The hyena chained to the kitchen sink

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The Independent Online
SO MUCH for hyenas in petticoats. The truth is that all these years the hyena has been bare- pawed and at the kitchen sink. Angela Neustatter, author of that now- famous treatise on hyenas, a 'celebration of feminism', has just revealed that, despite calling herself a 'feminist mother', she was hopeless at making her sons help her in the kitchen.

''They hardly ever do any washing up,' admitted Ms Neustatter, 'and rather than make a huge fuss, it's easier just to do it myself.'

Great. Thanks a bunch, Ange. You really broke the mould. Apparently young Zek (sic), 18, can cook, if not clear up, and Cato, 14, enjoys making a banana cake from time to time, an ability which will no doubt be of substantial benefit to him in the years to come.

No wonder this week's figures from the Equal Opportunities Commission show that women's earnings are still stuck in the doldrums: at 79 per cent of men's pay, barely improved since those heady days in 1975 when young Zek was conceived along with equal opportunities legislation.

Women's attitudes haven't altered enough. Nor have men's. These two facts are usually related. Let us turn to the case of Cherie Booth. Mrs Tony Blair, as she is sometimes known, came top of her year in her Bar exams. She is an expert on employment and local government law. If she has any spare time to help the Labour Party, you might think she could well have quietly put one or two of her large brain cells on to the subject of new policy in these areas of personal expertise. What she did not need to do was devote five minutes to the subject of clothes.

Why pander to the idea that a leader's spouse must be photogenic? Remember Barbara Bush? Did Denis Thatcher so much as change his buttons? But no: as the Labour Party conference approached, Cherie fell latest victim to that dangerous malady, the Princess of Wales Headless Chicken Syndrome.

For the important task of developing a new look which would stand up to a pistachio backdrop, one of the best legal brains of Britain turned to Carole Caplin, health and style expert, former dancer and 5girlie-mag cover star. From Carole, as a result, come the most prominent two issues, as pictured in yesterday's Sun, for which this Labour Party conference will be remembered.

Conventional pressures were too much for Cherie Booth and Angela Neustatter. They are not alone. Some time ago a high-level job was advertised in Scotland. No women applied. The job was re-advertised with exactly the same specifications, but at a lower salary. This time women wrote in. They had valued themselves at less than what was being offered.

Grown women have got to toughen up and change behaviour, however hard that is. 'Women back off from success,' said Dr Anne Wright, vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, discussing the subject of quotas this week. She confessed that even she, who gained first-class marks in every paper she took for her English degree at King's in 1967, had to work throughout her career at keeping her own confidence up. 'Being a woman of my generation, we were not designed for success,' she said.

The redesign has got to be DIY. Until women's attitudes alter, how can men's be expected to change? If Angela Neustatter, metropolitan feminist doyenne, still finds it easier just to do the washing up, what changes can be hoped for in Wigan?

Ah but, you tell me, Angela Neustatter is 50, and things have changed. Girls grow up now with different assumptions. Women's wages may be lagging behind, but equal pay is on its way.

Oh yeah? Two years ago the Engineering Council and others organised a survey in which more than 500 five-year-olds, children of the More Equal Eighties, were questioned about their beliefs. A full 95 per cent of the little boys piped up to say that they thought car repairs should only be done by men. Of the little girls - on whom the responsibility for mould-breaking will rest in the 21st century - 86 per cent said mending clothes was a task that should only be carried out by women.

Teaching is never going to override example. I once sat in on a session on non-sexism in schools for learner teachers at a fashionable teacher training college. The theory being put across in the discussions was fine: it was just that every time the female students started to comment on it, the male students interrupted them.

No one scents this kind of hypocrisy more quickly than a child. No one reacts against preaching more forcibly. Zek and Cato, apparently, have a favourite sport, chanting at Mummy Neustatter: 'Women - ugh] Robocop - mmmm]'

It is about three years since my niece, now 12, informed me with total certainty that boys are cleverer than girls and that women don't become great artists. I must arrange an introduction to young Cato: they would get on really well.