Old Style Courtesy and Hospitality: The CUS

Last Thursday I was invited by Andrew Chapman to speak at the internationally famous Cambridge Union by participating in their Freshers feminism debate “This House Believes We’d be Better Off if Women Ruled the World.”

(pic. left to right,Rupert Myers, Emma Wimhurst, Louise Court, Edwina Currie, myself and James Max)

Oh dear. I’m afraid we only managed to convince the house to the tune of 53 votes ‘for’ to the three hundred and somethings ‘against’ (a hundred and something abstentions) that women alone should rule the world. However, I think that most of the ‘team’ on the side of the feminists (and on the other, I might add) were secretly of the same persuasion of the 2007 Pew Global Attitudes survey of 46 countries which found most thought both men and women make equally good leaders if selected on individual merit!

The evening began with drinks and a superb three course dinner for the speakers and senior officers of the Society where I chatted at some length to bursar Colonel Bill Bailey MBE about his recent refurbishment programme and the price of cigars, and to Jan-Jonathan Bock Peterhouse about his ambition to make great art films to express his world views. I look forward to seeing them at Cannes! Twenty minutes before the appointed hour every seat in the Debating chamber was filled and therefore the event began promptly at 8pm.

Louise Court, the very unassuming and pleasant editor of Cosmopolitan spoke first and boldly put forward her well-prepared case for female supremacy. Possibly the fact that he had heard that very day of his promotion from pupil to a permanent seat in Chambers, Cambridge grad Rupert Myers, an experienced, international debater was in particularly feisty, challenging and witty mood. That did not help us! Next to the foray came super business woman Emma Wimhurst who spoke clearly and with great humour about our multi-tasking abilities. She was followed by ex Apprentice runner up James Max who has had ample experience in ‘wind-ups’ of campaigners on his LBC talk show and continued in this style to decimate our proposals.

Speaking third, after the floor had been opened to the students for twenty minutes or so, was fairly challenging. My own view, that women are naturally talented motivational leaders (which they practice on a minute on minute basis from birth with empathy, encouragement and on occasions sheer nosiness for detail) had mostly been covered.

However, it was good when researching for this evening to refresh myself on some encouraging statistics (for this blog) about how we women are progressing. Like, how since only 1928 (women under 30 didn’t get the vote in this country until then) we have done pretty well. Internationally our leadership skills are being recognised – only in 1960 Sirivamo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka became the world’s first female selected premier minister; and only this year Monaco became the last country in the world to have it’s first female member of government. Today we have three highly respected Queens; Elizabeth 2nd, Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands and Queen Margareta of Denmark., 8 female prime ministers and 8 female presidents.

Edwina Currie, a skilful debater and confident speaker who brought great theatre to the event, stated that many of the 120 women ministers in Parliament in this country today were ‘politically correct’ appointees and many were completely ineffectual. Were we dispirited? No, because, the other side did concede that some of our female leaders had been exceptional – like Maggy Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth 1st, Angela Merke – (so who’s side were they supposed to be on?)

Joking aside, I somehow managed to bring into my humble contribution the stirring passage that has haunted me since I came across it some years ago and which I felt relevant to any political debate of the time. 1969 Apollo Astronaut Rusty Shweickart’s account of viewing Planet Earth from space, of being struck by its total fragility, ‘the precious little spot in the universe’ that could be blocked out by his thumb. How we need to keep perspective on the real challenges of leadership, whether they be taken up by men or women, of being able by any means to avoid conflict at all costs, in order to tackle the issue of our stewardship of the globe and all that involves.

The size of it, the significance of it – it becomes both things, it becomes so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in the universe, that you can block it out with your thumb, and you realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing is everything that means anything to you. All of history and music and poetry and art and war and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games all of it is on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb.’ Rusty Shweikhart, Apollo 9 Astronaut, talking about his view of Planet Earth from space. img. courtesty of NASA

Barbara Wilding CBE, the Chief Constable of South Wales Police, the UK’s most senior long serving police officer offered help with her observations of females in the police force over forty odd years. ‘Women are particularly good at emergencies – at responding to the immediate situation while ‘keeping the home fires burning’.

My view is that we currently have an emergency on our hands and that urgent situation has to be addressed. For that reason I concluded that maybe the world would be better if women were in charge, if we were able to take a fresh approach to the aims of leadership; to use our skills of communication and bonding to be able to find common ground during world negotiations on climate change.

A credit to the organisers, October 8th at the Cambridge Union on Bridge Street was a thrilling evening in more ways than one – a lady from the floor leapt up in defence of the personal attack on Cosmo Queen Louise Court to remind Edwina Currie of her four year affair with John Major; And that was just one of the cheeky exchanges which lifted the roof with applause and laughter.

After the debate I stayed on for the debriefing with the gorgeously debonair CUS President Julien Demercq and to chat with Caroline Cummins about life after Cambridge in London and the Freshers Ball which was happening the following evening.

There were several memorable moments, but one of the outstanding recollections of the evening was the warm and welcoming greeting I received from everyone at the Cambridge Union, the electric atmosphere charged by a long sense of tradition, but more than anything, their exceptional hospitality.

Many thanks indeed Cambridge for having me.

About Louise Burfitt-Dons

Writer and social critic
This entry was posted in womens' issues. Bookmark the permalink.

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