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"Wisdom is not the product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it"

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“A Woman’s Work” Harriet Harman

This one’s for you if… you’re interested in the views of the longest serving female MP on women’s rights and life in politics as a woman.

Women’s rights is a challenging problem to solve. Before reading this book the question I kept coming back to was what do we mean by equal rights? Women and men are inescapably different. Only women can carry and give birth to children. So what do we want our utopian world to look like? Can equality realistically mean that having children has NO negative affect on your career? And is that fair? Having children will inevitably involve time off work, so for me I felt that “equality” was the opportunity to progress in your career at the same rate as men, using number of days worked as the measurement.

Obviously we are currently a long way off any utopian view of women’s rights, whatever that may look like. Until we can get away from the female/male stereotypes that were shown by the BBC programme “No More Boys and Girls” to be so deeply ingrained by primary school age, women will always be expected to do more at home, be more responsible for childcare and be less likely to have the higher earning job and therefore more likely to give it up when children come along.

However, Harriet Harman thoroughly educated me on policies, their potentially positive effect on the economy, and addressing the imbalance where having children does so much more to halt the progress of mothers’ career’s compared to fathers’. Ideas such as compulsorily sharing of parental leave so that the “hit” on female work is less skewed. Making childcare provision more affordable so that women’s jobs do more than just breaking even. The point is that should a woman wish to work, society should be able to provide the training and childcare support required to enable that to happen. Many of these ideas rely heavily on state supply of these services, which is a debate for another day on how much we should and can expect of the state in terms of what support it can provide us with.

I recognise the progress that needs to be made on women’s rights and don’t for a second think that we should rest up on pushing for that progress. But as an optimist, I also like to reflect on how much progress we have made. Harriet Harman reminds us of the restrictions on women as she grew up and when she entered politics. It really is incredible to see how much progress has been made, and how much she has contributed to this.

In addition to the history of the women’s movement, this book is a fascinating account of life in politics as a woman. There are multiple examples of how unaccessible parliament was for women when Harriet Harman was first elected in 1982, demonstrating how male dominated systems must change in order for them to be accessible to women. The long boozy lunches and the late night votes didn’t exactly lend themselves to the ability to balance your responsibilities at home with your children. Harman also demonstrates how stereotypically female personality traits do not help in your progression towards seniority in politics. On multiple occasions she discusses how she put the party before her own interests and in so doing put up with treatment than many of her males colleagues would not. Inevitably every team needs a balance of skills and characteristics to achieve its potential. At some point in the future, I am sure we will have as many caring and sensitive men as women, and as many ballsy, ambitious women as men. In the meantime, balancing these characteristics remains another argument for increasing female representation in senior roles in all industries.

If you were recruiting for the people who were to run the country you might put qualities such as good communication, strong leadership and an ability to manage people in the advertisement. Naively or not, I was appalled at several of the examples of what goes on behind the closed doors of Parliament, demonstrating immaturity, betrayal, and petty power plays (see below).

To finish on a positive note, I have nothing but huge admiration and respect for what Harriet Harman has achieved so far in her time in politics and for the circumstances in which she has managed that. A fantastic role model for young women and men alike.

 

There was a time when “You can’t expect the same pay as a man, you can’t expect to be treated equally at work, you can’t expect men to play their part at home, you can’t object if your husband beats you, you can’t expect to be valued if you’re not young and pretty, you can’t expect to be taken seriously intellectually if you are…we were not going to put up with it.” p24

“A lone woman would be refused service at a hotel bar on the assumption that, if she was on her own, she could be there only in order to pick up a man- so she must be a prostitute.” p29

“The Parliament I entered in 1982, 97 per cent of whose members were men, was reported on by a press lobby of whom 95 per cent were men. They were not in the least interested in the women’s agenda.” p80

“men still outnumber women in the lobby by three to one. It’s wrong that the largely male world of Parliament is still reported to the men and women of this country through predominantly male eyes.” p84

Clare Short criticised Alan Clark for being drunk in the House but “it was she was reprimanded, for breaking the rule that it’s unparliamentary for an MP to allege that another is drunk.” p116

UNBELIEVABLE account from when Harman was on the front bench. She promised her children she would take them to the cinema on half term. She was phoned by whips and after missing several calls told them “I was not available”. It was assumed she was having an affair. “Firstly while children will never forget a broken promise, there’s always someone who can stand in for you at work. And secondly, that while it would, in the eyes of my colleagues, have been beyond the pale for me to be absent because of my children, falling down in my duties because of an affair was not only understood by my male colleagues but thoroughly approved of.” p121

Combining economic policy with women’s rights. “If mothers with young children could get the childcare and training they needed, they would be able to get back to work. Instead of claiming benefits, they would be paying taxes and in a position to se up businesses which would help the economy to grow. With mothers working, there’d be fewer children in poverty.” p149

“while I was sitting on the platform waiting to speak, Gordon had gone through it and typed in alterations. Gordon’s authority was such that there was no way special advisors, even two of them, could hold out against him.” p184 Why the need to go behind her back about her speech to the conference? Why not have open discussions and or say as leader I disagree and feel it would be better for the party for you to say x not y?

