“Girl crush” is a slightly problematic phrase when describing how I feel about Harriet Harman, the Labour MP, longest continuously-serving British female MP, pioneering women’s champion and all-round utterly draw-dropping inspiration. (Americans might use the word “badass” here. I feel more comfortable with "hero", "legend", "someone who should sit in history books alongside Millicent Fawcett and Gloria Steinem".) Because “girl” feels inadequate for one of the most impressive people in British parliament and “crush" sounds fleeting and juvenile. My feelings for Harman run far deeper than that.
Which is why I invited Harman to join The Pool’s second-birthday celebrations last night, alongside Gina Miller, Melanie Eusebe and Carry Somers, to talk about being a “gamechanger”. When I meet Harman, I gush something about "honour" and "privilege", and she starts talking about unions and asking me questions that I give stupid responses to because I’m basically I'm love. She is friendly and approachable, interested, probing. Harman’s achievements are too many to list, but make no mistake, she is one of this country’s most committed individuals to improving women’s lives, and has been for decades.
And here’s Harman’s magic – pushing to reframe how we perceive gender norms; challenging what we expect of ourselves and others; asking of men something that many would think is impossible
And she continues to be. Speaking on stage, as a room full of women hung off her every word, their eyes unknowingly turning to heart emojis, Harman revealed her latest effort to elevate women and their voices:
“I’m trying to groom the idea that, amongst men, there should be an ambition to be the deputy – and have an ambition to support a woman leader. How many men have that ambition to be deputy and be a really cracking deputy? Lots of women have the ambition to support the person at the top. It's a new notion that men should aspire to be deputy. Anyway, that’s what I’m working on in the Labour party.”
The room laughed, but indeed Harman has admitted to, and fought against, the very serious sexism and misogyny that has historically existed, and continues to exist, in the Labour party. She’s also been outspoken about Corbyn’s incompetence at dealing with the problem. And, as the one-time deputy leader of a party that seems incapable of allowing women to reach its top spot, presumably no one knows better about the party’s male bias than her.
But Harman’s idea shouldn’t be reserved for politics and should be investigated on a wider scale. Is she right? Do women aspire to be a really great deputy? Not wanting to take a leadership role, but instead stay in a safer spot, in the shadow of someone else? Abi Morgan, the brilliant playwright (Suffragette, The Hour), said that exact thing to me about working with the director Steve McQueen. She said she liked being his second-in-command. Now, that doesn’t undermine that as an ambition per se, but is there a wider trend of women not wanting to take leadership roles because they’ve never believed that role is for them? Because society has never encouraged them? Because there are so many literal and figurative hurdles to overcome in order to get there?
And because leadership is perceived to be an inherently male quality – that the skills involved – decisiveness, courage, vision – are ones that have been attributed to men because women have been shut away, prohibited, blocked. And therefore the deputy, the support, is a feminine role. “Behind every great man…” the phrase goes. In society, we might win best supporting role, but never best actress. We play the loyal companion because that’s where we feel safe and where society likes having us – out of reach of any real power, carefully propping up the status quo. Hillary Clinton was America’s 42nd First Lady, but she was never allowed to be leader.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being “a cracking deputy” – as long as a woman wants to, not because she thinks that's her limit, her place. Eliud Kipchoge just ran the fastest-ever marathon, in part thanks to help from his pacers. It’s a handy metaphor to make the point that support is crucial to the success of the individual. Supporting and listening and following diligently are not to be mocked or underestimated – we all need those people, but we have to ask why it’s always women who have been in that role.
And, in that way, Harman’s plan to reframe this is no easy challenge. Because she’s asking men to align themselves with what is perceived as feminised and therefore secondary and inferior. Our society is one of lists and ranking, and masculinity has strong ties to being first, being the best, being in charge. Great leaders are great men, or so history (and the Labour party) tells us. And here’s Harman’s magic – pushing to reframe how we perceive gender norms; challenging what we expect of ourselves and others; asking of men something that many would think is impossible; and redefining a role that has been assigned to women as something aspirational because, she, quite obviously and fundamentally, believes in women – and believes what we do is something to aspire to.
We’re always asking women to change – be bolder, be braver, lean in, lean out, ask for more, speak louder, step up. But the thing l like most about Harman’s suggestion is that Harman knows that women have done more than their fair share. So, now, she’s asking men to change. Tragically, Harman will never be the leader of a party she's dedicated her working life to, but it seems she’s doing all she can to help another woman take that spot.
See? There's no other way to put it – total girl crush.