Behind every great man is a great woman - and what the hell is she still doing back there?

From SamCam to Roy Lichtenstein's mistress: a relationship with a powerful man isn't usually an achievement it itself - so why is it still so celebrated?

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During this week’s visit to India, David Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to boosting the number of women in power with a nod to the policy advice of a powerful woman in his life: “My wife likes to say that if you don’t have women in the top places, you are not just missing out on 50 per cent of the talent, you are missing out on a lot more than 50 per cent of the talent.”

Though ostensibly at the expense of men, this compliment to his wife is really given as a sop to ambitious women in general.  It likely doesn’t represent much in the way of actual legislation, since the PM made the same vague promise during his trip to Sweden last February and nothing much has changed. Instead, Mrs Cameron’s husband has remembered to put the metaphorical seat down on the toilet that is the British status quo: a great milestone in their personal domestic bliss, perhaps, a meaningless gesture for gender equality. 

The cosy Cameron family joke is also a reminder that behind every great man is a great woman – and what the hell is she still doing back there? As long as SamCam’s personal achievements remain overshadowed by her husband’s – she may yet surprise us with an edgy album of bluegrass covers in later life – she joins the ranks of many women, talented and untalented alike, whose public persona is defined by their relationship to a powerful man.

There’s Alma Hitchcock, revealed to be a major collaborator in her husband’s films by the recent biopic starring Helen Mirren. Or Roy Lichtenstein’s widow Dorothy, who has curated the current exhibition of her husband’s work at Tate Modern. Meanwhile, over at the London Evening Standard, a two-page interview with Roy Lichtenstein’s mistress on the role she played in his legacy offers proof that the talent gene has mutated faster than the coronavirus. It is now a highly contagious STD.

Those humble souls who toil on behind the scenes deserve all the belated praise they get. But why – in the name of Denis Thatcher – are most of them women? The disproportionate number of women that make up our culture’s sainted spouses and mistress-muses points to the fact that this role is – or ought to be – a relic of an era when the only outlet for female creativity was via a man. Is this a retro choice we really want our media to celebrate? Reflected glory is ok, but it’s no recompense for a lifetime of frustrated ambition.

Cut and Run

According to a new survey, more than a third of us delay seeing a doctor because of the difficulty of making an appointment. Clearly, as a people, we need to be more assertive in our dealings with NHS receptionists, but there’s little hope. Most of us can’t even be assertive with the hairdresser’s receptionist, and she doesn’t encapsulate within her person an entire nation’s dreams of a more equal post-war society.

Last week, I got a haircut so bad that the hairdresser stopped half-way through to reassure me it would eventually “grow into itself”. The final result is the exact same style worn by American serial killer Aileen Wuornos, during her years terrorising Florida motorway service stations. Did I inform the salon of my misgivings? Or take a stand in the name of all victims of bad haircuts and demand, at the very least, a discount? Certainly not. I complimented the work and left a £10 tip. It’s the British way.

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