Tessa Jowell


Tessa Jowell did so much for women – and that’s why she’s overlooked

Photo: Getty

As the former minister is revealed to be suffering from brain cancer, Gaby Hinsliff reflects on a media that refers to her as someone’s “mother-in-law”

Added on

By Gaby Hinsliff on

“Deliciously Ella’s mother-in-law.” That’s how one daily newspaper this week billed the former Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell, who has sadly just been diagnosed with a brain tumour – as the mother of the man who married that food writer. You know, the one with the chia seeds.

And, awkwardly, for some younger women that might well be more or less who she is. They may not remember Tessa Jowell as a campaigning feminist politician. They probably don't know her as the driving force behind the right to request flexible working – at least, partly because of her experiences as the mother of that guy who grew up to marry that food writer, in the days when there were no such compromises available, so Jowell would work through the night without sleep to carve out time in the day with her two children.

They won’t know she was the architect of Sure Start, the early-years programme aiming to give preschoolers a better start in life, inspired by her earlier career as a social worker. Or that she was holding government summits about girls’ body image and the impact of the media years before Instagram was invented.

And while they might vaguely remember her running London’s winning bid to host the Olympics, they probably didn't really clock her subsequent unsuccessful bid to be Labour’s candidate for the London Mayoralty, or her steaming frustration during that contest about the way older women are casually written off. (At 67, she kept being asked if she was past it, even as the then-66-year-old Jeremy Corbyn was running for Labour leader.) In short, to a lot of younger women she won't be recognisable as a campaigning feminist politician at all, and not just because the noughties already feels like history, but because some kinds of history are simply more written about than others.

None of this is to denigrate the importance of the family, especially to Tessa Jowell herself. She absolutely adores being a mum, and a mother-in-law, and now grandmother to her daughter Jess's new baby, as well as an honorary “second mum” to most of her staff over the years. And in the circumstances, what the papers call her is arguably the least of anyone's problems.

Funnily enough, Nigel Lawson is rarely introduced as Nigella’s dad, even though most people now probably know more about her recipes than his time in Cabinet 30 years ago

But it shouldn’t take a life-threatening illness to acknowledge a career of genuine substance, or to recognise how many other women are more than the sum of the people they loved. It's perfectly possible to be thrilled and proud to be somebody’s mum, or partner or sister or daughter or whatever, and not solely defined by it – just as it's possible to absolutely love your job but still have other things in your life.

And for the record, it's also possible to be unfailingly kind to other people, as Jowell famously is, but fierce about your causes; to be both nice and effective, a good friend and a determined opponent.They're not binary choices. It's fine to be two things at once.

Hell, if anything, it's a positive advantage, given Jowell's strength as a politician was in taking the ordinary life experiences she and millions of other women had and making policy accordingly. But that, in a sense, is the problem.

If she were male, then Tessa Jowell would be a grandee by now, an elder statesman. She'd have published her memoirs and she'd be reverently summoned on to the Today programme from time to time, like Lord Heseltine or Nigel Lawson (who, funnily enough, is rarely introduced as Nigella’s dad, even though most people now probably know more about her recipes than his time in Cabinet 30 years ago).

But, while she has a list of concrete achievements as long as your arm, many are to do with women’s and children’s lives, and those are still not taken seriously or treated as the economic issues they very much are. Flexible working has completely reshaped employment in Britain – over half of us now vary our hours or working patterns in some way – as has an explosion of state-subsidised childcare in which Tessa Jowell also had a hand. Early-years education is famously more critical to children’s life chances than university education.

The way older women are squeezed out of working life isn't apparently as sexy a topic as whether Boris Johnson did or didn't lie (again) about £350m going to the NHS after Brexit, but it's going to force its way on to the political agenda sooner or later because it affects millions of people's lives. Let this stuff slip out of the bigger picture, decide it isn't worth the column inches devoted to "proper" Westminster stories, and you're barely telling half the story of what politics does or why it matters. It's time to fill in the blanks.


Sign up

Love this? Sign up to receive our Today in 3 email, delivering the latest stories straight to your inbox every morning, plus all The Pool has to offer. You can manage your email subscription preferences at My Profile at any time

Photo: Getty
Tagged in:
women in politics
amazing women

Tap below to add
the-pool.com to your homescreen

Love The Pool? Support us and sign up to get your favourite stories straight to your inbox