More from Britain: Harriet Harman
by Kaite Welsh
She’s an inspirational politician and a personal role model. And yet, as rumours swirl that Harriet Harman is considering challenging Gordon Brown to become the leader of the Labour party and therefore the next British Prime Minister, I can’t help but feel a flutter of anxiety at what her campaign will entail, and how it might backfire.
Currently the Equalities Minister, Harman has long been a bête noir of the right wing press. Christened ‘Harriet Harperson’ in a desperate attempt to be witty, they slam her politically correct stance and a month rarely goes by before the word ‘feminist’ is hurled at her as though it were an insult. But her support among party members is strong, and she has become a figurehead for many women voters - a demographic that has expressed dissatisfaction for Brown, the current Premier, and dislike of his main opponent, Conservative leader David Cameron. What was once a worst-case scenario for the Labour Party – a Conservative victory at the next election – is increasingly seen as likelihood, and Harman has been touted as the strongest candidate to put Labour back in power.
During her (ultimately successful) campaign to become Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Harman’s team had this to say about her:
Throughout her career Harriet has campaigned for equality and social justice. During this campaign she has focused on the issues that matter to party members; affordable homes – tackling the housing divide, youth services in every neighbourhood, improving older people’s care, cheap, clean, public transport, equal treatment for agency and directly-employed workers and inequality – tackling the rich/poor divide.
That’s the kind of person I want to see running my country, no question. And yet, I’m apprehensive about the campaign she would run if she does go ahead and challenge Brown for the Leadership. Harman landed herself in hot water earlier this year when she commented that had a certain company been called the Lehman Sisters, we wouldn’t have the problems we do now. Her line, much as Thatcher’s was, is that the qualities that make her an excellent candidate, are qualities that our inherent in her – in our – gender.
Because it isn't a woman's job to clean up the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, it's a politician's, and the more that gender is brought into the equation, the easier it is for a male politician to pass the buck. Women don't benefit politics simply because they're women. There is no magical component to estrogen that makes us more susceptible to the plight of the underdog - our first female PM was Maggie Thatcher, for heaven's sake, and she wasn't exactly known for her cuddly, gentle side.
I'm not disputing the idea that women can bring a different political agenda to the table, I just don't believe that they automatically do. For every Harriet Harman, dedicated to making men and women as equal in the eyes of public policy as they are in reality, there's a Margaret Thatcher double-glazing over the hole she made in the glass ceiling. To assume that all women are going to protect the feminist agenda is not only narrow-minded and hopelessly optimistic, it gives men a carte blanche to ignore it. I want more women in the Houses of Parliament, in Congress, in the Senate, and in the White House. But I also want the men and women we vote for to shoulder their social responsibilities equally, because for the foreseeable future women will always have to operate within a political structure that benefits men most of all, and it can only be changed when everyone takes a stand and not just those who it adversely affects.
So when people ask me if I’m supporting Harriet because I’m a feminist, I’ll say no – I’m supporting her because she is.