Media falls for women of a kind

Men still decide which women are admirable, argues Yvonne Roberts
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The Independent Online
"Sitting pretty", announced the New York Times last week as it asserted that, politically and culturally, American women had moved into the big boys' league in 1996. In Britain, too, women are expected to be thankful for small mercies. In 1996, women have not only been seen but also heard - crusading and campaigning in the media - in numbers not matched for many a year.

The shortlist for the Today programme's Personality of the Year on Radio Four, announced last week, underlines that trend. Previously a landscape of achievement populated almost entirely by the lads, this year five out of the six nominees are female - John Major being the odd man in.

The women listed include Ann Pearston, one of the major forces in the Snowdrop anti-gun campaign; Lisa Potts, who defended the children in her care from a machete attack; Frances Lawrence, who launched a crusade to "remoralise" our society after the murder of her head-teacher husband; Anne Atkins, a writer and vicar's wife who likes homosexuals so long as they're celibate and is just mad about virgins; and Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Burmese opposition who spent years under house arrest, and who now, with enormous courage, continues to defy the Burmese government.

Other women, too, have occupied the media's attention lingeringly over the past 12 months. Among them, Diane Blood, who is fighting to use her dead husband's sperm to have his child, Gwen Major, the teacher who died at Dunblane, and MP Clare Short, who was reunited with her son Toby.

In short, some British women have been standing tall enough for the men in the media not just to take note but to treat them with an alarming degree of sycophancy and syrup. The question is, why? What is it that has marked out certain women so that they have attracted carpet rolls of cloying and uncritical copy, when others who are equally eligible for public attention have been given a briefer and bloodier cudgelling by the press?

What these women possess is the qualities that fulfil the Grace Darling/Florence Nightingale syndrome. They have struck a sentimental chord with the public. They are feminine, good, conformist. It's significant that when a smear campaign was launched against Ann Pearston, the worst the rumour-mongers could come up with - erroneously - was that she was a Greenham Common graduate: in short, a thoroughly bad girl.

Nobody would diminish the suffering and bravery of women such as Lisa Potts, Frances Lawrence and Ann Pearston, but in a truly equal society they probably wouldn't merit inclusion in a contest for Personality of the Year. (Aung San Suu Kyi, on the other hand, illustrates precisely the quality of leadership that is so shabbily lacking in our own present male Establishment.)

These individuals have the qualities that men regard as symbolising the best of womanhood: protecting, defending, finding a voice for the victim - mothering, by any other name.

And nothing wrong with that. But there are many other women embroiled in less sympathetic issues - deaths in police custody, for instance - who have not been deemed worth the space. Those women who, in 1996, did not conform to male traditionalist ideas paid a tough price.

At the beginning of the year, for instance, Emma Nicholson changed political parties and was deemed "a wicked witch", "a frightful bitch" and "menopausal". As research by the pressure group Women in Journalism revealed, Alan Howarth - who also switched allegiance - was regarded as being "thoughtful", "extraordinary" and "committed".

Alison Hargreaves, who died in an attempt to climb Everest alone, was castigated in the tabloids (although the broadsheets were more generous) for failing to give motherhood a higher priority than her passion to conquer the mountain.

In a recent survey, 88 per cent of women said that national newspapers were biased against them. While a handful of woman have been attributed so much space, the coverage of issues that affect the majority on a day- to-day basis has been as damningly poor as always.

After the Budget, for instance, only a couple of newspapers described how Kenneth Clarke's "virtuous" measures didn't stretch to improve the lives of much of the female half of the population.

Again, a recent report by the Health Visitors Association, almost ignored by the press, detailed how one baby in three is born into poverty and how mothers are desperately trying to cope with debt and cold and too little cash; another strand of heroism.

Yes, 1996 has been a year for the girls - but it's been a production almost entirely stage-managed by the men.