By Eloïse Carey
Harriet Harman, feminist campaigner and Labour frontbencher, has recently released her memoir, A Woman’s Work. Spanning forty of some of the toughest years in politics for the Labour party and, in particular, for female MPs, Harman’s autobiography is both refreshing and shocking: it is a book not really about her but about all women from her era. She is straight-talking and purposeful, impressing her readers with a strong sense that she is telling her experiences for a reason. For example, when recounting that a tutor offered her a 2:1 in return for sex at the University of York (he told her that she was a ‘borderline’ student and would achieve a higher grade if she agreed to his advances), Harman isn’t looking for sympathy. She explains why she has chosen to come forward on The Andrew Marr Show by simply stating that such events are ‘still a battle we’ve got to fight now’ and ‘we need to […] make sure that those people who are put in that position feel able to complain.’
The first thing that comes to mind when you read the memoir, and is even more evident in interview, is that Harman is an incredibly tough individual. She has had to become used to not being liked, because as a woman you couldn’t possibly be liked and be at the top of your game. This is only too apparent in her experience of interactions with male colleagues, and unfortunately is not limited to the early years of her career. The working world is only marginally more receptive to a different kind of leader, and women in positions of power still feel the need to ‘behave like men’ in order to be taken seriously.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Harman’s memoir was the numerous parallels I drew with it. Much of the leering, harassment and downright dismissal is behaviour that I and the young women around me have experienced, albeit less overtly, in our lives at one point or another. To those who argue that sexism is no longer present in today’s society, I urge you to read this book. Whether or not you are a feminist, whether you are female or male, whether you agree or disagree or don’t really care, pick it up. Read five pages, read the whole thing, you’ll be amazed by how analogous it is to your own life. It’s both an academic work and an incredibly detailed account of Harman’s life all rolled into one. Politics and the position of women are key topics in society today; don’t be narrow-minded and think you know enough already.
And if you haven’t personally experienced the subtle sexism that pervades communities today, take a look around you at university, at its ‘lad culture’, the sexualisation of women, ‘six packs’ as the sole criteria for the ‘ideal’ man; criticised for working hard, criticised for remaining at home. I myself have been asked the question ‘do you use your boobs as an advantage?’ ‘Pussy’ is the chosen word for a guy perceived as ‘weak’, a stereotype damaging to both sexes. Even writing this article, as someone who has been brought up to be proud of my views and stand behind my opinion, I’m wondering if this is going to come across as ‘feminazi’. If it does, then like Harman I’ll make no apologies for rocking the boat.
There are multiple articles online describing Harman as ‘aggressive’ and ‘manly,’ or ‘too staunch in her views,’ adjectives that would not be applied to a man in the same position. Many more applaud her, stating that her manner is a direct result of a career in the male-dominated realm of politics. Either way, she has started a debate, one that must be put at the forefront of our generation so that the next don’t have to consider it. Most importantly though I want to promote this book to everyone; while it’s about a woman, there are plenty of men with similar experiences who have also been categorised by society and expected to behave in a certain way because of their gender.
At 66, Harman’s ideals are no less vivid and her determination no less intense than the descriptions of her as a young woman in her book. It is clear that despite achieving so much, Harman is by no means finished. In an interview with The Guardian, Harman now accepts that she made a u-turn from her views of memoirs as ‘male vanity projects.’ However, unlike a lot of memoirs, which see politicians sitting back and surveying their life’s work over a glass of whisky in a men’s club, A Woman’s Work is a call to arms. It is an inspiration for women and men to get up and go, and I very much doubt that this will be the last we hear from Harriet Harman.
Photograph: Penguin Allen Lane