Don't bother my pretty little head...

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The Independent Online

Girls just want to have fun, which is why there are so few women intellectuals in this country. We're too busy talking about nail polish, clothes and boyfriends to bother our pretty little heads with ideas, and we shouldn't be surprised that there are so few of us on a much-discussed list of the country's intellectual elite. A very successful publicity stunt by Prospect magazine to celebrate its 100th issue came up with 88 big male brains, including the Chief Druid, Rowan Williams - sorry, that should be the current Archbishop of Canterbury - and only 12 women. The list is dull, predictable and sufficiently irritating to have prompted The Guardian into compiling its own roll call of 101 women intellectuals last week.

Cards on the table: I'm on The Guardian list (between the novelist Ali Smith and Rachel Lomax, deputy governor of the Bank of England) but not Prospect's. Some things never change, and the self-reinforcing nature of male elites is one of them. Power and privilege are invisible to the people who possess them, and Prospect has cleared itself in advance of any charge of bias. Admitting that its list is "very middle-aged, and also very male and very white", it goes on to locate the reasons not in institutional sexism but "an acknowledgement that that the big battles have been won, that sexism and race are no longer key fault-lines in our intellectual culture".

Thanks, guys. That's not how it looks from my side of this great divide, but then the men behind this exercise don't take women columnists seriously. According to David Goodhart, Prospect's Old Etonian editor, Polly Toynbee is "just a journalist" and therefore didn't make the list, unlike her colleague George Monbiot, who is styled much more grandly as a columnist and author. Toynbee's books don't count, you see, whereas the columnist Will Hutton "has a great body of work behind him". Christopher Hitchens, the male intellectuals' favourite intellectual, gets the Prospect seal of approval as an essayist and contrarian, even though he is primarily known as a columnist and most of his books offer slender pickings in comparison to his articles.

Actually, one of the things I like about women intellectuals is an ability to roam across high and low culture in an intelligent way, treating sex, fashion and the war in Iraq as equally valid subjects for analysis. A few months ago, on my way to a dinner where I knew all the other guests would be male, I met three women friends for a drink in Soho. The conversation ranged from the history of sex toys to the role of chocolate in oral sex, until I noticed the time and had to run across town to join a sober discussion of trilateralism (then a hot subject in debates about the future of the EU, and definitely not to be confused with troilism). I called my best-known book Misogynies after Barthes's Mythologies, yet some reviewers were aghast to find a chapter on Page Three girls side-by-side with a discussion of Juvenal's Sixth Satire.

Debates about who is and isn't an intellectual are hugely influenced by class and by men's practice of mutual back-slapping. Prospect's list is a mildly liberal take on the old-boy network, and anyone who challenges it risks being accused of vanity or wounded pride. I wasn't surprised to be left off, along with all the other invisible women: Jacqueline Rose, Lyndall Gordon, Caroline Coon, Ruth Deech, Claire Tomalin, Juliet Mitchell, Maureen Freely, Shere Hite, Alev Adil, Mary Beard, Nina Farhi and Helena Kennedy. The last almost made it, according to Goodhart, but she just doesn't have that elusive "body of thought" behind her. (Patronising, lui?)

And, yes, some of those named are friends of mine, but what I'm arguing is that clever women need to start promoting each other in the unashamed way men have always done. Prospect's list reflects a species of misogyny that is ingrained and largely unconscious: not hatred of women but a willed ignorance of female achievements. It's even worse if you aspire to be clever and sexy; nothing much has changed, in that sense, since Mary Wollstonecraft was accused of being a "philosophical wanton" and a "hyena in petticoats". Men dislike a woman with ideas above her station, especially if she also happens to be wearing a Wonderbra.