If there’s one thing that really hits a woman where it hurts, it’s the charge of being unsisterly.
After all, as Madeleine Albright once said, there’s a special circle of hell reserved for women who don’t help other women. Hence the uproar last week when the deputy Commons speaker, Eleanor Laing, ticked off the heavily pregnant Labour MP Tulip Siddiq for leaving a parliamentary debate to grab some food. (Convention dictates that MPs hang around for half an hour after speaking in a debate to hear any responses but, as Siddiq pointed out, in most workplaces there's some give and take).
But what’s puzzling is that Laing is not your obvious reactionary. She's an ex-shadow women’s minister who championed feminist causes before it was fashionable in the Conservative party. Something odd is going on, and not just in politics.
Yesterday, the feminist thinktank The Fawcett Society released research showing unexpectedly cheering levels of support for gender equality – men, if anything, are now more in favour than women – but a hidden kernel of resistance among those with the power to hire and fire. And, yes, that includes women.
One in five women making recruitment decisions didn’t think greater equality of opportunity would benefit the economy; more surprisingly, 15 per cent felt women’s equality had gone too far and 11 per cent defined themselves as opposed to feminism.
It’s true these so-called "barrier bosses" were in the minority (and far less likely than senior men to hold such views). Still, the awkward truth is that – as the report puts it – women "may not always be allies" on equality.
The Iron Lady hadn’t needed any special measures to reach the top, many Tories argued, so why should anyone else?
It’s tempting to blame generational differences: women who came up the hard way struggling to sympathise with younger ones seemingly keen to have it easier. Laing herself gave birth a week after being elected, took virtually no time off and climbed the ranks as a single mother after her marriage ended.
But Harriet Harman’s experiences as a young mother in parliament were equally grim, and she’s spent a lifetime trying to make it easier for others. So it’s perhaps equally relevant that Laing is from a generation of Tory women coming up in the shadow of Margaret Thatcher, whose success became almost a millstone around their necks.
The Iron Lady hadn’t needed any special measures to reach the top, many Tories argued, so why should anyone else? If other women couldn’t follow suit, it was their fault for not trying hard enough.
Surrounded by people only too ready to judge them wanting, ambitious female Tory MPs in the pre-Cameron years learnt to show no weakness. Which doesn’t excuse but provides some context for Laing’s ridiculous reported suggestion that Siddiq was "bringing down all womankind" by, uh, grabbing lunch.
The emergence of senior women with hidden doubts about equality in office life, meanwhile, may partly reflect the reality of life at the top. Could it be that the women who rise furthest in some industries tend to be those with roughly similar views to men already at the top? Or that the world stops feeling so unfair when it’s working pretty well for you personally – and when you’re the one who has to fund the equal pay claim, not the one to benefit? Maybe it’s just naïve to expect all women to stick up for all other women, regardless of whether they’ve got anything in common but biology.
If the Fawcett Society findings on men’s support for feminism are right, and men start fighting women's corner more, then perhaps sisterliness will simply peacefully die off. We won't need to huddle together for safety.
But until that happy day – well, a little solidarity is always nice. That, and knowing you can nip out for a sandwich without the sky falling in.