The View From London

07.22.134:45 AM ET

An Eventful Year for Britain’s Women

Between Kate’s pregnancy and Nigella’s marital woes, it’s been quite the summer for women in the U.K. Emma Woolf reviews the year so far for famous females on both sides of the Atlantic.

It’s turning into a summer of firsts: my first match at Lord’s Cricket Ground, my first taste of a Manhattan cocktail, my first First Night of the Proms. It’s also the first hot July we’ve had in years. People accuse us Brits of being obsessed with the weather, and it’s true, we are.

With outside temperatures nudging 85 at the First Night of the Proms, it’s stifling inside the Royal Albert Hall. Surrounded by classical-music aficionados, most of them sipping Pimm’s and dressed in twinset and pearls, I’m refreshed by Britten’s Sea Interludes and carried away by Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony. After the concert, Rachmaninoff still ringing in my ears, I cycle across Hyde Park to meet some friends in Covent Garden. We find a rooftop bar high above the Piazza and order a round of Manhattans.

What with our official “heat wave” and Andy Murray's recent Wimbledon triumph, not to mention the rugby and cricket victories and Chris Froome's Tour de France win, us Londoners are on a collective high. We do grumpy really well, for about 350 days of the year, but we're also surprisingly good at euphoria when the sun shines. It reminds me of our glorious Olympics and Paralympics last summer, when the whole city smiled.

We’re drinking cocktails to celebrate S’s engagement (she’s a native New Yorker, hence the Manhattans), and what makes it extra-special is that she’s marrying her longtime girlfriend. Or she will be, as soon as the Act of Parliament, which just received Royal Assent, goes through. It’s been an eventful year for women around the world ...

2012 ended with a literary bang, as Hilary Mantel made history by becoming the first woman and the first British writer to win the Booker Prize twice. Bring Up the Bodies, the second installment of her trilogy charting the life of Thomas Cromwell, and the first installment, Wolf Hall, which won the Booker three years ago, are both terrific books, well worth reading.

But Mantel started 2013 in hot water, with her apparently unsisterly comments about Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge. In a wide-ranging article for the London Review of Books, Mantel argued that the duchess represented the perfect royal wife: ‘irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character … her only point and purpose being to give birth.’ Mantel’s words were taken out of context and she was publicly vilified, with even our prime minister joining in. In reality, Mantel was exploring the perception, and media treatment, of royal women down the ages—but her words were arguably in poor taste. And the British press don’t let nuance get in the way of a good girly spat.

Mantel-gate was soon eclipsed by the announcement that the duchess was expecting a baby—cue our new national obsession: royal-womb-watching. The tabloid papers reveled in their pregnancy puns: Kate was “growing into her role,” looking “blooming lovely.” Even our national broadcaster became obsessed with her stomach, with BBC cameras zooming in as she attended public functions or went shopping for baby-cots with her mother.

We lurched from joy to despair, as Kate was admitted to hospital with severe morning sickness in the first trimester. She soon rallied and went on to conduct a faultless pregnancy. A fashion editor friend commented that Kate is “working her pregnancy well,” no major faux pas: “Too thin at first, but the bump’s about right now; she hasn’t turned into a whale.” As I’m writing this, the paparazzi are still ranged outside St Mary’s Hospital in their hundreds (get the latest from the Royalist’s blog here). Lest we miss bump-watching, as if by magic another royal baby is now on its way, courtesy of the queen’s horse-riding granddaughter Zara Phillips.

Royal Albert Hall (Emma Woolf)

In all the excitement of literary ladies and royal babies, I’m at risk of overlooking the rest of the women in the world.

2013 marked a low point for women Down Under, with the downfall of Prime Minister Julia Gillard after three years in office. Or should that be a low point for men? Despite delivering economic stability in a time of worldwide recession, Gillard’s voice, her red hair, her “small breasts and large thighs,” her choice not to marry or have children, has earned her truly despicable levels of misogynistic abuse. She resigned at the end of June. Like our first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, it’s debatable whether Gillard has made it easier or harder for another woman to lead her country.

June was eventful for first ladies Stateside, with Hillary Clinton’s arrival in the Twittersphere—she’s approaching 650,000 followers. Then to Michelle Obama: when the world is not obsessed with her toned biceps, it seems, we’re worrying about her hairstyle. The jury is still out on her new fringe (sorry, bangs) and during her speech at the G8 Summit in Belfast, debate raged online about whether her softer, flicky fringe was stylish or annoying. More important in U.S. gender politics was the performance of Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis, who filibustered for nearly 11 hours to block Senate Bill 5, legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Back on this side of the pond, the governor of the Bank of England announced that Winston Churchill will replace social reformer Elizabeth Fry as the face of £5 bank notes. This means that, other than the queen, we’ll have no women featuring on English currency. Opponents argue that this is yet another example of female achievements being overlooked in favor of the usual (male) suspects—and yet another example of how the establishment undervalues the contributions of women to history. Many of us have signed an online petition, and there has been speculation that Jane Austen may be a replacement.

Women were in the celebrity spotlight with the drama surrounding Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi, the TV chef and the art collector respectively. From those first paparazzi shots of Saatchi with his hands around Nigella’s neck at a posh London restaurant, to the removal vans pictured outside the £14 million marital home in Chelsea, it’s been a sorry saga, prompting important debate about domestic violence, abusive partners, and when a woman should walk. Saatchi dismissed it as a “playful tiff” (when’s the last time you put her hands around your partner’s neck, or your fingers up their nose?), but the couple have since filed for divorce.

To be honest, I’m not a Nigella fan—all that flirting and sexy-cooking for the camera gets on my nerves. Nor do we have much business telling others, famous or not, how to run their private lives. But I feel very sad for her. It should be easy to leave an abusive relationship, but it isn’t. Sometimes control is disguised as protection, or even love. The controller turns every situation into an opportunity to abase their partner. In recent weeks, many independent, intelligent women have spoken out about their own experiences of physical or emotional bullying.

Back in our Covent Garden rooftop bar, discussing Saatchi, one of my friends says: “Of course you know it’s wrong—the first time a boyfriend hits you, it’s wrong. But he apologizes and you forgive him. Each time he lashes out, he says he’s sorry, until your self-esteem gets so low … in the end you blame yourself.”

Those Manhattan cocktails look innocent, but they’re deceptively strong. As I free-wheel home through the muggy London night, I wonder how Nigella will pick up the pieces. I don’t think love hurts any less when you’re 53 years old than when you’re 33, or 23 … She’s clearly better off without Saatchi, but she’s still heartbroken. Either way, she loses.


Read previous installments in The View From London here.


Emma Woolf is a journalist, TV presenter, and the author of An Apple a Day: A Memoir of Love and Recovery from Anorexia. Her new book, The Ministry of Thin, came out in June 2013. Emma lives in London. Follow her on Twitter @EJWoolf.