“Having previously had two members of staff in my constituency office and two political advisers, I hadn’t a clue how to lead a department of 93,000 people…With the change in my relationships with my colleagues and the complete absence of any ‘headspace’ in which to think about things uninterrupted, I lost my bearings.” p196

In the case of a women given 2 black eyes, 2 broken ribs and a punctured lung by an abusive husband, who was a Dr. “it was a travesty to minimise the violence this woman had suffered because her husband was outwardly jovial and well liked at work. The fact that he was a role model to younger professional colleagues made his behaviour worse, not better. And however welcome his appearances as Father Christmas, they were irrelevant and shouldn’t be a reason to to keep him from serving a custodial sentence.” p243 This reminds me of the recent and extraordinary case of the Stanford swimmer whose sporting prowess- which is in no way relevant to whether or not he committed a serious crime- was considered during his sentencing.

When she won the Deputy Leadership election she turned to John Prescott and said “I’ll need all you advice and support. I hope you’ll help me? ‘No’, he replied. “I won’t”. He had never liked or approved of me, but I was taken aback that he would put personal antagonism above the interests of helping his successor do a good job.” p271

“Prime Minister’s Questions is not just about your government’s policies, it’s about your performance as well. PMQs is like taking an exam, in public, where the syllabus is the whole world.” p284

“While we reshape our future, we must be careful not to misrepresent our past. We fought to get into government so that we could work on the problems caused by the Tories. Labour tackled pensioner and child poverty, modernised the health service and schools…Denigrating our past denies those achievements, strengthens the position of our opposition and pushed further into the future the day when Labour gets into office again.” p329

When she is on school visits “Most of the young women and men have been brought up in households where the mother takes the main responsibility for children, so, while the girls aspire to go further than previous generations of women have been able to in their work and therefore share domestic responsibilities, the boys see a model of home life with them as the main breadwinner and head of the household.” p367

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“It’s all in your head” Suzanne O’Sullivan

This one’s for everyone because we all need to understand these illnesses better to tackle the stigma around them.

A functional disorder is one that is medically unexplained. No test is abnormal, no investigation finds any explanation for the symptoms experienced by the patient. Psychogenic/psychosomatic disorders are those with physical symptoms that a specialist suspects are psychological in origin.

Think of laughter. “It is a physical display of emotion, it’s mechanism is ill-understood, it is not always under our voluntary control, it affects our whole body, it stops our breathing and speeds up our heart, it serves a purpose, it releases tension and communicates feelings. Laughter is the ultimate psychosomatic symptom.” P315 as the author asks, if we can collapse with laughter, is it not just as possible that the body can do even more extraordinary things when faced with even more extraordinary triggers?”

The public and medical professionals who don’t fully understand these conditions contribute to the stigma that plagues these patients. Additionally, doctors from other specialities can do a great deal of harm with inappropriate treatment for a patient whose symptoms are psychological in origin. Because of the stigma around these conditions, patients think the diagnosis means the doctor doesn’t believe their symptoms are ‘real’. By reading this book, you begin to understand how psychological trauma can manifest as physical symptoms. Symptoms outwith the patients’ control that disable them as much as they would if the same symptoms had an organic cause. Symptoms just like MS, just like epilepsy, just like blindness, just like arthritis, like any other disease you can think of. The symptoms are the same. The only difference is the cause. These patients are not pretending, they are not imagining, they are not making up, and they are not putting on their symptoms. The brain is a complicated organ, much more so than any other. Our understanding of it is limited. And just like our other organs, the brain can become dysfunctional. We all respond differently to the same situation. And why should our response to extremely stressful events be any different? Some people’s brain produces REAL physical symptoms in response to psychological stress. So psychosomatic illness is NOT something the patient can control. Its not something they can turn on or off. They will have good and bad days but the presence of a good day doesn’t mean they are making it up or exaggerating it on a bad day.

So I’ll leave you with a question from p240: “can we give a disability that has its roots in behavioural or psychological factors the same respect that we offer to a physical disease?”

