It’s a pity for her 1985 memoirs have much to offer the reader of today, and have many reminders that many of the issues with which we’re wrestling politically – from voting systems to maternity leave – have been the subject of furious debate for decades.
Born in 1917, she’s something of a bridge between the First Wave feminists and the Second Wave, which she viewed from a place of mature professional power and influence (one of the few women in that position at that time) with some understandable bemusement. By modern standards she’s unsound on the subject of “Ms”, she hated it, and rather unsound on homosexual rights, but given the world she grew up in, she’s humane, commonsensical and remarkably clear-sighted, while being self-effacing and alost frustratingly humble.
She’s much to say on feminism that still has powerful resonance today, for example:
“The spate of books on women’s subjects in the last few years has been extraordinary. Too many, in my view, have been inaccessible to me, who left my grammar school at 17, and to the girls who leave their comprehensives at 16 – not to mention many others in between. I think it is time to concentrate more attention on the writing, on the simple, comprehensible exposition of ideas rather than on the bibliography.”
She’s also interesting as a defector from Labour to be a founding member of the SDP in 1981, and a member of its executive in 1982, a self-identified political neophyte:
“…it takes a very strong and politically idealistic spirit to survive bickering over procedural hassles. Procedure has to be sorted out, but perhaps the political novices, ‘the nice people’, the ‘wets’ have a role in indicating, now and then, when we can summon courage to tackle the technicians, that ‘ends’ are really what matter and what keep enthusiasm alive, and, even, that means can corrupt ends. Sometimes I fear that the more ‘political’ one becomes, the more one is likely to lose sight of the goal that made one join a party in the first place.”
Today, as the conservative government talks much of Big Society, while also slashing funding for the institutions that might support it, she reports on the president of the National Council of Women, Helen Waldsax, asking “that the government should ‘acknowledge in some constructive form the public service given by so many voluntary organisations to this country’ and warned that unless this was done, many organisations would have to function at half strength, or even disappear, which would mean the loss of ‘the source of supply of many specialist skills’. She added, ‘a very important democratic principle is at stake here’. But there has been no sign that Prime Minister Thatcher, who so heartily approves, she says the voluntary principle, has taken any notice.”
But perhaps the most pervasive sense one gets from this book is the modestly and self-deprecation of a woman who was obviously powerful and exceptional. It’s a reminder of how women were taught to be – and must never allowed to be again.