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.

As soon as one outlines the book’s methodology and format, as soon, in other words, as one begins to take it seriously, the problems loom out. We are not told on what basis 80 per cent of the interviews were discarded. Nor are we told what questions Attallah put to the women involved. Thus most of them discuss the prospect of old age and wrinkles. Are we to suppose that women are peculiarly anxious about physical decay? Or is it – as I concluded – that Attallah assumed that they should be anxious and prompted them in that direction? And what is an achieving woman? Many of the women included here will never be listed in Who’s Who, which is an essentially male-oriented publication. But neither has Attallah striven to establish distinctively female criteria of achievement. No space is allotted to the woman who has reared a large family of children successfully on a single income; no nursing sister who keeps a ward full of people alive in return for a pitiful salary finds recognition here. Instead, we are offered an amalgam of genuinely outstanding women and those who merely stand out. There is Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, who is, we are told, ‘engaged to a Peruvian senator’; there is Lili Town-send, who organises ‘human dolphin interactions’ in Florida in between practising spiritual therapy; and there is Dianne Brill, who ‘has created as much of a stir with her looks and her style as with her acclaimed menswear collections’.

The wording of this last description indicates the main weakness of this book: Attallah’s own attitude to women. He clearly likes them: and so he should, since he describes how all his life he has been ministered to by them. But what this means in practice is that his approach to his subjects is both uncritical and highly traditional. So the categories under which the interviews are arranged are not ambition, or income, or power – the sort of commodities with which male achievers would automatically be expected to concern themselves. Instead, the emphasis throughout is on how in various ways these women relate to men. We get page after page devoted to stale questions such as whether women can go to bed with men for lust alone, and whether they are invariably attracted to masculine brilliance and power. Avid heterosexuality is assumed throughout: indeed, only one overt lesbian is included. And whatever the women told Attallah to his face, in print they are rarely allowed to mock. Only Shirley Conran gets away with saying that women go to bed with men for much the same reasons as men go to bed with women, including boredom: ‘I mean, if you’re stuck in Chicago, my goodness.’

There’s nothing inherently wrong in these agony-column confessions (though nothing very illuminating either), but it does seem a waste of time and print to pose such conventional questions to women who were purportedly selected for being different from the norm. Even the section on creativity – indicatively the shortest in the book – is marred by Attallah’s masculine priorities. All the women are asked to speculate why their sex has not produced philosophers, or composers, or artists who can equal male genius in these spheres. This can be an interesting question: but in this context it would have been more useful to examine the nature of female creativity. Why are we so good at writing novels, but so much less adept at poetry? Why some uses of words rather than others? What is the point in interviewing Margaret Drabble, Victoria Glendinning and Marina Warner, but failing to discuss such matters?

Yet for all the evident faults and the egregious condescension of this book, it does almost despite itself have some value. The women interviewed confirm yet again that female achievement is usually the result of female propinquity. Most have had sisters rather than brothers; many have been to single-sex schools; and almost all refer to the influence of strong women encountered beyond the immediate family circle – grandmothers, nuns, and a remarkably large number of nannies. It is also clear – and this too is entirely predictable – that it is easier to surmount the barrier of sex if one does not also have to struggle over the barriers of class and poverty. Not all the women seem conscious of this. Emma Nicholson, Member of Parliament for Torridge and West Devon, believes – good Thatcherite that she is – that a woman can make it if she tries: perhaps she can, but it helps if, as in her case, one’s grandfather was a cabinet minister and one’s father a Tory MP. Shirley Ritchie QC is no less convinced that a woman can have it all: ‘I’ve always seen to it that I’ve had superb nannies and a good housekeeper.’ Well, quite.

When discussing the advantages and disadvantages of their gender, most of the women volunteer a balanced assessment, though a sizeable minority would prefer quite simply to be male. Most acknowledge that it is far more permissible for women to fail or to show weakness than it is for men. Naturally this is a poisoned chalice, but it is true that we can show more emotion in public, that we do not have to maintain a job or an erection. And we alone can bear children. Perhaps to spite Attallah’s gourmet attitudes, almost all of his subjects wax far more lyrically about their offspring than they do about their male lovers.

