Christina Patterson: Lessons in modern womanhood from the world and his wife

The Saturday Column

Share
Related Topics

So, now we know what you need to be the most powerful woman in the world. It's really very simple. What you need to be is a wife.

That's a wife not in the sense that Gordon Brown needed to be a husband, in order to show that he had, on at least a handful of occasions, managed to swap endogenous growth theory for sexual intercourse, and also, of course, that he wasn't gay, which ought to be fine but which, judging by the number of politicians who have tried to hide it when they are, seems not to be. No, it's a wife in the sense of that's who you are, that's how you're defined, and that, in the end, is your job.

Michelle Obama, it's true, happens be married to the most powerful man in the world. But she was married to him last year, when Forbes magazine rated her the 40th most powerful woman in the world. She doesn't, it's fair to say, shape the foreign policy of the world's only superpower; she doesn't run the world's fifth biggest economy; she doesn't even host the world's most successful talk show. But she beats the women who do to the number one slot, because, according to the executive managing editor of Forbes Woman, this year's list is "weighted more towards media attention and social influence". And Michelle Obama, it's clear, has gained more, and better, media attention since she became less strident and more – well, wifely.

The world has almost forgotten the fistbumps, and the lukewarm statements of national pride (both of which were clear indications of incipient terrorism). What it sees instead is a tall, slim, coiffed, buffed, super-elegant woman with a neat helmet of reassuringly Western-looking hair, and such magnificent arms that you feel that all future statues of multi-armed goddesses should be modelled on them. It sees a woman who's filmed digging vegetables in the organic garden she has created, and telling the nation that overeating makes you fat. It sees a woman who can make or break a career by the choice of her frock.

You just can't underestimate the power of a frock. There was a time when politicians' wives just had to look neat and unobtrusive. Nowadays, they can't set a stilettoed foot out of the door without having their entire outfit subjected to a rigorous taxonomy. It started here, I think, with Cherie Blair, whose fashion faux pas were almost as frequent as her verbal ones and contributed to memorable moments like the one where her ex-nude-model "lifestyle guru" was photographed showing her that lipstick goes on lips.

Sarah Brown, who gave up her job when she married her high-maintenance husband, and who, like Michelle, brought home-grown veg to the corridors of power (and who also, like Michelle, gave a he's-very-irritating-but-he's-my-hero speech at a strategic moment, perhaps not realising that it tends to work rather better with someone who's perceived as a hero than with someone who's perceived as very irritating), arrived in Downing Street looking a bit frumpy and a bit dumpy, but left looking really rather gorgeous. In the meantime, she had acquired a supermodel as a new best friend, and a wardrobe of designer dresses. Because suddenly, it seemed, if you were on the left you had to be a patron of a heartwarming international charity called "British fashion" and you had to look as though your political role models didn't include Shirley Williams.

If you're on the right, it's trickier. If, for example, you're someone who's never been the least bit interested in politics, but happen to be married to someone who's always quite fancied being prime minister, and you get paid nearly three times a prime minister's salary for working for a stationery company, and you're naturally very pretty and slender, and look good in pretty much anything, then you'll make sure that you're photographed in clothes from shops you didn't even know existed, shops where you don't even necessarily know the name of the person who designed your frock! But it doesn't matter, because it's all great fun, and your husband says that it's important to look as though you're "in touch" with ordinary people, though the ordinary people you've seen on those ghastly staycations you have to do for the cameras all seem to be wearing leggings which, from the size of them, they probably shouldn't.

And so, at the conference where your husband talks about becoming prime minister, you wear a dress from M&S (which everyone thought cost £65 but which, in fact, they had to make specially) and at the conference where your husband actually is Prime Minister, you wear a dress that costs £749, which is a lot less than one of the handbags you designed, because, well, because he's Prime Minister and you can't go on pretending to be a prole for ever.

