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Wendy Earle ('Why try to make boys more like girls?', December/January) confuses the counteracting of gender stereotypes with the counteracting of gender identification. Of course young girls and boys identify with their gender. The important issue is that they do not grow up to believe that only restricted behaviour is appropriate for their gender.

I am one of those parents who Wendy Earle takes to task. As my daughter grew up I continually and persistently challenged the stereotypes of female behaviour that were presented to her. When reading the Famous Five as bedtime stories I even went so far as to teach myself to reverse the names of the main characters so that Anne became the leader and Julian the wimp! When my daughter was able to read these stories for herself she was justifiably angry at the deception but I venture to suggest that her ability to express such an opinion was in part due to her learning from me that this was acceptable behaviour.

My daughter now dresses, moves, speaks and carries herself through the world like a young woman. She truly identifies with her gender. What she is not is a wimp. She chooses to express her own strong opinions with confidence in both male and female company. At her age I had still to wait for the feminist movement of the seventies to teach me that it was OK to do this.

The traditional characteristics which set men and women apart in society do not originate entirely from natural differences but also develop from the social conditioning which segregates children according to their sex-roles from birth. The aim of those who challenge this is not to form little girls in the image and likeness of boys or vice versa but to recognise the possibilities every individual is born with, independently of sex or gender.

Jenny Payne London E8

'Doing politics' in Northern Ireland

Brendan O'Neill's interpretation ('Look Who's Talking', November) of how sufficiency of consensus operates in the multi-party peace negotiations is wrong. The Northern Ireland Women's Coalition does not have the power he suggests it has. We do not have a veto on the process unlike either of the larger Unionist and Nationalist parties. Parties do have to seek our support for the overall vote since we are one of eight parties who are required to reach a majority. We believe it is good for democracy to build 'consensus' in such a way. It is also good for the negotiations that we do not need unanimity for such a vote - hence the word 'sufficient'. The need to build sufficient consensus in a conflict situation is something we support but, more importantly, it actually works.

The Women's Coalition did not decrease its vote in the general election; it stood three candidates (compared to 70 in the Forum election) and tripled its vote in one constituency, doubled it in the other, and increased it by 50 per cent in the third. The Women's Coalition also achieved 1.03 per cent of the vote in the Forum elections, not 0.7 per cent. This was a considerable achievement (7731 votes) given that it was formed only six weeks prior to election day.

In any society coming out of conflict it is important to see that democracy can work using various types of representation. Much of the debate on new forms of 'doing politics' centres on this very issue. It appears that Mr O'Neill is not acquainted with the idea of a 'participatory' democracy - one that incorporates civic society alongside electoral representation. When we stood for election our poster ran with the slogan 'Wave Goodbye To Dinosaurs'. It would seem that Mr O'Neill is happier amongst the dinosaurs than joining the new voices heading into the twenty-first century.

Monica McWilliams

Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, Belfast

The point of free speech

It is Frank Wainwright (letters, December/January) who has missed the point about the censoring of Chris Brand, not Jennie Bristow ('Free speech branded', September). Brand may well be 'intellectually sub-standard', as Wainwright suggests, but now that his book has been withdrawn, we are in no position to judge for ourselves. The point of free speech is not to give airtime to a handful of cranks, but to enable the majority to make up their own minds about who is cranky and who is not.

Neil Turner Stockport

The case for kids

Ann Bradley sees 'the case for kids' (October) from her own middle class perspective. The idea that working class women, ie, the vast majority, do not have the enthusiasm for a family is absurd. Most still have children in their twenties and certainly would not pontificate about 'teach[ing] them to value the qualities they value and fight for the goals they feel are worth fighting for'. That kind of thought process is for the middle classes.

Generally, people do not want kids because like myself they do not want to be tied down and have to make the sacrifices that parenting involves. It is not because they feel a lack of confidence but rather because they value their freedom, and often parenthood is not practical due to financial circumstances.

It could also be argued that people have kids to conform and show off to society, and to indulge themselves. My sisters are two cases in point. They never stop talking about their bloody kids. Finally, it seems strange to put such an article under the title 'Taboos', as it is not likely that many people would be offended by it. Come off it, you are making something out of nothing here.

Richard Leeds University

The real reason why an increasing number of people are becoming childless by choice is that, in many ways quite rightly, they feel that the responsibilities of parenthood are increasing while the power to exercise these responsibilities effectively is decreasing. Unfortunately, it may be that it is precisely those people having fewer children who view the responsibilities of parenthood really seriously - and perhaps it is those individuals who might otherwise have made the best parents?

Bruce Lloyd London NW6

Louise and me

With the appeal court judgement pending on ex-nanny Louise Woodward, I have been comparing my own experience with the responses to her murder trial in October. When I heard the original 'guilty' verdict I felt a lump in my throat. Like Louise, at 19 I took a gap year before university. Like her, I went abroad. In my case this was to prove that I was an adult who could go it alone. I was reminded of this when so many people were saying that Louise was just a child.

The media were at pains to point out that Louise was completely inexperienced and terribly overworked, as though this vindicated her even if she had committed the crime. No doubt she was required to work hard - nannying is not known as an easy job. But it is a bit rich to talk about this 19-year old (legally entitled to vote and to marry without parental consent) as though she were seven. Of course, in Louise's position I too would do everything I could to get off the hook; the interesting thing is that it is not she who is presenting herself as incapable of responsibility, but everyone else.

It seems to me that we need to be a bit clearer about the distinction between adulthood and childhood. If at 19 you take on the responsibility of a job, you should be held to account for what you do. Perhaps Louise should not have been found guilty of murder, but if we just forgave her on account of her age what would this say about our expectations? That a young adult cannot be trusted to look after a baby? That this sort of incident is to be expected if you overwork your nannies? I hope not!

