We won't sign up to the male agenda

We females don't seem to get enthused by the same things, and we don't think the same way (it seems) as men do
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The Independent Online

The Dyson vacuum cleaner has triumphantly cornered the American market, and one of the main reasons (we're told by commentators) is because men are attracted to its bright yellow trimmings, its powerful sound and its "dual cyclone" action. Suddenly, sucking up the dust from the carpet is an acceptable pursuit along with home decorating and DIY.

The Dyson vacuum cleaner has triumphantly cornered the American market, and one of the main reasons (we're told by commentators) is because men are attracted to its bright yellow trimmings, its powerful sound and its "dual cyclone" action. Suddenly, sucking up the dust from the carpet is an acceptable pursuit along with home decorating and DIY.

Hunter Thompson dies and many men mourn - I didn't notice any of the eulogies (from Duncan Campbell to Ralph Steadman) for the founder of Gonzo journalism being written by women. This paper printed a letter from a disgruntled female reader objecting to our in-depth coverage. I am a fan of Hunter Thompson, but find his deification in death a bit mystifying.

Meanwhile, Ken Livingstone, like a naughty boy in the playground, not only refuses to apologise but gives us all a further lecture on his convoluted thought processes. Would a female mayor really have continued with this strutting and posturing, this singularly macho behaviour? How much of the time he could have spent sorting out the crisis on the London Underground has been taken up with writing a self-justifying treatise? I'm sorry, can't the bloke just move on? Sadly, few women have stood for this particular political office, for very good reason - more in a moment.

When I was trying to control a class of rowdy eight year olds as a temporary supply teacher last autumn, one snivelling small boy came up and announced: "So and so has just accused me of being a homosexual". Faced with a tricky moment, I broke one of the new politically-correct teaching guidelines and carefully inspected his skull.

"You're absolutely fine," I replied. "Nothing to worry about - I can't spot anything funny growing out of the top of your head." With that, I walked off, leaving them bemused but beaten in their attempt to create an embarrassing moment.

We females are a tricky bunch aren't we? We're problematic, because we fail to sign up to an agenda largely created by men. We just don't buy into the same mythology. From the Dyson cleaner (perfectly fine but just a tool to do the job, not something to eulogise over) to Hunter Thompson (a decent writer, but how relevant these days?) to Ken's Big Strop (how big an ego can one man have?), we don't seem to get enthused about the same things, don't have the same priorities and we don't think (it seems) the way men do.

We must have something funny growing on the top of our heads. Yet now women are being courted in lots of new ways, and a forthcoming general election means that politicians of all persuasions have gone round and totted up the female vote they need to attract. They could have chosen to target the number of non voters disillusioned by the war in Iraq, the appallingly low state pension, the feeble pay we reward teachers with, or the Government's unpleasant attitude to asylum-seekers and people suspected of "terrorism", but they didn't.

Tessa Jowell and Estelle Morris have said that the confrontational nature of mainstream politics is macho and a turn-off for female voters. Whether this is true or not, there is a problem when it comes to engaging in a dialogue with women. Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, might be flavour of the week, with daily sound bites and pronouncements on everything from school meals to A-levels, but let's not forget that the biggest bully boy in New Labour, Alastair Campbell, is back and playing a key role in running the election campaign.

Tony Blair decides to appear live on television, and even though women in the audience trashed him, I guarantee he'll be putting himself up for more punishment within the month. The reason? Polls predict that Labour will only attract 36 per cent of the female vote in the coming election, a drop of 8 per cent since 1997, and there are forecasts that up to 22 per cent of women aged between 55 and 64 are undecided about how to vote.

This week, the Liberal Democrats released a manifesto aimed at appealing to elusive female voters, and Charles Kennedy has pledged to increase maternity pay. A shame his wife hasn't actually had the baby she's expecting yet, because then he would probably be pledging to increase the pittance paid to midwives as a result of his birthing experience. But the Lib Dems had no choice - both Labour and the Tories have offered increases in maternity pay and benefits as part of their new quest for women voters.

The Lib Dems have also belatedly discovered there is an "alarming" rise in the number of women in jail under Labour, and plan to tackle that, too. At least the female prisoners are not currently chained to their beds as some were during Michael Howard's tenure as the home secretary. When I wrote here of the plight of all women in jail a year ago, there was a deafening silence from MPs of all parties; there aren't enough votes involved for anyone to seriously bother coming up with alternatives to incarceration for petty female criminals. But in the current climate, with the Lib Dems setting out their new female-friendly stall, every little helps to improve your credentials.

I do wish that politics wasn't driven by men intent on stressing the difference between the sexes, who try to tailor policies like carrots to appeal to discrete groups of voters. Why can't politicians seek to engage all the citizens of this country in the democratic process by encouraging them to participate in how we are governed? As the membership of the main parties continues to drop, instead of focusing on first-time voters and the prospect of the lowest turnout for decades, each new week brings another set of little treats on offer rather than any strategic thinking. For most people, men and we difficult-to-please women, there's not a lot to choose between any of the parties.

Mass disillusionment with the current three-party system is like a secret epidemic that no one in politics wants to address. Appealing to women voters is a cynical ploy that won't work, because politics treats women who want to enter the profession as second best.

Researchers at Exeter University looked at the Scottish elections in 2003 and discovered that female candidates were more likely to be fighting seats that had been lost by bigger margins than their male counterparts. The 13 women who stood tried to win seats that had been lost by 34.4 per cent in the previous election, while 57 men fought seats lost by an average of 28.2 per cent last time around.

The pattern in England is certain to be similar. Women don't need Estelle Morris or Tessa Jowell to reinforce the image that politics is a profession which doesn't take women seriously until there's an election in the offing and their vote might be needed.

If you look at the list of main party donors, from Michael Ashcroft to Stuart Wheeler to Sir Christopher Ondaatje to Lord Drayson, there isn't a successful female entrepreneur among them. Not exactly a vote of confidence in the current system.

According to the Economic and Social Research Council, not only do British women work some of the longest hours in Europe, no matter how much they earn they are more likely to be doing the housework and taking responsibility for looking after the kids. It doesn't matter how many vote-catching initiatives everyone dreams up, some things never change.

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