The main thing to remember if you're a leader's wife is that you need to look good, but not too good. You want the men to fancy you and the women to think they'd like to look like you, not, à la Carla, that they hate your guts. You need to look as though you're interested in things like dresses, shoes, handbags, vegetables, cooking, charity and health. And you need to look as though your husband is your hero and you are his helpmate. Which means that if you have a job, unless it's something like a "creative director", you should probably give it up.

If this is the new politics, then, as David Cameron said, when Neil Kinnock boasted that he'd got his "party back", you can keep it.

Out of the shadows and into the line of fire

He may be a monster of familial indifference, but it looks as though the murdering younger Miliband can put together a pretty good Shadow Cabinet. To appoint as shadow Chancellor a man who triggers the kind of gooey feelings that most women experience on glimpsing a baby is a bit of a masterstroke, particularly when his opposite number looks more and more like a man who'd be even happier fine-tuning waterboarding techniques at Guantanomo.

And to appoint as shadow Foreign Secretary a woman who used to work as an Independent journalist, and who I saw on the bus on Tuesday, and who, from the little I know about her, seems jolly nice, and jolly bright, but without the kind of seething ambition that destroys brothers or spouses – well, it just shows the kind of people that The Independent employs. And to appoint as shadow Home Secretary her husband, who is, in every sense of the word a "heavyweight", but who, as shadow Chancellor might have been an albatross, and thus to avert what everyone would have insisted on calling another "psychodrama", was a relief all round. And then there's Andy Burnham: saved for the nation, thank goodness, as shadow Education Secretary, so our children can grow up believing that you can be a politician and also a lovely boy.

For the next four-and-a-half years, of course, these people won't control so much as a paperclip. But let the entertainment, and the battle, commence.

How I learnt to be an armchair revolutionary

Excellent news this week. Sales of expensive and complicated vacuum cleaners are down. So are sales of freezers and so are sales of cookers, tumble dryers and dishwashers. At this rate, there soon won't be a kitchen sink for women to be chained to.

Rarely an "early adopter" in other spheres (and still a stranger to the tweet and the poke), I'm proud to say that I've been the Emmeline Pankhurst of this anti-domestic revolution. You don't have to go on marches; you don't have to wave placards; you don't have to have tubes stuck down your throat, or play cat and mouse, or leap under horses. All you have to do is very little indeed. It's a fine art and, to paraphrase Sylvia Plath, one I do exceptionally well.

A few years ago, my Henry vacuum cleaner, which has big eyelashed eyes a bit like Andy Burnham's, which gaze out at you in a reproachful way that suggests a very neglectful owner, gave up the ghost. When I took it to the electrical shop, they told me to change the bag. I'd had it for seven years. The bags come in packets of 10. My pension arrangements may be a disaster, but at least the dust bags should see me out.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits  

So who, really, is David Cameron, our re-elected ‘one nation’ Prime Minister?

Andrew Grice
Time travel: Thomas Cook has been trading since 1841  

A horror show from Thomas Cook that tells you all you need to know about ethical consumerism

Janet Street-Porter
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?
Season's finale brings the end of an era for top coaches and players across the continent

The end of an era across the continent

It's time to say farewell to Klopp, Clement, Casillas and Xavi this weekend as they move on to pastures new, reports Pete Jenson
Bin Laden documents released: Papers reveal his obsession with attacking the US and how his failure to keep up with modern jihad led to Isis

'Focus on killing American people'

Released Bin Laden documents reveal obsession with attacking United States
Life hacks: The innovations of volunteers and medical workers are helping Medécins Sans Frontières save people around the world

Medécins Sans Frontières's life hacks

The innovations of volunteers and medical workers around the world are helping the charity save people
Ireland's same-sex marriage vote: As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?

Same-sex marriage

As date looms, the Irish ask - how would God vote?
The underworld is going freelance: Why The Godfather's Mafia model is no longer viable

The Mafia is going freelance

Why the underworld model depicted in The Godfather is no longer viable