Saturday, 16 February 2013

Power Lists and Heroines

By NASA/Bill Ingalls via Wikimedia Commons
Last weekend BBC Radio 4 released a Woman's Hour Power List of the UK's most influential women.

The Queen topped the poll, followed by the Home Secretary Theresa May (fair enough - they're quite influential). Below them, the top 20 included women at the top of their fields in business, law, medicine, the media (a Murdoch), science, politics and the arts.

It is heartening to see that only a handful of these women are 'famous' in our usual celebrity-obsessed sense: Adele, JK Rowling, Joanna Lumley and Victoria Beckham (for her fashion work).

These lists are pretty abstract and subjective. How do you really measure influence, and are the list-makers trying too hard to cover as many different areas and professions as possible?

A truly feminist result would be a list of powerful people, in which half were men and half women, but we still have a long way to go before we get to that point. What is great about reading through this list is that these women are out there, being important and influential, and making history.

History's losers

There is a saying that history is always written by the winning side. Up until the 20th century history was written by and about men. When asked to name pre-19th century important men, you could probably keep going for hours. Do the same for women and you won't run out of fingers.

There were plenty of women around when big historical events were taking place, but women couldn't vote, they lost out on positions of power to their brothers, and their education rarely went beyond learning to sew and sing.

Historic Codpiece Influencer Anne Boleyn
That's not to say that women haven't had an impact on history. If it wasn't for Anne Boleyn (and her daughter Elizabeth I), the entire religious landscape of this country would have been different. But up until the 20th century when women fought for the right to vote, fought for the right to a decent education and fought for places in all of the professions reflected on the Power List, we didn't really have a chance.

Codpiece politics

What the Power List does suggest is that history in the future will no longer be male-dominated. There will be heroines who change history because of what they think, say and do - not just because some fat bloke in a codpiece and a crown fancies having his way with them.

Maybe we still haven't reached the point where half the world's movers and shakers are men and half are women, and maybe we never will. But in the UK, if not elsewhere, the landscape in business, law, medicine, the media, science, politics and the arts is being influenced and changed by both men and women. We're no longer the losers.

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