Helen Wilkinson: Hillary, Harriet, and a case of giving as good as you get

Both these women challenge a political culture founded, and promoted, by men

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Hillary, don't you just love her? Well, I'm sure that a standard and popular response even from many women, is, "No, actually". If you're a liberal man of course, you're probably spitting other expletives or laughing with your male peers at the sheer idiocy of the question. Hillary Clinton, like our own Harriet Harman, has a way of dividing opinion into black or white.

She came in for criticism verging almost on the pathological during her ill-fated campaign to run as the Democrat President. This week she's stolen the headlines again – and her critics have waded in once again to give her a good kicking, for daring to respond abruptly to a questioner who asked her to account for what her husband thought on this issue. "My husband is not Secretary of State. I am," she retorted. "And I am not going to be channeling my husband".

Hillary of course is not the only woman politician to come unstuck this month. Our own Harriet Harman has come in for some of the most brutal comment for her short time at the helm of running our country. Among the New Labour hierarchy she's been criticised as divisive (for introducing a bit of seriousness and conviction into politics again). It's been hinted that she is all over the place, driven by personal ambition, not conviction.

There's been no end to it. Harman's character has been attacked; from the company she keeps (her husband), to her leadership style (too divisive – interestingly the same criticism levelled at Hillary Clinton by her critics), to the way she looks, to whether she is shaggable. The lot.

And her crimes?

Well, what are her crimes? For not working all the hours God sends. For pushing reform on the rape laws. For sparking a debate about the virtues (or vices of) men-only leadership. In short for putting gender issues, and women's issues firmly on the map. Well, I guess that is a crime when we've got a "mancession" going on, and when the secondary symptoms of this crisis is a rise in alcohol abuse and drug dependence, and rising levels of domestic violence.

Harriet – whatever you might think of her character or even her politics – cannot be portrayed as one of those women politicians who pulls up the ladder for other women behind her. She has remained resilient, dogged some would say, in pursuit of the feminist agenda on which she made her name, as a young politician years before New Labour was born.

And here's the paradox. At the heart of the New Labour elite, there remains a deep antipathy to the kind of progressive gender politics that was so central to modernisation. New Labour has always been much more comfortable with feminisation (female window dressing) as opposed to feminism, the social movement from within and beyond Labour's ranks. When it comes to welcoming, valuing and tolerating strong, assertive, confident women who are not just prepared to be window dressing, New Labour problematises and pathologises them. And they have often merited some of the most insidious sniping, and briefing against them, for being off message, not team players. You get the drift.

Remember Mo Mowlam? She only became Saint Mo after a deadly illness, and public sympathy and a media backlash/fightback against Tony Blair and New Labour's briefings against her. Before that she merited insidious sniping, from her physical appearance to her "shaky" intellect. Even her illness was subtly used to undermine her performance, and reputation.

Hazel Blears and Caroline Flint, part of the Stilleto Sisterhood, came in for a sniper campaign based around naked career ambition, then emotionalism, character weakness, and lack of backbone for the cut and thrust of politics (though it must be said they rather stilletoed themselves, by the manner of their ill-fated coup attempt). But it's the subtle, insidious way these criticisms are levelled – the drip-drip effect – against women's capacities to hack it at the top that poisons the body politic and undermines strong, independent, feisty women.

This culture of misogyny has historic roots that long pre-date New Labour and probably goes right back to the story of Original Sin and Adam and Eve. This association of women as on the verge of emotionalism, madness and insanity is one of the prevailing cultural narratives and it still lives on in the double standard we impose on men and women in public positions. Hillary momentarily lost her cool for sure this week, but it doesn't take much insight to understand why.

Imagine what she must go through on a daily level. Every day she has to face down people who find it difficult to accept women as power-brokers and leaders in their own right, and who project their partner's political prowess or influence on to them as if they are but puppets of their male masters or can rarely speak with their own independent voice. (An experience I can empathise with when I was one half of a minor power couple during the heady days of the Blairite think tank Demos).

Hillary's response was firm and robust. As tough as a man's, betraying little of the emotionalism that the commentators suspect (or like to project) lies within. Yet the critics of Hillary and the femocracy cannot let it lie. They know that the more they attack, the more they can rattle their enemies to the point where they betray the kind of emotionalism, or behaviour that allows them to stick the boot in further. And then they hope they have proved their misogynistic point.

Harriet Harman unnerves both the New Labour hierarchy, and large swathes of the commentariat in much the same way as Hillary. She inspires fear and loathing because she refuses to go away. She refuses to be rattled into political submission and has re-drawn the map for political comebacks, just as Hillary might in the future. She remains one of the most potent symbols of the political staying power of a woman career politician.

And to make her critics madder still, far from playing the game of power-broking at the top, Harriet has simply used her position, to campaign on the issues she cares about most. She, unlike many of her critics, has remained consistent to her political values. That she is also not averse to positioning herself for a potential leadership bid in the future just means she knows how to outsmart her male peers at their own game. The personal after all is political. In this case party leadership political.

The bile projected at Harriet (like Hillary) is the result of the threat she poses to the epicentre of political power. She challenges a political and media culture, founded by men, promoted by men, and defended by men. And what's most infuriating to some is that no amount of criticism – from the personally obnoxious and insulting (Rod Liddle's idea of shagging her after a boozy night out) to the most targeted attacks on her intellectual and leadership capacities – is enough to stop her from bouncing back.

There's a sign on my feisty independent, unmarried, childless, single fiftysomething girlfriend's red car which comes to mind. "Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History". I think it sums Harriet and Hillary up.

Helen Wilkinson is co-founder of www.myheroines.com and www.hagsharlotsheroines.com

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