There’s a whole feature in yesterday’s Guardian Weekend Magazine about who is most fashionable – Sarah Brown or Samantha Cameron? Of course this is because it was London Fashion Week last week, and we are building up to a General Election. I’m sure the Guardian don’t expect their female readers (or even their male ones) to vote for a party based on the dress sense of the party leader’s wife.
Still, it seems a shame to me that even now intelligent and successful women are still judged, at least in part, on their appearances. Surely the more appropriate feature to run would have been on Gordon Brown and David Cameron’s sense of style?
I went to a discussion a few days ago at The Phoenix Artists Club in Soho about women in history. In the cellar of one of the theatres on Charing Cross Road, it was like stepping back into the 1960s as I walked down the stairs. I imagined it to be the perfect place to have a heated debate about some minute aspect of ideology, while chain smoking, with all kinds of intelligent and slightly extreme people until the early hours of the morning.
Of course, this is the 21st century, so there was no smoking and we all sat and listened very respectfully to three biographers who each spoke about women in different periods of history, before we politely put up our hands to ask them questions. I reckon thirty years ago, an event like this would have had a young Germaine Greer ranting and full verbal fisticuffs kicking off.
One of the authors spoke about Elizabeth I. She pointed out that history focuses on her relationships, speculation about her lovers and court favourites, and on how she used make up to create the persona of the Virgin Queen. No doubt this is all valid, but the writer said she should also be credited with restoring England’s economy from bankruptcy, with besting Spain, the greatest European power of the time, economically and in foreign policy, with building the world’s greatest navy at the time, and so on and so forth.
She’s remembered as Good Queen Bess and the Virgin Queen, but when she was alive she was called the Pirate Queen and other less repeatable and less feminine names. A lot of the action and conquest of her reign is attributed to Sir Francis Drake – but who was it who commissioned him?
Had Elizabeth been a king, she would have been given direct credit. And we’d have very little interest in her romances, or what she did with her hair.
It seems to me that the focus, even on women in recent history, is on looks and relationships. For example, Mo Mowlam is just as famous for taking off her wig, as she is for negotiating the Good Friday Agreement.
I wonder if we’ll remember, in our equality enlightened times, to change the lens we currently look through at history, so that women will be remembered for their achievements and not for their looks or their husbands. Or whether, being a woman, it’s worth remembering to do your hair and wear the mascara before you answer the door, just in case historians of the future continue to forget to look beyond the surface.