Monday, 22 April 2013

First women

The conductor for this year's Last Night of the Proms will be a woman for the first time in the event's 118 year history. Obviously this is excellent news. It's taking out one more shard of the glass ceiling that prevents women from rising to the top of so many professions. And it's a sign to other women and girls that their gender does not need to stop them.

Marin Alsop conducting
The woman to brave the splintered glazing is Marin Alsop. I've written about her before. I'd never heard of her until I went female conductor hunting, but then I've only ever heard of about four conductors, and half of them are probably dead.

Being the first lady

As far as I know, I've not been the first woman to do anything, but I imagine that this 'first woman' label is quite irritating. You worked hard and you got there on your own merits, but somehow you're being proclaimed as leading other women to where you are. There's also a hint that it was inevitable that a woman would get there eventually, it was just a matter of time, and it happened to be you.

I imagine that many people in this position would rather be known as the Prime Minister/Nobel prize winner/conductor than the first person to do it with a pair of tits. This 'first woman' business detracts from the fact that you're doing what you do best, and you do it very, very well.

There's the first time something happens - the first man on the moon, the first Nobel prize, the first man to climb Everest. Then after a decent interval, long enough to show how very hard it was, the first woman gets there. Hopefully we'll reach a point where these 'firsts' become just as likely to be accomplished by women as men, so we no longer feel the need to talk about the first woman and first man to do something - just the first person.

First women and feminism

We have a tendency to see first women as feminist icons, because they are going where only men have gone before - see my thoughts on Margaret Thatcher from last week.

But I can see that being proclaimed the first woman in this irritating fashion might actually have the effect of turning women off feminism. Maybe that's why Maggie disliked feminism. Maybe she felt that being the first female prime minister was about as relevant as being the first person in her family to have twins (I made that up, it may not be true).

All that said, Marin Alsop is a different kettle of fish. In her interview on the BBC website, she says the there needs to be 'more opportunities for women to be seen in these types if leadership roles' and explains that she has herself established a fellowship scheme for young women conductors. She ends by saying that she is 'appreciative' of being the first woman.

It's good that, unlike Maggie, she's doing something to hold the gate open to the women who follow her. But I wonder if she's a teensie bit irritated about being asked how it feels to be a woman, and wishes she could just get on and do her job.

It's sad that it's still so exciting for a woman to take a big public job like this. I hope that changes soon.

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