Stuck in Chicago

Linda Colley

  • Women by Naim Attallah
    Quartet, 1165 pp, £15.00, October 1987, ISBN 0 7043 2625 6

As I write this, the Liberal MP David Alton is about to introduce a Bill changing the upper time limit on legal abortions from 28 weeks to 18. If he succeeds, more women will be forced to give birth against their will, and more will be obliged to give birth to children already known to be severely handicapped. Whether he succeeds will be determined by a House of Commons where 13 out of every 16 MPs belong to the sex that does not get pregnant and does not, traditionally, take on the main responsibility of childcare. If the Bill becomes law and a woman appeals against it, she will be confronted by a male judge, for there are no women judges in the Court of Appeal or in the House of Lords. And if this same woman then seeks a termination on medical grounds, the person she will have to convince will almost certainly be male. Only 11 per cent of medical consultants in this country are women.

From all this one might conclude that female initiative and worldly power are still savagely limited. But how right would one be? Some of the answers can be found, though not alas at first reading, in Naim Attallah’s huge, rather silly and sporadically illuminating book, which is explicitly devoted to female ‘achievers’. Attallah himself owns Quartet, the publishing-house responsible for this book, and is also a director of Asprey of Bond Street. Perhaps that explains why his brilliantly-bound volume resembles a particularly glossy jewel casket. The jewels – carefully selected for quality and glitter – are 289 women, of whom 150 are British, 76 are American, 37 are from Continental Europe, and the rest straggle in from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Third World. With formidable energy, and at no less formidable expense, Attallah interviewed all of these women, jetting between London, New York and Paris, and enticing his subjects to a series of lavish lunches. (His cook – a woman, of course – is specifically thanked in the acknowledgments.) Then, with the aid of his editor Jennifer Bradshaw and a bevy of assistants who all seem to be called Candida or Lucinda or Samantha, the three million words of tape-recorded conversations were reduced to a curt 600,000.

What do they tell us? The book starts with four pleasantly-written and historically-based chapters which examine women in myth and literature, women in Muslim society, women in the Middle Ages and women in Victorian England. There is an abundance of good quotes of the vicious kind (‘Woman is a pitcher full of filth with its mouth full of blood’), but minimal analysis and no treatment of women in the earlier 20th century. If history was the real intent here, this omission would of course make no sense at all. In this country, as in many others, it was the Edwardian era and after which saw not only an acceleration of women’s legal, professional and political rights, but also the decline of many of the more informal routes to female power. The political hostess, for example, could matter very much in the 18th and 19th centuries: after the Great War she rarely mattered at all. But history is not the purpose of this book. Its selling-point lies in the words of the women themselves, which are arranged under eight categories: early influences, advantages and disadvantages, feminism, sexuality, motherhood, creativity, relationships and differences.

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