Joan Smith: Influential women list is flattering but utterly flawed

The number of politicians on the British top 10 is none, nil, or to put it another way, zero
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The Independent Online

I've never been inside any of Cath Kidston's shops, but I know they sell flowery bits and pieces. I don't have any use for them myself but clearly I have failed to appreciate the huge national significance of the designer, who has just been rated the seventh most influential woman in Britain. Hard as it may be to credit, that means she has even more impact on our lives than the model Kate Moss (number eight) and only slightly less than Samantha Cameron, without whose inspirational example – she's married to the Prime Minister! She designs bags! – I would not be able to get out of bed most mornings.

Most influential of all, according to a list compiled by "a panel of top magazine editors", is the author J K Rowling. She's beaten Victoria Beckham into second place but the former Spice Girl can console herself with the fact that she's trumped that elderly woman who lives in a palace at the end of The Mall and has her face on all our postage stamps.

This week's list is less ambitious than the one published a few days ago by Forbes magazine, which set out to rate the most influential women in the entire world; I'm not accusing Forbes of bias, you understand, but eight of the top 10 turned out to be based in the US. Number one spot went to Michelle Obama, who is married to the President even though, sadly, she has yet to design her first handbag.

Two politicians, Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton, made it into the Forbes top 10. The number of politicians on the British top 10 is none, nil, or to put it another way, zero. Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman, who might be thought to have influenced women's lives with a raft of equality legislation, doesn't even get into the top 100. Neither does Yvette Cooper, a woman so obscure that it seems somewhat perplexing that she has been a Cabinet minister and currently occupies the post of shadow Foreign Secretary.

Baroness Thatcher does make the longer list, despite having been out of power for two decades, and so does the current Home Secretary, Theresa May. But both women have to share the honours with Fearne Cotton, Alexa Chung, Davina McCall, Kirsty Young, Lauren Laverne and Lorraine Kelly. You don't have to be a TV presenter to be one of the most influential women in 21st century Britain. But clearly it helps.

At one level, the publication of endless lists reflects a cultural fascination with famous people and specifically celebrities. Few men can resist if they're asked to name their top 10 cricketers or footballers, and clearly some women aren't immune to the taxonomic urge even when the demand is as silly as coming up with the country's most influential women.

Being asked to judge such lists is almost as flattering as being on one of them and few individuals stop to consider the criteria they're using to make judgements, even though any list is shaped by the preconceptions of the people drawing it up. If you give the task to a group of editors who publish mostly women's magazines, you're bound to get a list dominated by celebrities with a few worthy names thrown in.

Fifteen years ago, it's a racing certainty that the most influential woman in Britain would have been Princess Diana. Her current successor as nation's sweetheart and most-wronged-woman is the singer Cheryl Cole, whose position at number five is lower than I would have expected.

But then the glamour model Katie Price doesn't feature at all, despite being regarded as a role model by thousands of working-class girls who aspire to have "choice". I might not think that's much of an ambition but I bet many more young women have heard of Price than the Duchess of Devonshire.

Does anyone really care about being left off such lists? I doubt it, but if someone gets round to rating feminists with blonde hair and a fabulous shoe collection, I'll be sorry if I'm not in the top 10.