Germaine Greer said some years ago that what worried her about the future of women's equality and feminism was "women's own misogyny".
The week in which Margaret Thatcher passed away, seems a good time to assess our sometimes contradictory attitude to women who stray from the norms of what is considered socially acceptable female behaviour. Thatcher was castigated by other women because she didn't follow a specifically "feminist" model of womanhood; "we want women in power, just not this one" seemed the prevailing attitude. Yet ex-MP Louise Mensch remembers asking her mother as a child if men were allowed to become prime minister. Her natural assumption was that women were born to the role. A victory for feminism, surely? Or at least women in politics? As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said: "well-behaved women don't make history".
Another woman in politics, Madeleine Albright, said: "There's a special place in Hell for women who don't help other women." When she used that phrase she most certainly didn't mean her colleague Pamela Harriman. On the death of Harriman in 1997, while US ambassador to France, Albright said: "America has lost a remarkable representative, the State Department has lost one of its most effective diplomats, and I have lost a friend."
Yet Harriman encountered much animosity and criticism for the choices she made to get ahead in what, essentially, is still a man's world.
Harriman didn't just marry a millionaire, she notched up three of them: Randolph Churchill, son of Winston; Leland Hayward, producer of The Sound of Music; and Averell Harriman, a former candidate for the US presidency. In between she had affairs with men such as Aly Khan, Elie de Rothschild, Gianni Agnelli, Jock Whitney, Frank Sinatra and Edward R Murrow, the famous wartime radio broadcaster.
When Averell Harriman died, leaving her his fortune, Pamela was able to influence politics in her own right. She had many political convictions, as well as a vast array of talents. She bankrolled and mentored Bill Clinton. Her PAMPAC political organisation – chiefly responsible for the Democrats retaking the Senate in 1986 – was hailed by Mario Cuomo as "the most effective political organisation I know of within the party".
Yet contemporary feminists were not so complementary. Maureen Dowd, in an article after Harriman's death, denigrates her achievements by calling her the "original Cosmo girl" "tailoring herself to trap dukes, princes and millionaires, changing religions like clothes to suit the hunt ... " She suggests dismissively that Harriman's extraordinary success was purely down to her ability to seduce men.
A disgruntled reader drily commented: "Could Ms Dowd's column betray a discomfort many contemporary feminists feel when confronted with evidence of the power of female sexuality?"
Why is it that some women react with thinly veiled disapproval when they see other women put themselves forward to claim a level of entitlement they can only dream of?
And here we come to what Greer called "women's own misogyny". Why do we expect women to be perfect – to represent the rest of womankind in a way we would never expect of men? Of course we can disagree over what behaviours are feminist or not, but we need to separate our criticism of women from the criticism of their behaviour. It's a right we automatically grant men, so why not women?
A recent Irish example has been the very different media reportage concerning Sean Dunne and Gayle Killilea. Dunne has been – rightly – criticised over his debts of €770m and his recent assertion that he believes his "debt to the Irish State is clear". He's one of the poster boys for all that went wrong in Ireland and we're disgusted that he isn't, yet, paying the price along with the rest of us. Journalists and punters, as well as the proverbial dogs in the street, have dissected his various business decisions and bullish behaviour and commented on it, as they should.
Yet the public discussion of Gayle, his wife, who up until their move to the US had little involvement in any property empire, is in rather a different category altogether.
Let me add here that I never worked with Killilea, met her briefly once in a TV studio, and have no personal interest in her whatsoever, except where her actions may have financial ramifications for the Irish State. But the difference in the commentary about her and her husband disturbs me as an Irish woman and as a feminist.
Reading much of what has been written about Killilea seems to echo the Maureen Dowd piece on Harriman. Ostensibly in defence of feminism, it seems acceptable to dissect Killilea's sex appeal, her dress sense, her "self-confidence" (repeated in contexts that suggest "nice girls" don't push themselves forward), her love of good things, and conclude that she was Becky Sharp in pink Armani (with clothes shockingly bought for her by a man).
Repeatedly she is described as "former Sunday Independent gossip columnist" as if that equated somehow with being a bimbo-brained girl-on-the-make, (and despite the fact that her last job was with a rival Sunday newspaper). When it's noted that she has a master's degree in Law it is done reluctantly, begrudgingly, as if, in being academic, she is somehow spoiling the simplistic caricature we need her to be. She is criticised for having opinions on politics and finance – which implies that girls like her should just keep quiet and tend to their man – hardly a feminist ideal.
The general consensus seems to be that, like Harriman before her, Killilea was not doing the sisterhood any favours by being smart enough to land herself a rich man; as if she was somehow marrying above herself, getting out of her pre-ordained box – when in fact the argument could be made the other way; that in bagging the tenacious, smart and savvy Killilea, Dunne had hit the jackpot.
Of course, the media has a job to report on Killilea's actions if they concern the finances of the State. And yes, we're all human and we like a bit of bitching and seeing the mighty tumble. But please, can we be honest enough with ourselves to acknowledge that women like Harriman and Killilea are subject to "women's own misogyny" in a way that men are most certainly not. Criticise as much as we wish, but let's remember to play the ball – not the (wo)man.