A Prima donna who ought to know better

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The Independent Online
You're very lucky that I've got time to write this at all because I'm a very busy woman you know. Places to go, people to see, cheese to freeze. You know how it is combining career, children and cable-knit jumpers all in one day. Cherie Booth certainly does and shares her thoughts as guest editor of Prima. Clearly she has taken the advice proffered in the magazine. October, apparently, is the month to "Look more confident", "Improve your kid's handwriting", or "play conkers" with them. Cherie may be a top QC but could she have thought of this all by herself?

Possibly her mission to appear ordinary enough for people to vote for her husband was influenced by Prima's excellent advice. If there is not enough joy in your life it recommends "Making a list", and "Acting happy". "Smiling triggers happy feelings in the brain". Cherie tries out her new tight-lipped look as she sits barefoot on what looks like a fridge. She goes to tea at the Ritz with Prima readers, who ask her difficult questions like "How old are your children?" She is happy to be associated with a magazine that offers this imaginative time-saving tip: "Set the alarm clock 15 minutes earlier than normal and get out of bed at once. Time saved: 15 minutes."

Still, it's all in a good cause isn't it? The cause of getting the C2 female vote. If the Tories are going to wheel out Norma of the Used Tea Bags then Cherie will have to be made into Our Lady of the Nutritious Meal in Thirty Minutes.

Despite that punitive phrase, "career woman", the fact is that many women with children work. What is so threatening about Cherie that requires not just softening but airbrushing out of existence? When women are extraordinarily successful, why do we want to make them more ordinary? Surely, for men, the reverse is true. Deeply average men are prepared to mythologise themselves in order to appear extraordinary.

Does this rampant domestication of high-flying women actually do what it is designed to do in the first place? Only if we believe it. I believe that Cherie is intending to spend 20 hours knitting herself a complicated- looking sweater as much as I believe that Hillary Clinton lives for baking. In fact, while desperately trying to make these women appear less threatening, it turns them into cartoon superwomen who manage to do everything they turn their hands to, brilliantly.

This really is irritating because these images set yet more unrealistic standards for the rest of us. It is not enough to rush around doing it all: we now have to make it look effortless. There is no room for tiredness here, the days when you are too exhausted to make it to the microwave, never mind making a Hallowe'en soup. Cherie relaxes in the gym, for god's sake! Making labour look invisible is of course a feminine speciality. Prima even advises us on how to maintain the mystery in our relationships with men. The mystery is that we still have the energy between sewing samplers and covering our homes with roses, but if we do then we are not to do certain things in front of them. We must not shave our legs in case the poor darlings finally realise that women are not born hairless. We must not eat corn on the cob - slobbering and dribbling puts them off. We must not talk to our girlfriends (it's too intimate) or admit to hangovers. I suspect breathing is probably better done in private too, but if you must insist on doing it in front of your boyfriend make sure you use home- made breath freshener.

The depressing thing is that an admirable woman like Cherie has chosen to preside over this load of cack. Powerful women must still disturb us so much that they have to shore up their femininity in the most traditional of ways. If power, in the public imagination, de-sexes women then it must be countered with the ultimate feminine masquerade.

Yet this is a game that works to all women's disadvantage as we then all become subject to such terrible scrutiny. No wonder that our role models are more likely to be Patsy from Ab Fab than yet another housewife- superstar. It doesn't matter who you are: these days you had better know a trick or two with lip-liner. Camilla Parker Bowles may have a few things on her mind, but guess what, Camilla - the important thing is to brush the dog hairs off your skirt and get on some slap.

All this in the name of softening one's image, yet what we need are women who are not "hard", just truthful, for there is also a fundamental dishonesty in all this. Even Do-It-Alls like Cherie don't do it all by themselves. I remember once asking Edwina Currie if she ever felt guilty that she employed people to look after her children. "Goodness me," she exclaimed, "I didn't get all that education just to stay at home." In order for many of us to work, a new and largely female servant class has been created. They are the nannies, au pairs and child-minders without whom it would be difficult for many of us to manage. If we admit we need help on this score, that it is impossible to do it all, why keep up the pretence in all other areas? Guilt surfaces in the form of spurts of domestic over- compensation and the spurious notion of quality time. Men by and large seem to have escaped the urge to rush home and make jam to prove what well-rounded individuals they are.

Nor do they receive advice in men's magazines telling them not to burp, shave or slobber in public. Quite the contrary. Are we still so unused to powerful women that we must insult the intelligence of an entire gender by this ridiculous charade? Still, as long as women collude in this behaviour, wrapping themselves up in the high maintenance ideology of unquestionable femininity, rather than slobbing out just like the boys, then magazines like Prima, "For women who ought to know better", will sell. Prima has done well out of this little deal, and the Labour leadership have shown us just how low they are prepared to go with Cherie "I couldn't believe my luck" Booth. Her new softie image puts even more pressure on the women who try to emulate it. Being soft is too much like hard work.

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