Harriet Harman is all too used to people wishing she'd just pipe down. You'd never know it now, to see her chatting away in her cheery yellow kitchen, among the Nigella cookbooks and constituency files. But for years she was treated as something between a joke and a nagging conscience, mocked for harping on about issues affecting women – even when, as equalities minister, that wasn't just her passion but her job.
“Nobody would say ‘why does William Hague keep banging on about abroad?’; he was foreign secretary, for heaven's sake,” she says indignantly. “It's always an attempt to delegitimise what you're doing, not to take on the argument – to say this is why childcare doesn't matter, or domestic violence – but to undermine you, erode your confidence and determination.” She may now be regarded as the closest thing to a woman leader Labour ever had, but arguably she still bears the scars.
But more of that later. Harman has just published a memoir, A Woman’s Work, part autobiography and part history of what happened when the women’s movement finally breached male bastions of power. Among other consciousness-raising moments, it describes how her university tutor told her she'd only be guaranteed a 2:1 if she slept with him. She declined, but didn't feel able to report him – or the senior lawyer who groped her in the office when she was just a young articled clerk, or the Labour party member who mauled her at a party dinner, although by then she was senior to him. “You didn’t,” she says simply, when asked why she didn’t complain. “You cringed, you shrank away from it, you dreaded it, but there was no sense in which there was anything you could do about it.” The women’s movement helped, she says, allowing women to gain strength in numbers by swapping such stories. But even now she has been criticised for telling the tutor story, on the grounds that now he’s dead and cannot challenge it, as if she can’t quite be trusted to tell the truth.
“It’s the default position that if this is somebody in a position of authority, respected by their colleagues, that there’s something a bit fishy about [their accuser],” she sighs. “That’s part of why people don’t complain and why abusers have impunity. It’s like a warning; don’t dare complain.”
I know the UK has a special relationship with the US, but that doesn’t mean we have to throw away our dignity
But in public life if not in private, Harman dares more than most. Her rule is if you’re not having arguments, you’re not making a difference and she is still spoiling for a fight at what she calls a “very dangerous” time for women. Her new cause is preventing any backsliding on women's rights as Britain disentangles itself from EU law during Brexit and she cites the warning example of the 1940s, when women who had gained independence during the war were forced back into the kitchen afterwards. “It’s quite possible for circumstances to contrive that things women could do, they can no longer do; that they could be pushed back, and we are at one of those moments.
“It’s a very dangerous moment and part of the danger is for women to feel that we have won it all, and we can now all be in cheery agreement – ‘Don’t be bitter and twisted and keep fighting the old battles, you’re stuck in the past.’ Well, we know we could be pushed back into the past. Inevitably with a social and cultural revolution there are people who don’t agree and are just waiting for their moment.”
Donald Trump’s election marked, she thinks, a “massive legitimisation of arguments for oppression of women and for women to be subordinate to men”. She was horrified to see Theresa May apparently holding Trump’s hand in Washington: “You’ve got to be able to look at her and think that she’s going to not let things be pushed back. I know the UK has a special relationship with the US, but that doesn’t mean we have to throw away our dignity.”
Which brings us to the question of female leadership. It clearly frustrates her that the Tories have had two women leaders and Labour none so why did she never run herself, having been elected deputy against all expectations and enjoyed what she calls an “almost unnerving” late burst of popularity during two spells as acting leader (after Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband’s resignations)?
She hesitates briefly before confessing: in hindsight, she wishes she had. “I did run for deputy despite the fact that I was kind of laughed at. And when I was acting leader in 2010 I was nailing it in Prime Minister's Questions, I was very popular in the party. But I think there are always men who step forward [when] people think they can’t do it and always women who don’t step forward for something they could do and I think at that moment I was one of those.”
True, she'd promised to serve as leader only until a successor was elected but she could, she says, have U-turned and stood herself: “And actually I should have done that. I should have done that. It’s about recognising the situation you’re in and seizing the moment.” But instead, she watched as Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn seized theirs.
She won't criticise Corbyn directly but when asked if, at the next election she can honestly advocate putting him in Downing Street, she squirms noticeably: “Um, I will be absolutely supporting there being a Labour government, definitely.” That's not an answer. “Um, I’m just going to do everything I can to get a Labour government.”
For women in politics, too, she thinks things are looking up; the job is still tough on those with children but at least there are enough of them now to offer mutual support
What she will say is that having been an MP in the 1980s she finds opposition horribly frustrating. “I have such a sense of foreboding, because it’s only going to get worse. From the 1980s I know where this goes; education will suffer, healthcare will suffer, the people at the bottom in terms of income will suffer.” But she says, history also reminds her that Labour has been written off before and bounced back: “I don’t want it to take that long again, but having seen it all before makes me have a real sense of foreboding but also optimism.”
For women in politics, too, she thinks things are looking up; the job is still tough on those with children but at least there are enough of them now to offer mutual support. That wasn’t so in the 80s when she was on the frontbench with three small children, close to breaking point but not daring to give her critics the satisfaction of admitting it: “I had to present this front that I was coping, but I wasn’t. I come from a family where my mum was at home, I had a sackful of letters when I first came into the Commons saying ‘you’re going to ruin your children’s lives’.”
The guilt, however, made her take terrible risks. Once back in the 1990s she promised to take her then young son and a friend to the cinema for a half-term treat, only to be summoned by the whips to give an emergency parliamentary statement on an ambulance workers’ strike. She couldn’t bear letting the boys down and made her assistant pretend that she mysteriously couldn’t be found. The children got their film about bears, but it was a disaster all round: “The daddy bear started having sex with the mummy bear, the kids thought he was attacking her, and at the end she dies so there was lots of wailing from the children and meanwhile my bag rumbling with all these pager messages saying ‘Where are you?’” She expected not just to be sacked, but humiliated because “it was all the things you’re not supposed to do as a mother in work; let down your colleagues.”
But to her amazement, when she refused to offer any explanation for going AWOL other than being “not available”, her boss Robin Cook swiftly forgave her. “And then the penny dropped: he thought I was having an affair, and was tickled pink.” The lesson she drew was not just that infidelity was deemed more acceptable than parenthood, but that nobody is really indispensable except to their children. Harriet Harman may not have fulfilled her every ambition. But somehow, you doubt she’ll spend her retirement consumed with regrets.