Second time success

One mid-morning, late last year, I happened to turn on the radio
just in time to catch a harrowing report on domestic violence. An
unnamed woman was recounting the story of how she had been sexually
assaulted, threatened with her life and beaten up so badly she was
left with a broken rib and a punctured lung. Her assailant? It was
her husband of many years, a highly respected and successful
academic, also unnamed, who had escaped without a prison

Until, that is, Harriet Harman, the solicitor general, got to hear
of the case. So disturbed was she by the court’s inappropriate
leniency in this matter, she used her powers to have this and one
other case referred to the Court of Appeal. After reconsideration,
a six-month prison sentence was imposed. As Harman argued, the
man’s professional success was irrelevant. He had gravely injured
another human being; he should pay the price for his crime.

Domestic violence is once again in the news, and Harman has a great
deal to do with that. Draft laws currently under discussion may
bring important changes from the extension of restraining orders to
the introduction of anonymity in domestic violence cases. Harman
has also argued that provocation should be removed as a reasonable
defence to murder in domestic violence cases, the so-called
“nagging and shagging” defence which has, in the past, let some men
who have killed their wives or partners get away with ridiculously
lenient prison sentences or even none at all. Some of these changes
may become law by the summer.

Watching Harman at work has made me think anew about the potential
impact of women in politics and particularly in high office. It was
always easy to sneer at the massed ranks of Blair’s Babes,
ring-fencing their leader soon after their election in 1997.

It was even easier to be cynical when so many of them voted within
months of the election of New Labour to support the cuts in lone
parent benefits. All this showed was that given the harsh realities
of everyday politics, gender solidarity can mean very little when
faced with stringent tests of loyalty or the internal pull of high
ambition. No surprise then that so many women in politics choose to
skirt the “women thing” altogether or to be selective in their
campaigning on issues that concern women.

But Harman treads a very different path. Entering parliament as
young, telegenic and ambitious, she was quickly signed up to
represent the acceptable face of new womanhood in Kinnock’s and
then Blair’s party. But things changed after her public and
ineffective defence of the cuts to lone parent benefits in late
1997 and her highly public sacking not long after by Blair.

Returned to the backbenches, Harman refused the roles of victim or
rebel. Wallowing neither in bitterness nor nostalgia, she returned
to her political roots and rediscovered the passions that brought
her into politics in the first place. And over the next couple of
years, Harman turned herself into what sometimes seemed like a
one-woman crusade for what has been ironically called post-modern
feminism. She was publicly, if carefully, critical of the
increasingly macho style that New Labour adopted in government. She
also put forward many positive and detailed proposals for policy
change. Her reward for her constructive if critical loyalty was a
new post in government as solicitor general.

But Harman is reaping deeper rewards in her new post. She has come
back to politics clearly marked, on the woman question at least, as
a politician of principle and commitment, an increasingly rare
sight in the wearying New Labour team.

Is this then what is meant by the feminisation of politics? Or is
it just the story of one female politician who has shown personal
courage, consistent principle and not a little strategy? It is
both, I think. Of course, it is important to remember that Harman
is not alone. There are dozens of women, at a more junior level in
parliament and in campaign and pressure groups, who are arguing the
feminist case; MPs like Vera Baird, who took over Mo Mowlam’s seat
in Redcar, or Dr Katherine Rake, the new director of the women’s
equality organisation the Fawcett Society.

But, for the moment, Harman should be singled out out as a woman in
high office who is making a particular difference. She secured
justice for the wife of that eminent academic, and she may yet
pilot through the House of Commons changes to the criminal law
which will help hundreds and thousands more women. Most importantly
of all she has shown that the demands of feminism and social
justice collide more often and more simply than we think.

Melissa Benn is a journalist and

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