Two women of Hackney: In one London borough, contrasting lives that have set the nation attitudinising. The moral: better a Tory mistress than a lesbian headmistress. Ruth Picardie reports

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This is a story about two women of Hackney, one called Julia and one called Jane. Both are in their mid-30s, both enjoy successful careers: Julia is a solicitor in the City, Jane is the headteacher at a local primary school. Both live in non-nuclear families: Julia is a single parent, whose mother lives nearby and looks after her grand-daughter; Jane is a lesbian who lives with her lover and her lover's three children. They became famous last month, as participants in two different political sex scandals. Now, however, Julia is in Lanzarote and Jane is in hiding.

This week, Julia Stent, 34, former lover of Tim Yeo MP, appeared on the cover of Hello] - the ultimate, of course, in celebrity endorsement. Inside, readers were invited into her house in Hackney's only leafy enclave, De Beauvoir town, to meet her seven-month-old daughter and to hear Julia's thoughts on pregnancy and birth. 'Claudia's name means 'a gift from God',' she explained, 'and that is exactly how I view her. She is the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me.'

Julia is hopeful about the future: 'I'm hoping that they (baby and Yeo) will have a good relationship as she gets bigger. As I understand it, men are better with children when they are a bit bigger. Babies tend to be much better with their mothers and men come into their own a bit more when the child begins to form a personality.'

Meanwhile, Jane Brown, 36, the Hackney headteacher who turned down the reduced-price ballet tickets offered to some of her pupils by the Hamlyn Foundation, has received sackloads of hate mail; at least two death threats have been telephoned to Kingsmead primary school. Hackney's director of education, Gus John, has called for her suspension.

After being coerced into putting her name to a grovelling apology, she has now been prohibited from making any public statement at all. Her last reported words on her ordeal were made at a school meeting, to Gus John. 'I am not talking to you again,' she said. 'You have ruined my life.'

Julia has come out of her ordeal on top - in the words of Hello], 'pale and drawn' but 'the vision of a happy first-time mother' - and, of course, several thousand pounds richer. She is currently on holiday in Lanzarote with her mother, a wise precaution given the mild telling off she has received this week from the Mail and Telegraph. Having been scooped by Hello], both papers are contenting themselves with lame calls of 'shame' and criticism of her taste in soft furnishings.

Overall, there has been nothing but praise for Julia. Her career is flourishing. Hackney feels like a good place to live: 'My situation here is accepted,' she says. 'It might not have been so if I had lived in the middle of the countryside.'

Julia Stent's story is a simple one: she was a mistress, no more no less, who roused the interest of the press because her lover was a Conservative minister. The story was given a further

boost when she provided the means to taunt an unpopular Prime Minister and his back-to-basics campaign.

In a country in which at least one in three children is born out of wedlock, it is difficult to sustain moral outrage at the sexual choices made by Julia Stent. 'She is a superb girl, said a Tory colleague,' ran a Daily Mail caption on 1 January, under a picture of Julia smiling, made-up, wearing ear-rings and a nice blouse. Today reported, variously, on Yeo's 'attractive mistress', an 'attractive brunette'. According to Auberon Waugh, in the Daily Telegraph, she was 'attractive and heroic'. Even the good ladies of Suffolk saved their ire for her lover who was, after all, a married man.

There is no chance of Jane Brown appearing in Hello]. She has become a pariah. Jane Brown works in the notoriously deprived Kingsmead estate. She was appointed deputy head of the local primary school in 1989, and promoted to headteacher in October 1991.

She did an excellent job; the school has been removed from the Government's 'at risk' register; praise had been heaped on it by the school inspectors. The school's equal opportunities policies - including prohibiting the use of words such as 'nigger' and 'bitch' - were part and parcel of its success.

Since Jane Brown has been silenced, it is hard to know exactly what happened last September. As I understand it, she turned down pounds 7 tickets for Prokofiev's ballet Romeo and Juliet for a range of reasons, including the cost of transport and the school's policy of taking all pupils on trips. She also made some reference to the play's heterosexism.

No one batted an eyelid until 20 January, when the Evening Standard ran a story on the refused tickets. The story - trivial, parochial and of dubious provenance - has run and run. Why?

It was extremely convenient for the Tory party to have attention diverted away from Yeo and its disastrous back-to-basics campaign, but to suggest that the story was 'planted' in the Standard runs dangerously close to Oliver Stone-style conspiracy theory.

(Photograph omitted)

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