Luckily, events such as the death of Matthew Eappen are rare, and a lot of 19-year olds will spend their gap years competently looking after children in a foreign country. But if we want them to continue acting like adults who can be trusted with children and babies, then we must treat them as such.

Emily Carter London

Off target on shooters

Re-reading James Heartfield's mainly excellent article on freedom ('Who made freedom a dirty word?', June), I notice that when he writes 'Sportsman's Alliance candidates stood on a platform of the freedom to own firearms. But in the centre and on the left, nobody was talking about freedom - except to denounce it', he implies that there is something right-wing about the shooting sports. This is an example of the very trend James is warning us against: they defend freedom, therefore they must be reactionary nutters, therefore freedom is a dirty word. As a lifelong lefty who shoots in two clubs with ordinary punters, I strongly disagree.

Paul Williams London SE11

Can I have my balls back, please?

I hear that Harry Enfield is so disappointed with New Labour that he has asked for his £1000 donation to be returned. Perhaps this is the start not of Tony Blair's 'giving age', but of a period of taking back some of those valuable qualities - independence, self-respect - which New Labour would deny us.

Martin Dickson Norwich

Big dome small minds

Having lived and worked in Britain since 1991, I never thought I would have a good word to say about Peter Mandelson - and I still do not; but all the petty-minded criticism of the Millennium Dome has almost endeared him to me.

First there were the utilitarians, who complained that the Dome serves no useful purpose and urged that its budget should be redirected towards a more worthy cause.

I suspect that their hidden agenda is Back to Rationing! Strangely enough, many of those who pursued this line have spent years calling for more public arts funding on the fairly reasonable grounds that society must have the means to describe itself - an argument which is not heard enough in the States and which would be equally applicable to the Dome itself.

Next came the old chestnut of toys-for-the-boys: the Dome is a penis extension and it has to be a big one because the men involved in the project are worried about their small dicks. This is interpreting the world according to the obsessions of childhood and early adolescence. It is not the architects of the Dome who are infantile, but those of their critics who insist on seeing everything as a continuation of life in the romper room.

And now British patriots are objecting to the Dome because Japanese companies have been invited to invest in it. Even the people who would like to think that Britain is great are opposed to the biggest architectural initiative that has been seen in this country for a very long time. So here I am, in New Britain, on the brink of a new millennium, beset on all sides by the sort of small-mindedness that, I have to say, befits a nation of shopkeepers. Pardon me for being so blunt, but this is one Yank who cannot wait to go home.

Greg Phipps (born in Chicago) Paddington, London

You saw it here first

Your Signs of the Times column (December/January) notes that the invitation to the seventeenth birthday party given by the 'fun-loving' home secretary for his son Will, contained the instruction 'no drink or drugs'. This could have served as a vital clue to those trying to identify the unnamed minister whose son was accused of drug-dealing in the run-up to Christmas. Since it must have been written back in November, it prompts me to marvel once again at the prescience of LM's far-sighted writers. If only they could apply the same foreknowledge to the 2.30 at Doncaster, LM might find itself on the same financial footing as ITN.

Mystic Mag Coventry

The what's NOT on guide

SMACKED: 'Cruddy, sad and pathetic' was the verdict of New Labour MP Barry Gardiner on the poster campaign for the Prodigy's single 'Smack My Bitch Up'. Backed by 15 New Labour MPs including Stephen Twigg and Oonagh King of the class of '97, Gardiner introduced an early day motion in the Commons calling on record company XL to withdraw the posters. Gardiner, who claimed he acted after his 10-year old daughter asked 'Daddy, what does that mean?', insisted 'I'm no prude. I bought "Je t'aime" 20 years ago'. What was that you were saying about sad and pathetic?

SAWN-OFF: The video to accompany 'Temper Temper', the single from drum'n'bassman Goldie, was re-edited after the BBC, ITV and MTV banned the original for 'excessive violence'. The offending sequence shows an enraged Goldie threatening Noel Gallagher with a chainsaw (funny, we thought that was what the media wanted somebody to do to the 'loveable' Manc moptop). Further alterations were imposed by the Independent Television Commission because the video broke its ban on high-speed strobe images.

PURITANICAL: James Ferman, director of the British Board of Film Classification, was slammed by home secretary Jack Straw for certificating two porn videos (American import Batbabe and British-made Ladies Behaving Badly) with the new category Restricted 18. Ferman responded by accusing Straw of 'playing to the puritanical vote'. Coming from the censor-in-chief who has been happily cutting films and videos for nearly a quarter of a century under the watchful eye of the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Michael Howard, there could surely be no higher testimony to the narrow-mindedness of Straw's New Labour.

ABSOLUTELY NOT: After Michael Kennedy and pop-singer-turned-politician Sonny Bono died in skiing accidents, Absolut Vodka withdrew the advert which mentioned a ski resort and depicted a bottle of the Swedish hard stuff encased in plaster.

INFANTILE: An American psychologist warned mums and dads not to let their children go into Santa's grotto because separation from their parents might traumatise infants under 18 months, while older ones would be confused by suddenly being told to talk to a stranger. British charity Kidscape advised parents to avoid any such eventuality by going in to see Santa with their children and sitting on his other knee.

THUMBING HIS NOSE FLUTE: Paul Gascoigne of Glasgow Rangers was fined two weeks' wages (approx £40 000) and forced to apologise after he stood in front of Celtic fans at the New Year Old Firm derby and imitated a flute player in an Orange marching band - a gesture now interpreted as 'incitement to riot'. Gazza's appalling imitation of a fit footballer in training for the World Cup finals went unpunished.

A live version of the What's Not On Guide will be on at the LM/ICA Free Speech festival, 28 February to 1 March 1998.

Reproduced from LM issue 107, February 1998

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