As I walk my mare past the blue hill, watching the leaves turn and marvelling at the stinging orange of the horse chestnuts, I ponder the nature of gender. I think about it quite a lot because I am a woman, and I don’t behave in the way that wider society appears to expect. I have no interest in shoes. (I spend most of my life in muddy gumboots.) I despise the colour pink. I have never wished for a husband. My current obsessions are American politics, equine psychology, and the minutiae of grammar. I am much more likely to get upset over a dangling modifier than the correct way to apply rouge. I have not bought a fashion magazine since 2003.

Today, my attention is riveted on the subject of the sexes because Jilly Cooper has caused a little storm. She has given an interview saying that women should stop putting men down and allow them to retrieve their lost masculinity. She mourns the passing of the rugged, sporting gentleman, like Oliver Reed, whom she says was ‘smouldering’. (A hundred years ago, I met Oliver Reed at a small party. He was a drunken boor, with absolutely nothing interesting to say. But each to each.) The great line, which has been pulled from the interview and quoted and requoted, is this one: ‘I think of my mother – who was very beautiful and very small – and she used to look up to men and say, “You are amazing, you are clever”.’

From this subjective view of the world, the media does its usual job of instant extrapolation. Columns are written along the lines of: ‘have women gone too far?’ Even as I type this, a radio station is asking ‘when was the last time you said something nice to the man in your life?’

My lovely thoroughbred mare, who conforms to no known female stereotype.  On the right is her little American Paint friend, who, despite being a young filly, shows distinctly tomboy-ish tendencies.My lovely thoroughbred mare, who conforms to no known female stereotype. On the right is her little American Paint friend, who, despite being a young filly, shows distinctly tomboy-ish tendencies.

I adored Jilly Cooper when I was a teenager and read all her early romantic novels with unfettered joy. It was she who made me want to be a writer in the first place, because I heard her say that she had saved her husband from bankruptcy with those early books, and I thought I could revive my own family fortunes in the same way. I was fifteen at the time, and that first novel, scribbled in longhand in a notebook, still exists in my bottom drawer.

What interests me is not her opinion on this subject, which is that of one human with a proudly traditional idea of the world, but the instant chatter it provokes. At once, the field must be demarcated: ladies over here; gents on this side of the line. A further division is enforced, between the good old days and the rotten present. A Manichean outlook is quickly prescribed. To hell with nuance or subtlety; everyone must either wear a white hat or a black hat.

I think all this is much more complicated than people like to think. The very brilliant Cambridge professor, Simon Baron-Cohen, wrote a fascinating book on the difference between men and women. One of his conclusions is that there is such a thing as a male brain and a female brain, but that it is on a spectrum. Furthermore, you may find men who are quite far along the female spectrum, and vice versa. This makes generalisations about humans who do or do not have ovaries quite difficult. Whenever I write about men and women, I scatter qualifications like confetti. The words may, some, most, or more likely figure strongly. For instance, some women may be better at expressing emotion and reading human moods than men, but I know several females who have absolutely no talent for intimacy.

I admit I think about this too in the context of horses. People are always talking about mares, and how unpredictable and moody and hormonal they are. I look at my glorious red lady, who is as steady and settled and kind as the day is long, showing no slavish capture to any hormonal surges, and wonder.

I wonder too whether it is really true that in the good old days all the small, beautiful women looked up at the big, burly fellas and told them how amazing they were. Did that really happen? My grandmother’s generation might have been told that officially men were superior, but I’m not at all convinced that they entirely believed it. I wonder if perhaps they played a subtle game, with the cards that they were dealt. It is possible that they may have done a little more eyelash-fluttering than today’s generation of ladies, but I refuse to believe that they were all tiny, doll-like things, in thrall to the mighty male. It may easily be that they were just more practised in the dark arts of camouflage, cleverly hiding their steeliness under the diverting cover of powder and paint and a nice cloche hat.