Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: It's time to stand up and fight the new misogyny

Ours is the age of libertine sexism and verbal debauchery
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The Independent Online

Granted we women are no angels and are rather more likely to be devils in Prada. The line of steely female leaders is fearsome – Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, Madeleine Albright, later Condi Rice and Hillary Clinton, now Angela Merkel. I'd rather be locked in a dark room with bullish Tory Eric Pickles than any of the those. Too many of Eve's daughters use the rapier of power sadistically, are heartless bosses, treacherous plotters, selfish friends and lovers, vengeful spouses, manipulative and expedient.

Sometimes feminists over-react, I feel. Take the objectification of females. Thousands of masterpieces do just that. Do we burn them? Too often feminism is used as a get-out-of-jail-free card. There, said it all, can't be more honest than that.

Those of us committed to egalitarianism must, hard though that is, remain watchful, candid and self-critical. We must expect to be judged and panned. But over the last month or so, I detect a particularly nasty, misogynist virus spreading through the land. Some swinish male commentators spit and splutter on their grubby pages, demeaning women in high office or for single-mindedly focusing on their jobs when they should obviously be pleasuring men in bed and the kitchen. The political party conference season gives them perfect conditions to pass on the bug.

Take Rod Liddle, ex-editor of Today on Radio 4, a braggadocio now considered frightfully brilliant because he vilifies women, black people, Muslims, the BBC and many others with his anti-PC, cutting observations. Would you take Harriet Harman to bed, he asked his readers, all male he assumes: "I mean after a few beers obviously, not while you were sober". He couldn't, he confessed. But yes to Caroline Flint, "fit as a butcher's dog".

Well would you, male or female readers, would you take Liddle to your bed? He looks as unappetising as a half-eaten fish pie left on a plate, was caught with Viagra in his pocket by his now ex-wife, a woman he then humiliated and left for some young thing at the Spectator. Answers directly to Mr Liddle please. Three cheers for Janet Street Porter, Suzanne Moore and others who have slapped him down.

Other successful male political observers obsess about female bosoms in parliament, or Teresa May's shoes, as if her tongue and brain live in her feet, or Sarah Brown's simple, wifely love displayed on the conference stage, or Esther Rantzen's face and body. Parliamentary sketch writers scorn MPs or peers who try to seriously address the issue of equality – what a laugh, what idiots, what bores, who cares? Not middle-class white men for sure. They detest Harman for raising the E word and (probably) for her stubborn campaign against porn. Instead of criticising the deputy PM for some of her real failures, they tear into her feminism.

Ours is the age of verbal debauchery and libertine sexism. No wonder so many mourned the passing of Keith Floyd, a brilliant but excessively self-indulgent TV cook and an anti-hero who, from all accounts, failed his women and children.

And so they mount, unpleasant examples of lionised famous men, dead and alive, for whom women are but dishes on their polished tables. The new hagiography of Alan Clark gives his fans yet another chance to relish the old rogue, a racist, poisonous predator. Roman Polanski, who was convicted of raping a frightened 13-year-old, a criminal who has too long escaped punishment, is defended by various artists – including Martin Scorsese and Harvey Weinstein. And now the American TV host David Letterman has told the world he had sex with women who worked on his programmes. Power can be an aphrodisiac. But did some of those who satisfied his lust do so because they felt they shouldn't refuse? He is still laughing. They might not be and the revelation will hardly reassure the woman he married this year, mother of his five-year-old son.

Blokes have never had it so easy and most women still don't get a place at the top tables. Those who do are then punished for their audacity. Our newly appointed Supreme Court is all white and has one woman; the Bullingdon Boys rule. When Baroness Vadera goes to her new job, Gordon Brown will have a mostly masculine circle of trusted advisers. Television, popular culture, fashion, academe and other sectors seriously discriminate against women and, in our so named post-equality times, get away with it. Change is proving to be harder than we imagined. The good news is that when denounced by strong and articulate women, the regressive brigade crumbles. Why, even Mr Liddle found himself mumbling a sort of apology to Harman last week.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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