Wednesday 21 August 2019

Glenda exposes the 'great feminist sisterhood' myth

Glenda Jackson has returned to acting after stepping down as an MP
Glenda Jackson has returned to acting after stepping down as an MP
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Any woman contemplating a political career might find it instructive to consider the example of Glenda Jackson, who, having been one of the finest theatre actresses of her generation, gave it all up for a political life at Westminster.

Jackson, now aged 79, was so towering a stage performer that standard textbooks on acting technique still mention her work as electrifying. She won awards for film and TV work and the veteran director Peter Brook has written that no one could infuse energy into a stage role like Glenda Jackson.

Then she left it all behind to become a Labour MP in 1992, only quitting this year. Now, thankfully, she has decided to return to acting.

As a parliamentarian, she never attained any real distinction. She was a junior transport minister under Blair, but became unhappy with Blair's Iraq war. If she is remembered for any political gesture, it will be for a ferocious attack on Margaret Thatcher immediately after the former prime minister's death.

At a moment when tributes were being paid to the late leader, Ms Jackson got to her feet and denounced Thatcher as "not a woman on my terms".

She explained that "a woman on her terms" were those stalwart Liverpool matriarchs like her mother and aunts, who looked after their work and their families without expecting any acknowledgement of how formidably they held things together.

And although Glenda Jackson says that she has always campaigned for women in her political career - and in the performing arts - she now reveals that she doesn't much care for the company of women.

"I find the unrelieved company of women very hard to take," she said last week. She thinks women can be good at solving problems together. But just don't ask her to spend too much time with the ladies.

Jackson has always been outspoken and it wouldn't occur to her that such sentiments are not quite politically correct these days. Women today are expected to support one another as part of the orthodoxy of feminist sisterhood.

But privately, perhaps there might be some agreement with La Jackson.

It's an inconvenient truth that women usually want to join all-male clubs; but few men seek to join all-women associations.

Anyone who has been to an all-girls' school has experienced the unalloyed company of females. There may be loyalties, but there are rivalries too and bitchy gossip is not unknown.

Nor hostility. Edna O'Brien says in her autobiography that it wasn't the clergy who most objected to her early books - it was the Co Clare womenfolk who hissed "trollop" at her candour.

Glenda Jackson admitted that she was drawn into politics by a deep hatred of Thatcher. Perhaps that particular hostility was also an example of how ferociously women can dislike each other.

Jackson was seen as a maverick, who made little significant contribution to parliamentary life: her last majority was a wafer-slim 42 votes in the trendy-left bailiwick of Hampstead and Highgate.

She could be conscientious and took her duties seriously. I once met her in a Commons committee room, sitting rapt as the late Cardinal Cathal Daly, then Primate of All Ireland, spoke about the need for peace and reconciliation. She was the only MP to turn up for the meeting about the Troubles.

Yet, backbenchers are often 'cannon fodder' for the political leadership and if they strike out on their own, they may be considered eccentric.

During the last 23 years, Glenda Jackson could have continued a fabulous career in the theatre and in film and TV drama. Older British actresses, like Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren, are in more demand than ever.

If a woman is burning to enter political life, then, yes, there should be every encouragement and opportunity. And many are doing well. But if the question is asked 'why don't more women enter politics, why isn't the composition fifty-fifty?' perhaps the answer is that many women feel they are already accomplished at something else: why sacrifice a successful career for a mediocre one? As I fear that Glenda Jackson did.

As for her views on finding the company of women unexciting, maybe the new fashion for 'gender fluidity', when everyone slides between male and female, will solve all that. Eventually.

@MaryKenny4

Irish Independent

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