E Jane Dickson: We shouldn't have to react like Superwoman

In the lottery of casual, armed violence, Nicola Horlick was damned lucky
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Two and a half cheers, then, for Nicola "Superwoman" Horlick and her "don't let the muggers get you down" stand against street crime.

Two and a half cheers, then, for Nicola "Superwoman" Horlick and her "don't let the muggers get you down" stand against street crime.

As the world now knows, Ms Horlick, the icon of fecund capitalism famous for having five children and a six-figure salary, was attacked outside her Knightsbridge home this week by a street robber who pressed a gun to her stomach and demanded her jewellery. In a fearless display of brinkmanship, doubtless learned on City trading floors, Ms Horlick challenged her assailant to hit her, which he did; she then flicked her topaz and diamond ring into the shrubbery and made a show of looking for it until the robber, scared by the approach of a car, backed off.

"If you don't stand up to them," Horlick told the press after her ordeal, "they will think it's easy." As is statistically probable after 20 years living in the capital, I too have been mugged. Twice. On neither occasion did I display a superwoman's sang froid. The first incident happened in broad daylight, on a deserted Mayfair street. The mugger, who was not apparently armed, grabbed my bag and ran off while I, cartoonishly, cried "Stop thief!" to the empty air.

The second time was scarier. It was dark and there were five of them, with an average age of 14. My first reaction, when they demanded cash, was to scold them soundly and send them home to bed. My second reaction, when I felt a knife blade steal coldly along my nostril, was to gibber and beg. I think I may have offered to write them a cheque.

I'd like to think that my split-second decision to capitulate was, at least partly, based on regard for my family, who I reckoned would prefer me to come home minus 35 quid than to come home minus a nose. It could equally have been naked cowardice. The incident was duly reported to the local police who shrugged kindly enough and allowed me to make a phone call to a friend to come and collect me. No one suggested I contact the press.

I have, of course, no claims to mystic kinship with Nicola Horlick, whose actions and motives remain opaque, even to herself. "I had never been in a situation like that before , so I didn't know how I was going to react," she told The Daily Telegraph. "The police said it wasn't a good idea to resist and that I could have been killed, but I didn't see why I should hand anything over."

On this, as on so many counts, the differences between my own experience and Horlick's are huge and unhelpful. A more telling comparison might be the amount of column inches devoted to the Horlick case and the death of 15-year-old Charlotte Polius, who was stabbed to death at a party in Ilford this week.

In the escalating weapons culture of modern Britain, survival is not always, or even usually, a matter of personal bravery. In the lottery of casual, armed violence, Horlick was damned lucky, as was I. Charlotte Polius was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and will be remembered, except by her shattered family, as a tragic statistic.

Nicola Horlick, on the other hand, was arguably in the right place - ritzy South Kensington - and has become, not for the first time, a cause célèbre. We cannot, of course, guess at the sentimental value of the ring Horlick was prepared to guard with her life, but its actual value - some £50,000 - has been trumpeted in almost every newspaper report. Would Horlick be less of a heroine if less had been at stake? I fear she might be.

Is it too cynical too observe that the front-page coverage of Horlick's undoubtedly traumatic experience in the Telegraph and the Express (page 3 in the Daily Mail) chimes neatly with the Conservatives' manifesto claims on law and order? "We are in the middle of a national campaign, and crime is a real issue," she reminded the Mail. (The description of her assailants as "possibly from Eastern Europe" will not have passed unnoticed in the Home Counties, either.)

Horlick, 44, has long been a role model to a certain kind of feminist. She has braved many things - chief among which must have been the death of her eldest daughter from leukaemia - and come out fighting. A former fund manager, she earned her "Superwoman" stripes in the 1990s, when she famously juggled her large family with a high-profile fight to win back her job after being dismissed by Deutsche Morgan Grenfell. She went on to publish a book, Can You Have It All?, about her experiences in the City.

Following the collapse of her marriage last year, when it emerged that her husband was having an affair with a receptionist 20 years her junior, she has, in typically brisk fashion, started both a new relationship and founded her own business. In short, Horlick is the only kind of single, working mother the Conservatives can countenance - a highly successful one.

It was ever thus. The pseudo-Nietzschean concept of the Superwoman sits well with Tory sympathies; but it's a weird kind of gold-card feminism, with the emphasis less on equality than on supremacy. It reached its apogee in the Nineties, when Madonna bared her credentials - and just about everything else - as the ultimate "material girl", and was somehow accepted as a feminist icon; but the high priestess of the cult was Mrs Thatcher herself - "The Lady" (an honorific that spiked traditional feminism through the heart) who single-handedly turned a handbag into a weapon of destruction.

Their philosophies were eerily similar; screw them before they screw you, and do it in high heels. (In retrospect, it was only a matter of time before The Lady turned up at Stringfellows - beneath the royal blue serge, she was always a showgirl at heart.) Capital was Queen, and the concerns of saurian feminists such as the late Andrea Dworkin - sour-faced quibbles about equal rights and exploitation - seemed quaint and irrelevant.

The hard-sell of the Superwoman worked. We bought the idea that women were out of the woods. And we bought the most enormous pup. Sharing this week's headlines with Horlick's courageous (some would say foolhardy) stand against her male attackers is the news that Colleen McLouglin has been slapped in a nightclub by Wayne Rooney. But whereas Horlick has received nothing but sympathy for her ordeal, it is implied that McLoughlin, notwithstanding her £25,000 Tiffany ring (which should surely count for something with the Daily Mail) is something of a slapper herself, and had it coming.

Andrea Dworkin would not have made such a distinction, and nor should we. Violence against women - whatever their achievements or backgrounds - is not a spectator sport. It should not - for reasons political or otherwise - be turned into one.