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.

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