'Find the lady' made simple

William Hartston
Saturday 04 May 1996 23:02

The Radio 4 publicity officer spoke of the heartwarming vision of men with their fags and beer, on the way home from the office, playing with the women on their knees.

Hardly the sort of thing you expect from an idea conceived by Woman's Hour, but the women on the above-mentioned knees are playing-cards - the first politically correct, feminist playing-cards, each bearing the likeness of a great woman in history.

Sally Feldman, the editor of the programme and a keen bridge player, came up with the idea as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Woman's Hour: commission South African caricaturist Nicky Taylor to design a pack of cards honouring 54 exceptional women: four all-time greats for the aces, four "formidable stateswomen" for the kings, then queens for the queens, tarnished heroines for the jacks, and so on, all the way down to writers and entrepreneurs for the threes and twos.

The pack is rounded off with Victoria Wood and Joyce Grenfell as the jokers.

The choices - a communal effort by all the Woman's Hour team - may in some cases seem eccentric to anyone inexperienced in the ways of Woman's Hour.

Nobody would argue with Jane Austen and Queen Elizabeth I as aces, but Simone de Beauvoir seems a little iffy as an all-time great, and Billie Holiday is a distinct surprise; a little like putting John Wayne and Louis Armstrong in a shortlist of the greatest men in history.

The kings (Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, Golda Meir) and queens (Victoria, Catherine the Great, Mary Queen of Scots, Cleopatra) nobody could complain about, and the inclusion of the transvestite Dr James Barry - a woman who masqueraded as an army surgeon for most of her adult life - is an inspired choice.

Yet finding four female scientists anyone has heard of was clearly an impossible task and the inclusion of Beatrix Potter among the entrepreneurs smacks of desperation. The sleeve notes with the pack are clutching at straws when they extol her success as a sheep breeder.

The choice of several unheard-of women serves, we are told, to break down the boundaries of a confined set of celebrated women. But one boundary at least has not been crossed: we are assured that there are no known lesbians among the chosen ones.

All the choices, however, cease to look peculiar when viewed in the light of one principal criterion: the unifying theme is that they have all recently been adored on Woman's Hour. But the producers still hope that men will play with them, too - and accordingly have sent a pack to every Gentlemen's Club in the country. And to John Major.

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