BOOK REVIEW / All sweetness and blight: 'The Century Gap' - Harriet Harman: Vermilion, 7.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THE MOST acute sentences in Harriet Harman's book were actually written by Barbara Amiel: 'Only an idiot would say that life is lessened by the fact that, finally, women do have more choices. But only an idiot would conclude that choice is an unmixed blessing.' But then, apart from the title, which sounds initially as though Harman might have a big idea but which turns out to be a pat phrase that does not take us much further, there is very little original material here. The Century Gap rehashes existing research, punctuated by quotations from 'ordinary people': it is entirely lacking a striking or provoking voice, and it reads like an extended women's magazine article - one, what's more, that we have read somewhere before.

Choice has brought women divorce, poverty, and the right to work part time in low-paid and unprotected jobs. Our post-feminist times are ripe for some radical, even visionary political thinking to confront the two themes with which Harriet Harman, unhappily, only dallies: the emotional cost of the loss of fixed gender roles, so that every relationship between a man and a woman now involves battles, uneasy compromises and a sense that someone is being exploited; and the failure of social institutions to keep pace with change on the ground, in the home. But The Century Gap reads more like a civil servant's briefing paper to her minister than policy itself: you keep waiting for Harman to take flight, to have some sort of idea.

She is at her weakest on domestic politics. The notion of the century gap, invoked many times per chapter, expresses Harman's sense that women are ahead of men, are already trying to assimilate the competing claims of home and work; and that, for everyone's sake, men have to catch up. When this happens, everything will apparently be sweetness and light: 'A power struggle in relationships will be replaced by democracy.' Oh, how nice. Unfortunately, there is little in the way of concrete advice as to how we are going to get here, except perhaps for a plaintive inversion of Henry Higgins: 'Oh, why can't a man be more like a woman]'

'Men must talk more with their partners and their children and listen to what they have to say,' Harman offers tritely; or, 'The more men put into their children, the more everyone will get out of family life: men, women and their children.' Well, yes - as women's magazines have been reminding us for the past 20 years at least, perhaps for much longer.

Harman is on surer ground with child care, when she leaves the realms of pious hope and talks about the relative merits of supply subsidy and demand subsidy, and she is right about the need to redefine full employment so as not to stigmatise those who choose to work less than a 48-hour week. But she idealises part-time employment, neglecting to address the fact that it currently exploits many women rotten.

Generally, it is hard to avoid feeling that there is a rather cobbled-together air about the book: Harman pays lip-service to the need to respect different ethnic attitudes to gender roles, but does not develop the thought; she quotes the Plant report on electoral reform without comment, so I was unsure whether she was agreeing with its conclusions or not.

As a summary of current research and journalism, The Century Gap is adequate enough; and perhaps the prominence of its author will mean that it sparks some debate. It will not, sadly, be contributing much itself.

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