Superwoman flies into the public eye

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The Independent Online
Who does Superman's Hoovering? Lois Lane? I think we should be told, because if he were really Superman he would do it all himself, wouldn't he? He could appear on the 10 o'clock news and tell us how normal he really is and we could say to each other, "Aw shucks, he is a regular guy who just happens to be able to fly." Or we could remind ourselves that Superman is a fictional character and leave it at that. His female counterpart, Superwoman, however, has been discussed recently as though she were real. Ever since Nicola Horlick lost her job we have been bombarded with nonsense about Superwoman. Superwoman has destroyed the City's solar system. Superwoman has been brought down to earth. Superwoman may be storming around but is she who we think she is? Telephone lines have been set up so we can answer the question: "Is Nicola Horlick really a superwoman?"

She is a superwoman because she earns a lot of money and has five children. Or she isn't a superwoman because having a lot of money helps you have five children. Authentic superwomen we have been informed are actually those average working mums who don't have a million pounds at their disposal.

So we are perturbed. Horlick may be described as a housewife -superstar because thanks to Margaret Thatcher and Dame Edna we know what this is. She may not, however, be described as a fat cat because fat cats are presumed to be male. One of her undoubted talents is clearly her ability to change her appearance. She is doll-like in some descriptions, frumpy in others. Clad in designer black with scarlet lipstick she is the archetypal Eighties vamp but she can transmogrify at any given moment into a bit of a frump, "a mumsy fund manager" who wears large frocks because as a "friend" put it, she is "generally pregnant". As pregnancy, we are reliably informed, shrinks a woman's brain, one imagines that being generally pregnant must mean a brain the size of a walnut. Intriguingly enough, the Horlick brain remains fairly sharp. Perhaps then she is not like other women at all. Perhaps this explains why she has a "ghostly complexion" or a colleague's remark that "there is something strangely terrifying about her." Perhaps she is barking.

As she said of her work mates in the city, "I know they all think I'm mad - but I just had this incredible urge to storm into Morgan Grenfell in London, then fly to Frankfurt." Weird. Other urges have emerged - the urge to be a Labour MP, the urge to share her domestic set-up with ITN, the urge to seek public reinstatement.

After all she is used to winning. In 1995 she said that at school she quickly learnt that "I could beat the boys at just about anything I set my mind to. I also learnt how silly they could be." Now though, the boys think she is being very silly indeed, breaking the tribal taboos of the City with this histrionic display. Some say she has set the cause of female equality back by blabbing all over the place. She overestimated her own worth. Her ego, like her salary, got out of hand. Her case illustrates the insanity of the star-system. She is not bigger than Morgan Grenfell just as Chris Evans is not bigger than Radio One.

Only a few brave souls will support her. William Rees-Mogg in The Times believes she was underpaid but her mistake was in challenging the assumption that banking is not an "arena for the public display of personality". Mind you a million pounds does not amount to much in The Times. You cannot apparently get a decent large family house in the centre of town for that sum.

So did Superwoman fall or was she pushed? Either way it strikes me that even if Horlick cannot re-enter the City, she will get along nicely so it doesn't too matter too much. What does matter though is that yet again one woman, however super, bears the burden of representing her entire gender.

No one much cares who does Chris Evans's ironing or is asking whether he has set the cause of the ginger-haired back by 10 years. No one wonders whether he will be able to continue his job as well as procreating. No one says that Evans's behaviour will reflect on DJs the country over. Evans is allowed to be a one-off because that is what he is paid to be.

Ambitious women like Horlick, meanwhile, are "driven" and their private lives inspected for signs of anxiety. Other women will confidently tell them that they are missing out on their children's childhood. They tell stories of nannies ordered by other power-crazed superwomen to write down every word that their kids utter when they are not there so that they will not miss out. We watch documentaries of career harpies who leave their toddlers weeping and we see how unnatural it all is. Thus even a woman like Horlick must try desperately to present herself as natural. She must tell us that she is at the sick child's bedside, that she does the housework, just as Cherie Blair must pretend to knit complicated jumpers.

These women may do it all, have it all and then some. But when will they wake up and smell the cappuccino? Shirley Conran told us that life was too short to stuff mushrooms. It is also too short to delude ourselves. We make choices. Sometimes our children suffer as well as gain from our choices. We may continue to argue about the repercussions of these choices. Meanwhile, to cram some Fifties version of authentic mothering into an hour a day is just insane. We have won nothing but the right as Erica Jong once said to be "terminally exhausted".

We do not know how much time Nicola Horlick's male colleagues, or her husband come to that, spend with their families. Somehow the issue doesn't arise. We know only of the juggling, the stress, the getting up at ridiculous hours of high-flyers like Horlick and of the sadism of others when the cracks begin to show.

Fictional characters like Superwoman may soar off into the skies leaving the rest of us under yet more pressure to keep our feet on the ground, to be super-real, super-ordinary whatever our successes. Superwoman, you see, is not very sisterly. She is the exception that challenges the rule and as long as we continue to believe in her, the rules as we have seen will stay exactly as they are.