It is a revolution of sorts, bringing avowed feminists such as Anna Coote, the deputy director of the Institute of Public Policy Research who has been appointed special adviser to Ms Harman, into influential official positions for the first time. Besides Ms Harman, half a dozen powerful women - including the overseas development minister Clare Short and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mo Mowlam - will have places on the Cabinet sub-committee.
"Labour's sisterhood embark on their mission for change" was the Daily Telegraph's take on events, and its readers were quick to respond. Ms Harman "is promoting an outdated ideology and the fruits will be injustice, social tension and further family break up", an outraged female correspondent announced in Thursday's letters column. In reality, while many column inches since the election have been devoted to the record number of women MPs elected to the House of Commons, the events of the last few weeks hardly amount to a feminist breakthrough.
What we have been celebrating is a rise in the number of women MPs from fewer than one in ten to around one in five - progress but hardly equality. The last United Nations rankings for female representation in parliament put Britain (when the House of Lords is included) 56th in the world. In Sweden and Norway, for example, women hold around 40 per cent of seats. In Denmark, a third of the country's elected representatives are female; in New Zealand the figure is 29 per cent.
What has happened, in effect, is that Britain has finally caught up with Spain and Australia, where female representation is around one-fifth, but continues to lag behind other European countries such as Germany, where it is currently a quarter. At the same time, the debate that followed this week's announcements would seem anachronistic in countries such as France, where President Mitterrand appointed a Minister for Women's Rights as long ago as 1981. (Its predecessor, the absurdly named Ministry for the Feminine Condition, set up in 1974, concerned itself chiefly with the traditional French obsession of keeping up the birth rate.) Mitterrand's innovation is credited with a whole range of legislation giving women rights to equality in employment and within marriage, but what it does not seem to have done is encourage them into political careers. Until last weekend's Socialist victory, the number of parliamentary seats held by women was a paltry 6 per cent.
In Britain, the justification for setting up a women's unit and a Cabinet sub-committee is obvious. It is the undeniable fact that conventional politics has signally failed to address the needs of women in fields like employment, education, child care and transport. We are under-represented in Parliament, in top managerial positions, in the police force, and over- represented in all those statistics and tables that relate to poverty. Nine out of ten single parents are female, many of them dependent on state benefits, while women who go out to work are bunched at the lower end of any graph comparing male and female incomes. According to government figures for 1994, a third of women with full-time jobs earned pounds 190 a week or less, compared with only 13 per cent of men. The Central Statistical Office observed in a report published only two years ago that "while women in non-manual occupations clearly earn more than those in manual occupations, women in both groups ... earn less than their male counterparts".
Even in jobs where women make up a substantial majority of the workforce, such as education, they are under-represented in the top echelons. In the early years of this decade, when women made up 81 per cent of teachers in nursery and primary schools, only 57 per cent of heads and deputy heads were female. The pattern was repeated in secondary schools, where half the teachers were women but fewer than a third of heads and deputy heads were female.
It is against this background of consistent under-achievement, and a corresponding link between women and poverty, that Tony Blair has attempted to fulfil his pledge to set up a Ministry for Women. Ms Harman's appointment was announced immediately after the election yet the fact that she has another job in Cabinet - she is also Secretary of State for Social Security - combined with the four-week delay in announcing the setting-up of her support unit and a Cabinet sub-committee, has prompted questions in the minds of many broadly sympathetic to her new role. More problematic still is the absence of any reference in this week's proposals to the absolutely essential ingredient for a successful Ministry for Women, which is the power to spend money. Ms Harman may examine other ministers' briefing papers as much as she likes but unless she can persuade them to fund the proposals she comes up with, the Ministry for Women and its support unit will be little more than a talking shop.
This brings us to the heart of the problem. Mr Blair's government has voluntarily landed itself with the most restrictive spending targets of any British government since the Second World War. Moreover, Ms Harman made it clear immediately after the election that she sees herself, in her other role as Social Security supremo, as a cost-cutting minister. She would be tough, she said, on benefit fraud and the notion of benefits for life - obvious targets when the Government is looking for ways to cut down expenditure in this area.
Yet this is a policy with direct effects on single mothers, who currently cost the Government around pounds 8bn a year in benefits. Labour's proposals to get this group back to work cannot be carried through without a commitment to a huge and expensive expansion in the facilities available for child care; it is a classic example of a case in which, to save money in the long term, the Government needs to spend generously in the short term. So Ms Harman may find herself reducing government expenditure in one of her departments, only to see costs rocket in the other. It is far from clear, at the moment, how she intends to tackle this contradiction.
Nor has anything been said this week about conflicts between the Ministry for Women and the Treasury. Many of the single mothers whom Ms Harman wishes to send back to work are unskilled, or have qualifications that have become outdated while they were bringing up children. The kinds of jobs available to them are likely to be poorly paid, which means they have a direct interest in the level at which Labour eventually decides to set a minimum wage. Will Ms Harman have the clout in Cabinet to insist that a figure is chosen that will compensate them for the loss of income support, housing benefit, free prescriptions and so on?
In fact, it is almost impossible to think of areas in which beneficial changes can be made to women's lives without costing money. To take just one obvious example: the Government would like us to cut down on the use of cars but for many women, particularly in rural areas, this is not an option unless ministers are prepared to invest in a public transport system that is cheap, safe and reliable, especially at night.
Of course it's good news that there are so many women ministers. The Cabinet will no longer be able to ignore, as it has in the past, the fact that some of its initiatives have different effects on men and women. But appointing a Minister for Women is only the first step on a long road towards correcting the inequalities between the sexes. Women, Ms Harman wrote in a Guardian article this week, "want a government they can trust, a government that delivers". Fine words, but we have yet to discover whether Tony Blair's administration is willing to bear the cost of putting them into practice.
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