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

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

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss