MONDAY. Phone rings. Could I come to the United States ambassador's residence on Wednesday for a meeting with Hillary Clinton? It will be coffee, cookies and a two-hour discussion of the problems facing professional women. Initial reaction: "I can't. I lecture all Wednesday morning." This is displaced by the realisation that it offers the perfect excuse for the lateness of my John Updike essay. Then become star-struck,contact nursery, engage Jenny, my babysitter, book hotel room, get hair done, cook casserole, find pink suit, rearrange classes.
Tuesday. Slog on with the Updike essay. Interrupted by the embassy with a faxed pass, confirmation and directions ("Head for the mosque in Regent's Park and you'll see a policeman"), and by problems of university safety. (I am a safety officer.) Leave building to burn down behind me and dash to London.
Wednesday. Am so nervous I arrive an hour early.Walk through the "sterile secure" zone, surrounded by men with bulges and deaf aids, towards presidential motorcade. (My small son would love the helicopters and flashing motorbikes.) Other women arrive and I realise I am the only one not based in the Home Counties. My major problem as a professional woman is that all meetings take place in London, three hours away by train. We are moved into the state dining room, where the press appear, plus Hillary Clinton, who greets us individually. We are 22 women, plus the ambassadorial labrador. The experienced politicals (Gillian Shephard and Baroness Blackstone) lead off. Topics range widely and there are clear generational splits. Older participants feel things have improved for women. Those of us in the sandwich generation (between small kids and older parents) are less upbeat. Gillian Shephard extols the efforts being put into training of women, and there is talk of confidence building. Despite own state of abject terror, make point that you can train the socks off women, all to no avail if the barriers remain in place. Cite the performance deficit in British universities. (Women still get fewer firsts, even with anonymous marking. Is it assessment criteria? Teaching methods and culture?
A "women's style" of discourse?) The effects of casualisation of labour, unemployment and demographic change come in for scrutiny, with the 30/30/30 split elucidated. Thirty per cent are unemployed, 30 per cent are in part-time work, 30 per cent are I "Knackered," interrupts one participant. Gales of laughter.We move from problems of pensions, to micro-credit enterprises, the long-hours culture, employment protection (or rather the lack of it), parental leave (or rather the lack of it) and legislative as opposed to attitudinal change. Unsurprisingly, given the legal heavyweights present, we are firmly in favour of the former. The First Lady is relaxed but completely on the ball, gives us plenty to think about and plays a full part in the discussion. She is particularly concerned with the problems of single parents and the economic fallout from divorce, a cause some of those present take to represent the kind of family values hijacked by the American Right. Given the miserable experiences of my sister, divorced in Oregon, I am more inclined to agree with Hillary Clinton. The clash between idealism (caring values) and pragmatism (translating educational into career success) recurs at intervals. Should women make sacrifices for their careers? Or should men change their values? The meeting closes, there are group photos and individual farewells, and I hare back to the north.
Thursday. Hillary Clinton spent some time on the problems of finding an appropriate strategic language with which to address the needs of women. Too true. The press describes her as a Stepford wife and the rest of us as "the best female minds" (as opposed to canine?) and "chattering class sisters". The man from The Times wants to know whether she mentioned Bill? Chelsea? And even asks: "What did you think of her clothes?" Unfortunately the interview is by phone so I cannot tell if the hack in question is wearing a snappy Elizabeth Hurley number or a grey suit, but my attempt to drag us back to the problems of demographic change certainly falls on cloth ears. I am quoted as "earnest" the next day. In Newcastle I teach my "Slavery and freedom" class. Depart for Nottingham to excellent inaugural lecture on "New York, New York". Envy Professor Tallack's ability to crack jokes and offer intellectual analysis, while showing slides and video clips, with a microphone stuck to his tie and his family in the front row. The clips include The Age of Innocence and the audience valiantly attempts to ignore the charms of Daniel Day Lewis and Michelle Pfeiffer in favour of the iconography and interior furnishings. In the pro-vice chancellor's introduction, I become a chairman again. Daniel Day-Lewis apart, given the choice between furniture and man, I think I prefer furniture. Relieved that Newcastle does not ask for inaugural lectures from those with personal chairs - though at the party afterwards I begin to feel it is a pity.
Friday. Back to Newcastle to a desk covered in paper and a house full of washing. Eat beans and sausages with small son, and then it is back to that essay.
Chair, British Association for American Studies, and professor of American and postcolonial literature, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.