Lyricism drains away fast when the women come to discuss the public sphere and the men who still dominate it. Some believe that men in positions of influence can be manipulated; most find them a pain, particularly when they’re second-rate or insecure and consequently far more prone to discriminate against any gifted female subordinate. ‘You come up against patronage. You come up against condescension,’ snaps Felicity Green. And she should know, since in the Seventies her sex almost certainly cost her the editorship of the Daily Mirror. The solution that most of these women have adopted is retreat. ‘Women in the traditional system never make it,’ declares Jennifer D’Abo and so she, like almost all the businesswomen interviewed here, started her own company rather than going to work for a large corporation. Many of the other women have chosen to work at home rather than confront the opposite sex at the office, or have selected occupations where females are sufficiently well-entrenched to supply protection and a precedent for others of their kind.

A breakdown of Attallah’s harem reinforces this point. Over 180 of the 289 women interviewed – 63 per cent – work in the arts or the media. If we add to this category the women involved in the fashion business and the socialites, then three-quarters of these achievers turn out to be still employed in the skills that Scheherazade made her own: they devise stories, they entertain, and they look enchanting. But is this really an accurate picture of female enterprise in Thatcher’s Britain? Does the fact that only 15 of these women work in medicine, the law and academe, and only eight in politics, tell us about the bias of society or simply about the bias behind this particular sample?

Certainly the book contains ample evidence of women’s suspicion of traditional male-dominated professions and organisations. Banks and big corporations, the BBC, the law, medicine, Parliament all come in for criticism, much of it deserved. Many of the women claim – and, having worked on both sides of the Atlantic, I would endorse this – that prejudice in organisations such as these is far more gross and disturbing in Britain than it is in the States. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most important is undoubtedly the potency in this country of the idea of the club. All-male clubs, which are explicitly tolerated by our anti-sex discrimination laws, not only enhance élite male solidarity in the realm of leisure, they also reinforce male predominance at work. As Sheena McDonald comments here, they effectively enable women to be excluded from the often crucial business that gets settled after the formal end of the working day. Moreover the club ethos has influenced a wide variety of powerful institutions. The Treasury, the House of Commons, Oxbridge colleges, sections of the City, and the Inns of Court, all operate on the club principle of bringing like-minded people together and keeping out the alien. Too often the alien are women.

Unable to be one of the boys, women are usually too sparse and too scattered in top jobs to be able to forge clubs and societies of their own. Indeed, what comes over throughout this book is just how isolated many of these women are. The only exception is in the realm of the media, where there are now enough women employed as literary agents, literary editors, TV producers and writers to make a new girls network viable. Thus Victoria Glendinning pays tribute here to the imaginative patronage she received from Claire Tomalin, who consistently used her various editorships to advance talented women. Similarly, it is no accident that the most successful London club open to both sexes is Groucho’s, which caters primarily to media types. But outside this rare protected area, ambitious women usually have to make their way in a far more lonely fashion than do their male counterparts.

Whether, however, they are quite so scarce or so vulnerable as this book suggests is another matter. At the moment we simply do not have enough information on how far women have been able to penetrate areas of influence in this country. Surveys like Attallah’s are not very helpful in this respect because conventionally ambitious women are not going to queue up to be interviewed on their abortions and their aspirations. He himself confesses that 25 per cent of the women he approached turned him down, and I am not surprised. His book is nonetheless fun; it is cheap at this price; and if you can carry it, it will last you through many a long plane trip. But women’s studies in this country should now be sufficiently far-advanced for the nature and degree of female achievement to be examined in a far more thorough and sophisticated fashion. We badly need a prosopography of powerful women. We need – to paraphrase Lewis Namier – to know who the gals are. It might just help to ensure that there are more of them around in the future.