Winter of Women - Leading Ladies

September 8, 2013

Source: The Inspiration Room (

For this article it’s not so much one woman, as multiple that sparked the discussion. M&S (UK) has recently released a new campaign showing 12 'Leading Ladies' ( of the UK in their fashion. Putting aside the criticisms of a campaign aimed at diversity not showing ‘enough age’ or ‘enough plus sizes’ as many of the editorials have stated, I’d like to look at how the campaign’s photographs, by photography guru Annie Leibowitz have been constructed to speak a different message, one of power.

Across our women’s study we have looked at the discussion of women in power, particularly when opinion is so divided. Should we ‘Lean In’, or should we accept the ‘game is rigged’? One of the themes we’ve argued for in our work is that power is shifting, and more and more the values that we look for in our leaders are those that we class as more ‘naturally feminine’; flexibility, negotiation, listening, delegation and sharing.

The Athena Doctrine ( out of the US is but one articulation of this, and a compelling one at that. A large-scale international study that demonstrates how we are increasingly aspiring to values that we tend to rate as more feminine than masculine. More than this, when asked if the world would be a better place if men thought more like women, the majority in most countries agreed. 

But when we look at the M&S campaign, the image we are given of power is does not feel like a new feminine version, we are seeing the old, traditional masculine style. This in itself is not a bad thing, particularly when we consider that the campaign is not merely about success, but about Britishness. Britishness has always had a level of pomp, grandeur, and an air of old masculinity attached to it, for example the ‘salon’ style shot. It does, however, raise an interesting question around whether we truly believe the power discourse is changing, or if we are, in fact defining it the same way, just with a cute jacket.

Our analysis of pop culture over the last year or so has shown us different evolutions of women in power. One of the interesting trends is the level of flaws they are increasingly allowed to exhibit, be it Claire Danes’ Carrie in Homeland, or Julianna Margolis as ‘The Good Wife’. Women in power are being allowed to play positions of power from a perspective other than the ‘juggling corporate’ or the ‘woman in a man’s world’. Portrayals are getting more diverse, as we see more and more women in positions of power in the ‘real world’.

Despite the ‘old-world’ version of power displayed in M&S’ ads, there is another aspect that speaks to empowerment. The multi-faceting of women’s worlds, picturing them in different settings designed to speak to the skills and choices they make; at home in nature, creative/artistic, powerful and formidable, and women of London, these are a bold statement about the women that created a modern Britain, and regardless of what the fashion world, and indeed the British High Street makes of them, they are, if nothing else a visual statement as to how we see the contribution of women evolving.