A century of unparalleled advance for feminism

`There is still too much at stake for women around the world to think that feminism will die now'

THIS MORNING I am due to talk about 100 years of feminism on Radio 4's Today programme with a rather senior feminist, Mary Stott. When Mary Stott was 22, she got up one morning and went out to vote in the first general election in which women were allowed to vote on the same terms as men. Thirty-two years later, when she was editor of The Guardian's women's page, the contraceptive pill first began to be prescribed. When she was 72 she saw the first female prime minister take power. Now she is in her nineties and she lives in a world where women's participation in politics, women's work outside the home and women's control over their own fertility is taken for granted.

It can be dizzying, looking back down the last 100 years and remembering how women's lives have changed in Britain. It's good to try it, to think about the world that Mary Stott walked around in when she was in her teens and to compare it to the world in which her granddaughters are living. Now that we are less than a week away from the start of a new century, it seems to me that the story of Western feminism is one of the very few stories of the 20th century about which one can comfortably use words such as progress or advance.

For too many commentators, the word feminism only brings to mind the struggles and successes of the 1960s and 1970s. Sure, that must have been an exciting time to be a woman, especially if you were into demonstrations and banners and consciousness-raising groups. But if you think about what Mary Stott lived through you remember that feminists were around long before Betty Friedan and Spare Rib. As Stott herself wrote, rather acerbically, in her book Organisation Woman, "The girls of the new age of the women's movement are apt to think that they were the first to discover the sisterhood of women. Of course they were not. Those benevolent conspirators of the 1850s experienced it, so did the first women doctors and lawyers, so did the suffrage workers..."

Mary Stott is right. Feminism was not the invention of the 1960s, any more than it was, indeed, the invention of those first women doctors and lawyers, or of the suffrage workers. Feminist ideas can be traced back through the centuries, even before Sarah Grimke said in 1837, "God created us equal", even before Mary Wollstonecraft said in 1792: "Woman was not created merely to gratify the appetite of man." If you're alive to the fact that feminism did not begin with the famous women who marched and campaigned and wrote in the Seventies, it is easy to say confidently that feminism will outlive the 20th century. To some observers, it looks as though feminism is in decline, simply because many young women in Britain have started taking their increased power and freedom so much for granted that they would rather read Bridget Jones than The Feminine Mystique. But that is part of feminism's success, that women don't have to be so aware of their own unequal status in the world that they have to think about that all the time rather than what they are going to do tomorrow or whether the sun will shine.

And there is too much still at stake for women all around the world to think that feminism will die now, in these, the dying days of the second millennium. There is still work for feminism to do here in Britain - how can we doubt it? Mary Stott saw the first women enter Parliament but even she has not lived long enough to see a world where women feel at ease in Parliament or make up more than a tiny minority of its representatives. And elsewhere in the world, the work that feminism must do in the future is even clearer. I think that one of the women who made the greatest impression on me this year was a woman in her twenties whom I met in Albania called Zara Zuhurova.

Zara isn't Albanian herself, she comes from Tajikistan. She grew up in a traditional village where the women didn't get educated or go out to work, they covered their heads and got married at 16. But she insisted that she wanted to stay on at school, and even made her mother send her to college in the city. Finally she started working for the United Nations and began to organise women's support groups among destitute and traumatised Afghan refugees.

"These women from the United States came to work with us," she told me. "They called themselves feminists. I didn't know what it meant at first. So I asked them and they said it meant that you believed that women could be equal to men, that you wanted to help women achieve their full potential. So I thought, I must be a feminist. That's what I've always believed, though I never had a word for it before. I wanted to help the women around me escape from poverty and violence."

Women such as Mary Stott helped women to achieve extraordinary gains in this century. And women like Zara Zuhurova know why the feminist movement will rise out of this millennium and stretch way into the future.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
    UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

    39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

    There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
    Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

    Computerised cooking is coming

    From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
    Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

    Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

    The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life