working week and referring on principle to my ‘partner’ not my husband. There was a time when I was fearful that preconceptions about my personal life might adversely affect my career (that a wedding ring might be a sign of imminent pregnancy and a lack of commitment to my vocation), and although I no longer think it is either right or necessary to behave as if I am ashamed of my personal circumstances or my gender, I am also wise enough to know that my fear had some foundation – I have during my career heard astonishing remarks about why recruitment of women to the bar is best avoided, and this from senior members of the bar who should know better. But there are other ways of dealing with that. The answer is to surround oneself with good and clever people, to come out of the shadows, and to do what I do and to do it bloody well. And to quietly persist with getting my name known.

.

So…that’s Ms (NO ‘i’) Lucy (NO ‘i’) Reed (NO ‘i’). Write it down. There will be a test later.