The name of the Dame
Saturday’s Honours List came with all the usual congratulations about the cross-section of the UK it now included. Alongside the new entrepreneurial elite of Stelios and co, a record 42% of the honorands were women.
Cue for picture in most newspapers of a smiling Esther Rantzen CBE (“Services to Children and Young People”) or 98-year old Constance Brown MBE who has run the same chippy in Pembroke since the 1920’s (“Services to Business and the Community”). Rather fewer, it must be said, of the reassuringly old elite Countess Cranbrook OBE (“Services to the Red Meat Industry in the East of England” – which I think translates into organic farming and saving small abattoirs).
But exactly how gender neutral is the whole process? Not quite as neutral as it boasts. I happened to take a look at the official list that is spewed out from the bowels of some government office. It’s not like what you read in your paper (which has been carefully “modernized”). It would look comfortably at home in some era before the Married Women’s Property Act (1882).
It’s the old question of titles and description. The men are listed as you might expect. Just plain “John Brown” -- unless they have a title (“Professor”, “The Reverend” etc), when that’s included too. Women with a title are listed in the same way (“Professor Janet Nelson”). But the rest, in striking contrast to the men, get a gender/marital status denominator, “Miss”, “Ms” (that’s the radical innovation”) or “Mrs”. And if it’s “Mrs” , then the poor woman gets described in old-fashioned trophy-wife-style that hasn’t been used outside royal circles for decades. “Lucinda Jane, Mrs Guinness”. That’s Lulu Guinness of the handbags to you or me.
The result is that Rolf Harris is there as we know him, plain “Rolf Harris” – married or not, who cares or knows? Esther Rantzen, on the other hand, who is in that tricky category of radical widow, appears cumbersomely as “Ms Esther Louise Rantzen, Mrs Wilcox”.
The feminists of the 1960s taught us how important to women’s equality the protocols of “naming” are. It’s about time that this little corner of the establishment caught up.
Of course, there is one advantage in their marking out the women in this way. You can easily check their figures. Leaving aside the Civil Service and Diplomatic section and the gongs that still go to the outposts of empire, like the Turks and Caicos Islands etc., it’s true that women do get about 42% of the awards overall. But, surprise surprise, they’re clustered at the bottom of the hierarchy.
They make up about 48% of the almost 600 MBEs (the chippy lady and many others). When it comes to the OBEs and CBEs (just over 300 of them), they hover either side of 30%. At the rank of Knight (or its equivalent), there are just 5 new Dames to 23 Sirs.
But I did find myself reflecting that there might be more to these last figures than meets the eye. You can, after all, take the title “Sir” quite seriously, even it does have a rather austere ring. You might even think it could be occasionally useful in getting into restaurants, up-grading on airplanes and the like. So how is it that we inflict on some of the brightest and best women in the land a title that will always sound vaguely silly? Reminiscent of a pantomime and more likely to elicit a titter than cut a dash with the forces of authority.
May be a host of women simply couldn’t face the word and turned honour down. Or perhaps some kind civil servant thought it a kindness not to burden them with it in the first place.
Sorry. This is the third post in a row to complain (“rant”, as a (male) friend put it) about the lot of women somewhere in the world. But this particular bit of complacent self-congratulation was simply too much to take.