Ruth Kelly has been on my hit list for several years now.  One of those few women who make me seethe with irritation the moment they open their mouths.  The small thing that really got me started was learning that she went to mass every morning at 8am.  Given that she has four children, this seemed such a dereliction of her proper place, such a topsy turvy set of priorities, that I could no longer see her as someone who should be listened to.  Imagine a household with four young children, clamouring for attention, needing help with dressing, wanting breakfast, worrying about school or nursery.  And Mum puts on her hat and coat and goes to a beautiful silent place where she can be alone.  Irrational of me, I know, to write somebody off because of something so inconsquential in the grand scheme of national politics, but I subscribe to the belief that politicians’ private lives are important for what they tell us about the morality, the trustworthiness, the kindness of the politician.

Later on, she started to scare me with her fundamental Catholicism, and I particularly worried about the way in which she embraced faith schools when you only had to be as intelligent as me to realise that she was motivated by a need to defend Catholic faith schools, not a desire to extend the privilege to other faiths.  I do not like the admissions policies of most faith schools, and can get quite agitated about the exclusion of Jews and Muslims from the comfortable middle-class schools administered under the auspices of the Church of England or the Catholic Church but funded by the state.  I was relieved when she was moved away from the Education Department.  Surely there was only so much damage she could do in Transport.  And so on.  The poor women was doomed to never put a foot right as far as I was concerned.  Then she started to grow her hair – the feminine side was allowed to escape bit by bit.  I thought it was only window-dressing, but I was wrong.

Ruth Kelly has redeemed herself in the last couple of days.  Albeit belatedly, she has woken up to the responsibilities of the role she voluntarily assumed, and she has asked to be let go from her position as Minister of Transport so she can devote more time to being a wife and mother.  She has said that she is going to start putting her family first.  “Going to start” – isn’t that a terrifying admission – that up until now she has not put her husband and children first? What did she put first? God, or the Government, or herself?

This is an extract from an article in the Independent newspaper today which might, however, also give some cause for concern:

“Ruth Kelly is a very good friend of mine but she feels the tension of having four young children and wanting to spend time helping them through these difficult years,” Brown said.

“She’s been an MP all the time her children have been born. She is a very talented individual and I think the public will understand these are the things that happen when you have to juggle work and family life.”

Brown said that “as a father” he understood Kelly’s decision to put her children first. “She has missed several years and she wants to be with them as much as possible.”

Interesting.  Gordon Brown “as a father” understands her need to put her children first.  Does he mean that he already puts his children first?  If so, then how come he is able to take on the super-demanding role of Prime Minister and still put them first, while Ruth Kelly finds her less-demanding role of government minister incompatible with her priorities?  Or is Gordon saying that putting the children first is a priority that only mother’s need to recognise?  Or that he doesn’t have to bother with because his wonderful wife puts them first?

Much as I am delighted for Ruth Kelly’s children, what message are we women to take away from her sacrifice?  What lessons might, for example, Sarah Palin be encouraged to draw from Ruth Kelly’s decision?  Ruth Kelly gives us a normative rule: Mothers should put their children first.  She also tells us that in order to put our children first, we must devote sufficient time to them, and that it will be impossible to do that if we are working long hours.  Seems like a truism, put like that.

Worrying, it’s all very worrying.

Ruth Kelly