“Any chemical that can be broken down can be overproduced, or underproduced, as happens in the overactive or underachieve thyroid glad. In just the same way, sometimes the physical response of our organs to stress goes too far” p5

Society is judgmental about psychological illness and patients know that.” p10 This makes it harder for patients to accept the diagnosis, knowing the lack of understanding that awaits them in the outside world. In turn this leads to delay in embracing the treatment and professionals who are the only people that can help them.

“I have met many people whose sadness is so overwhelming that they cannot bear to feel it. In its place they develop physical disabilities. Against all logic, people’s subconscious selves choose to be crippled by convulsions or wheelchair-bound rather than experience the anguish that exists inside them.” p15

“A person’s personality and their life experience mounds the clinical presentation, the response and the outcome of any brush with illness. If you take one hundred healthy people and subject them to the exact same injury you will get a hundred different responses. That is why medicine is an art.” p22

“Every week I hear the word real used over and over, as if something that cannot be measured cannot be real. But the world is full of things we cannot see but either know or believe to be real. Our thoughts are vivid and constant but nobody knows how they are generated; they can’t be seen or smelled or touched but it wouldn’t occur to us not to believe in them.” p90 Think of your dreams, your thoughts, your religion. None of these things can be measured or proved, but imagine if somebody told you your thoughts are not real.

“If I am pretending to be ill, the sophistication of modern medicine becomes a threat to me, and it was no threat to Yvonne or Matthew or Pauline. They could not stop their search [for organic disease] because they were looking for something that they were certain was there.” p148

“Yvonne [psychosomatic blindness] had told me how things were when she handed me the card she had made. A woman who wishes to lie and fake and fool wears dark glasses and carries a cane and stumbles about. That woman certainly does not draw a picture. Yvonne’s drawing was not evidence of guilt but of innocence and, at the moment that she handed it to me, it was I who could not see.” p175 I think this example shows the difficulty and the sensitivity in diagnosing and discussing psychosomatic diagnoses.

“Perhaps she felt she had not convinced me yet. I reminded myself that exaggerating to convince is not the same as exaggerating to fool. Some cries for help are louder than others if they have previously gone unheard.” p231 This one demonstrates what I think is the saddest part of these illnesses. Patients have not had any explanation for their symptoms by the time they meet Dr O’Sullivan and as a result often feel they need to convince her their symptoms are real. Imagine if you were made to feel that way.

Chronic fatigue syndrome is poorly understood to put it mildly. A full discussion of the possible causative factors is beyond the scope of this blog but it is interesting to note a few points from O’Sullivan’s discussion of it.
“I believe that psychological factors and behavioural issues, if they are not the entire cause, at the very least contribute in a significant way to prolonging the disability that occurs in chronic fatigue syndrome.” P238
“Perhaps sufferers cannot mount a sufficient hormonal response to stress when it is required of them. This might explain why stressful events, either psychological or physical, can trigger the illness and why those affected cannot recover when faced with stress.” p241
“The only treatment proven to offer at least some benefit to those with ME/CFS is a graded exercise programme and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). And Rachel was quite right, CBT is no magic bullet, it is hard work, it doesn’t help everybody and she had tried it before. I reminded her that if somebody with diabetes doesn’t get better with their first tablet, they don’t abandon the treatment, they try a higher dose. If someone with asthma does not get better with one inhaler, they try a second. ME/CFS is no different to that, some people get better with one course of treatment and some people need a second…as we talked I was aware that she didn’t really want a better treatment, she wanted a better diagnosis. And why shouldn’t the she? ME/CFS is a disabling illness, the treatment is laborious and slow, the outcome is often poor and for all that, outside her family, she would get very little understanding or sympathy.” p246

“Ask somebody with dicossiative seizures how they feel, and you may get the answer ‘tired’ or ‘cold’- neither answer contains anything of their emotional state. Perhaps those who deny stress do so because they do not feel stress, having converted it to something else.” p243

“Behaviour that seems irrational might make more sense if you could appreciate the purpose it serves. Sometimes we create conflict with others because the intensity of feeling it leads to makes us feel less lonely. To feel hated can be less distressing than to feel forgotten. Sometimes being with anybody is better than being with nobody. Sometimes giving up feels better than failing. Sometimes failing through illness feels better than just failing. The unconscious substitutions we make to protect ourselves do not make sense when we do not understand them fully.”273

Women are more likely to suffer from psychosomatic illness…Is this because women are hysterical? Or are men and women just different? “Women drink less alcohol and have fewer alcohol-related problems than men. Men are more likely to self- medicate stress with alcohol. Men are more prone to aggressive outbursts or high risk behaviour, and are more likely to be arrested, harm their children, and have affairs. So perhaps it is not a matter of one sex coping bettered complaining less, but rather a case of each suffering differently. On the face of it, women turn their distress inward and men turn it outward.” P285

 

 

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