Above: Suzanne Moore
Below: the start of Woman’s Hour’s list of the 100 most powerful women in the UK today.
The Woman’s Hour list proves there is nothing soft about real power
Smug self-congratulation is not a male prerogative. This week we had the Baftas, the Fry/Ross/whoever love-in where successful people applaud themselves stupid. Such ceremonies are now where women’s frocks are then judged right or wrong by a woman who freely admits hating her own body, never mind anyone else: Liz Jones. Still, it’s only showbusiness.
I did not expect such abject smugness from Woman’s Hour, even though I had refused to go to their awards do as I thought their power list of the top 100 women was entirely pointless. Anything that celebrates women but does not include prosecco is usually as dull as dishwater. Listening to the programme, though, was worse than dull. It was dire.
Still, a power list of women, not people. Radical? Well Emma Goldman must be turning in her grave. The most powerful woman in Britain is the Queen. Number two is Theresa May and number three is a rich banker. Busting the stereotypes of power was clearly not the raison d’être of this list. But this really takes the biscuit – homemade, of course, by some Mumsnet guru with 18 children who runs a hedge fund in between trips to CERN.
I jest, but not much. Of course there were some noble names but they don’t need more bigging up. There are two types of women: those who make it and help other women and those who pull the ladder back up. But then power is a slippery concept. We have all read 50 Shades of Grey, after all. Hence the waffle about “soft power”, a term used by sociologist Joseph Nye. Soft power is coercive, collaborative, communicative – we girls are good at this sort of thing. Hard power – politics, war, finance – that’s tougher.
The list confirms that the best way to get power is to inherit it, like the Queen or Elisabeth Murdoch. Also try to be white, rich and go to private school. Or you can be like Theresa May – happy to sit in a cabinet with few women and sign off policies that penalise other less fortunate women.
None of this would be made better, some of the panellists said, by quotas; they were against them. Alexandra Shulman boasted of having a black girl working in her office. Amazing! The judges also considered Victoria Beckham more worthy than PJ Harvey. Caitlin Moran, who made 15-year-old girls think feminism could be cool and a bit of a laugh, did not feature either.
Powerful women, I guess, are exceptional. And behind every powerful woman are other women – cleaners, nannies. But they don’t count. Care is not power, apparently, and this list showed us again going backwards. No amount of sweet talk about networking from guest Julia Hobsbawm changes that. These are hard times for women: the proportion of women at the top of public life (media, politics, business) is stuck at 22%, and for younger women it is worse. Does networking turn into real power? Not from this evidence. With such an innately conservative and corporate list, “soft power” comes to resemble being someone’s lovely assistant.
Not represented at all were the brave women who spoke out about Jimmy Savile; those who campaign against domestic violence. No Doreen Lawrence. No Margaret Thatcher, whose ideology remains powerful. And few young women.
I don’t want to get too Foucauldian about this – well, I do – but power is a web, a culture, a discourse that always has to be challenged. To embody it in a dumb list is to reinforce the status quo absolutely. And women continue to do the media’s dirty work for them: self-compiling lists of experts so that women may appear on serious shows from time to time, as researchers seem unable to find women scientists or economists.
This power list is a sign of the times. Don’t be young, gifted and black. Try not to be working class, either. Networking cannot replace quotas. Or sexual politics. Too many of the women involved in this enterprise seem happy designing their own ceiling, brick by glass brick. They would like women to be magically more powerful, but have no way of explaining how this might happen Still, it’s Woman’s Hour: I wasn’t expecting the SCUM Manifesto read out by Mary Berry, though that would have been good. But I did expect a conversation on how power might be distributed.
Power is taken, not earned, as they kept insisting. This fiasco was a painful reminder of the weak position so many women are in. I am not polite, and I am not thankful for the small mercies of big businesswomen. Power is not given. We wrench it away. For where there is power, there is resistance. A list of resistance. Now that would be powerful.