The most recent book I finished reading was Harriet Harman’s A Woman’s Work. I was interested in reading it after it had been trailed in The Guardian. I wasn’t going to “review” it much at all; I was mainly going to recommend people buy it, and give my copy to my mum. But two things made me thing again. First was the “anniversary” of when, as stand-in leader of the Labour Party in opposition, Harman advised her MPs to vote for welfare reform in 2015. This is symbolically portrayed as when the tide turned in favour of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership race. Harman became the totemic “Blairite”. Ironically, for the theme of the book, I’d argue there’s an inherent sexism in there – the presumption is Harman, as a woman cannot have her own views; she is just the stooge of the men around her. Secondly, I asked my Twitter followers if they’d like a review, and I got overwhelmed
I just want to pick up on three aspects of the book that were noteworthy to me. Firstly, life was really quite exceptionally bad for women before 1997 and it’s quite a bit better now. It’s not perfect, but thanks to Harriet Harman and her allies in the women’s movement, it’s quite a bit better. This seems to come from something that only a woman could really do – listen to women’s concerns, empathise with them, and make the practical changes needed. For example, being a naïve man I was not aware how stupidly moralistic and patriarchal the rules regarding lone parent benefit were. It was designed on the presumption women should not be in work. They should be in a relationship with a man who would earn the money for the household. Even if he was abusing her. As Secretary of State for Social Security, Harman changed that through the New Deal for Lone Parents.
Another good example this this approach, and the pragmatic challenges it led to, is the minimum wage. The men-dominated trades unions had pushed for this to be half the median wage. Harman realised that this rate would be good for men in full time work, but probably lead to thousands of low-paid women losing their jobs. She argued forcefully that such work was not “pin money” for households, but a vital part of their income, the freedom of these women, and that many of these women were lone parents who would lose their only income. She pushed this argument with the support of the trade union that represented poorly paid women workers in the textile industry the National Union of Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades. The result was the Low Pay Commission. Of course, this led to her gaining enemies in the trades unions
It sort of goes without saying that Harriet Harman (or “Harperson” as she was *hilariously* referred to) has received endless sexist, misogynist abuse in her life. The reporting associated with the book’s launch focused on her being sexually harassed by a lecturer at the University of York. This was early-on, and shocking, but arguably not the worst. Taking on a men-dominated labour movement through advocating for women workers, and all-women shortlists, Harman was subject to truly shocking abuse and exclusion, as were many other women. The story of the introduction of all-women shortlists should make many men in the Labour movement utterly ashamed and should lead to public apologies at the way women were treated. Of course, it won’t.
The third reason I liked the book came to me at the end – it’s tucked away in the acknowledgements. She writes:
“I’d always denounced political memoirs as male vanity projects and vowed never to write mine – so this book requires an explanation. I read the mounting pile of memoirs of the men who’d been my Cabinet colleagues. They wrote about themselves and each other but there was nothing about women.” (p.383)
She goes on:
“Because I didn’t plan to write my memoirs, I never wrote a diary during my time in politics. I thoroughly disapproved of colleagues who sat in meetings writing theirs; I thought they should have been focusing on getting things done in the here and now, rather than anticipating their place in history.” (p.383)
There’s a wonderfully humility and passion here. After I read it I just thought "go Harriet!" She got into politics to change women’s lives for the better. The book is not a memoir, or a biography. It is a book about the progress the women’s movement had made over the past 50 years, from Harman’s perspective, and it is a joy to read because of that, and incredibly informative. The only weakness is she is not a brilliant writer and the prose can be clunky. I imagine it’s how I might write a book – I’m very good at reports and reasonably good at extended academic writing, but would struggle in the genre of this type of book. But it’s definitely worth reading. Being the first Mother of the House is a richly deserved accolade for Harman for all her work in her 25 years in Parliament.