These ladies aren't for turning

Bolshy, matronly and earnest - stern women get a bad rap in a world where cleavage rules. But Sarah Litvinoff loves them

I admit to a frisson of disappointment when I read that Margaret Beckett was going to sing at a charity concert. It's her party piece, apparently: "Don't Get Married Girls!"

My disappointment has nothing to do with the song. It's just that Ms Beckett is one of a small group (some might say coven) that I've come to admire, shyly, almost ardently: those stern women who, despite being in the public eye, don't court popularity, and who don't give a damn what we think of them. With lamentable dress sense, timid husbands and a whole range of facial expressions from irritation to downright anger, they are "Authentics": women who live life according to their own standards - who shrug their shoulders when we don't like them and are only mildly gratified when, for a time, they become flavour of the month.

It's hard to know what to make of stern women. We admire them for their independence even as we laugh at their earnestness. We giggle at what we imagine as their lamentable sex lives, even though we secretly admire them far more than the Pamela Andersons of this world.

I admit it, I'm part of the sad majority - women who want to be liked, to be accepted, to be found attractive - and many otherwise admirable women succumb to the I-do-care-what-they-think. And they aren't necessarily men. Even Germaine Greer, after having made her point that post-menopause was when we all should grow old defiantly, has become noticeably more feminine again lately. There have been a number of feminists who - while still nubile and adorable - talked tough about looks not mattering, and then modified themselves as they grew older.

Not Princess Anne. What a woman! She's the only role model I know who's had the same hairstyle for 30 years. Even as an adolescent, when most of us would do anything to be accepted, she told us to naff off and treated us to a spectacular display of her dowdiest clothes. The press didn't go on and on in those days, but enough to hurt, and Princess Anne went through a decade or more of being reviled and mocked. But she didn't care. Now she's being benignly reassessed. She's a good thing, it's said: we should admire her. And how does she react? She couldn't care less. If she's amused, she smiles. If she's irritated, she'll frown. She won't make a move to enhance her present popularity or pause before making another that might injure it.

Like Ann Widdecombe, who's recently edged herself forward to the front line of an unusual species: politicians who speak from profound personal conviction. First she was universally loathed, not only for manacling pregnant prisoners, but also - unfairly - because she is undeniably plain. When she made it clear that she did not care what people thought of her looks, and neither was she prepared to change her views to affect the opinion polls, her personal popularity surged. She has said that she's enjoying it, but it hasn't swayed her; she'll ride the next downturn with the same sang froid.

It seems there are few famous Authentics, largely because the media prefers pert and pretty to the terminally serious. So we'll just have to live with the fact that we are never likely to see Miss Widdecombe wrestling with a snake on the cover of Tatler. However, every so often an Authentic becomes famous almost by accident - like Barbara Woodhouse, the "dog lady" - and, like her, they tend to be eccentrics. Or perhaps any woman who is robustly true to herself and doesn't trouble herself about appearances will always be deemed eccentric. They pop up in politics, like Beckett, Widdecombe and Glenda Jackson. Mrs Thatcher, despite being stern, was only a pseudo-Authentic: she cared too much about her image to qualify. The Royal Family has had a fair number, led by Queen Victoria, who was regally indifferent to her 10-year unpopularity after Albert's death, and merely accepted it as her due when the tide turned in her favour.

Authentics are everywhere in private life, working solidly behind the scenes: committed people who do what they know (or believe) to be right. Recognition tends to come late. Unlike the bimbos, who blaze brightly for a while before others start unkindly counting the wrinkles, Authentics get better with age. James Bond's squeezes come and go, but Miss Moneypenny endures.

The Authentic woman is probably not a role model - few of us want to be exactly like her - but she is an example, and also a sounding board. OK, so she's not going to join in with the latest gossip and her husband's hardly the wit of the party. But Miss Authentic's a bullshit detector, because she's not concerned about opinion polls or consensus. That's why her good opinion counts. It's honest.

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