Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

We Make Working Women Feel Far Too Guilty

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

We Make Working Women Feel Far Too Guilty

Article excerpt


PITY the poor Tory wife. In the popular imagination the two words conjure a host of cliches.

Either a stalwart of the twinsetand-pearls brigade (Betsy Duncan-Smith) or a photogenic "trophy wife" (Sandra Howard), to the public she has always been little more than an adjunct to her political husband smiling for the cameras.

She is often screamingly posh, too.

Frances Osborne, the 37-year-old wife of the 35-year-old shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, is only one of these things (the posh bit).

Her sense of style owes more to Topshop than Laura Ashley (she is dressed, when we meet, in businesslike grey slacks with a funky belt and a cropped, crocheted cardigan). We meet in a Lebanese juice bar on Westbourne-Grove - very Notting Hill - where she rejects with mock-horror my precis of the old-fashioned, antifeminist Tory wife. "I think that's a mythical stereotype actually. I don't She's standing up for modern mothers juggling work and family, and a book about her great-grandmother is a surprise success. Frances Osborne wants to be a new kind of Tory wife think, except in some subtle ways, it's any different from being married to anyone else. Everyone works very hard now, everyone works irregular hours."

Perhaps not in London, but what about in Tatton, where George is the MP? Are there not parties to host, canapes to titivate, sherry to pour?

"But that's George's job," she says quite crossly. "George does that."

It is hardly likely, of course, that the new generation of Conservative power-mongers - all male, still, by and large - defined by Tory leader David Cameron and his right-handman Osborne should have married women who were not equally modern.

That is one of the changes the Conservatives hope will reconnect them to modern Britain - which also makes being married to the new Tory mob quite a high-risk business.

Once a barrister, then a fund manager in the City and now a writer, and the mother of two young children (Luke, four, and two-year-old Liberty), she surely has more in common with Cherie Blair and Sarah Brown than with the Conservative matrons she must sometimes encounter at Tatton tea parties.

Osborne is having to reinvent the role of Tory wife for the 21st century, and I wonder how she's doing it.

"I couldn't be a stay-at-home mum and I do not plump cushions. I seem to have had tons of different careers and jobs, and then, when I got pregnant for the first time, I sat down and realised I needed a steady regular income to pay for childcare.

"I thought: I'm married to someone who loves what he does, and am I also going to love what I do? Do I want to spend my whole time changing nappies and clearing up vomit? No, I don't."

Instead she wrote a book, a family memoir called Lilla's Feast - about her indomitable great-grandmother, Lilla, who lived to 101, surviving not only a desperately loveless marriage to a man named Ernie Howell, but internment as a foreign alien in a Chinese camp during the Second World War. Ironically, in the early years of the 20th century, Lilla was brought up "to be a wife and nothing else", says Osborne. "That was your career as a woman without financial independence."

Posted first to India and then to China, while often pregnant, with her military husband, Lilla had few real choices in life: and researching her story has made Osborne realise how intensely lucky modern women are.

Lilla's son, Arthur, for example, was sent to boarding school in England at the age of five, while Lilla herself went back to India with Ernie. She saw her son once a year for a matter of weeks at the most.

"I'm absolutely fascinated by this.

We worry about how many hours we spend with our children, and how on earth we make it work. And Lilla was thinking, 'How many days per year can I spend with my son?'

I wrote this book out of desperation, really. …

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