Comment: The betrayal of feminism

If Baroness Jay has no wish to be identified with the century's transforming force, who gives a toss?
ONE RESPONSE, of course, would be to turn it into a verb. To jay: to rat on the influences that have helped to make you what you are. So when Baroness Margaret Jay, the government's Women's Minister, denies that she is a feminist (sending out a clear signal to aspiring New Labour female MPs, that they should best do likewise), you could politely suggest that she has jayed on her past.

The Baroness has since clarified her position further. "In politics, feminism is seen as negative, complaining about things, it's perceived to be about separateness, putting up a brick wall between men and women. I don't think you have to be negative like that..."

I guess that must have been the kind of negativism that has spawned a thousand and one active self-help groups across the UK,and urged change in recruitment practices in any number of professions so that talent isn't ignored just because it happens to be female. Or perhaps it's the negativism which - inspired by the belief that democracy is about representation - campaigned for quotas for women so that over 100 females are now in the Commons? And is that the "separateness" which has fuelled women activists who argue that fatherhood should mean much more than being a wage-earner?

What has really struck home about the views expressed over the past few days, a chorus echoing Baroness Jay, is just their old-fashionedness. Bring out the psychedelic flares and step into my time machine. Feminism is shunned because it's seen as whingeing, man-hating, a training ground for harridans. All quite right too - back in the Sixties and Seventies.

In New York then, Cell 16, one offshoot of the sisterhood, argued with great subtlety that women were essentially good, and men rotten. Pretty clothes, heterosexual sex and lipstick identified you as a collaborator. Well, they didn't come more collaborative than me, aged 20, blinded by false eyelashes and desperate to be deflowered. I didn't agree with Cell 16 and the other "extremists", but their very radicalism made me think about the issues they raised.

No matter what the advertisements flogging domesticity and skin creams told us - "She's Engaged! She's Lovely! She uses Pond's!" - there had to be more to life than complete dependency on a man and a complexion like silk. Again, all men might not be rapists, but as research has since confirmed some of the "nicest" and most distinguished men (eg Arthur Koestler) can and do force themselves violently on women without comeback. Feminism wouldn't have been born again, if we hadn't had those "harridans" to act at the time as midwife.

Forty years ago, a manual, What Makes Women Buy, became a huge hit in the USA. It explained that if you wanted to sell to "the weaker sex" you had to realise that, among other issues, "Women's bone structure... overwhelmingly leads her towards more passive interests and an inward life." She also "has a strong tendency to irrational beliefs". I - and Margaret Jay - grew up in that culture, as did Susan J Douglas, author of Where the Girls Are.

"Whatever this category `woman' was," she writes, "I didn't want a part of it. It meant you'd be... ridiculed as dumb yet overbearing, incompetent yet scheming and frivolous yet dangerous... It seemed as if we had only two choices: sink or organise a mutiny."

So mutiny we did. The irony of this week's apostasy is that the reasons to espouse feminism now are far richer and more inclusive. In short, Baroness Jay could have turned her moment of betrayal into something positively triumphant - and very New Labour.

She could have said that feminism is not only alive and well, it's biggest success has been under the present government. For the first time, the so called politics of the kitchen table is being recognised as a central part of strategy; the man-made divisions between the private family and public areas of work and the economy are being broken down. Tony Blair and co, prefer to call this "holistic government" and "joined-up policy making" and that's fine by me - but feminism is what's printed right through the centre of this particular stick of rock.

Feminism and capitalism have long since joined in unholy matrimony. Women need their own income; employers require labour. What New Labour is beginning to realise is that if it doesn't broker a fairer deal between the two - all of society pays a price. In acknowledging this, New Labour isn't pandering to women (their votes, after all, remain crucial to future victories). It is also heeding that the landscape that men inhabit is changing too.

On Monday, the Women's Unit issued a bundle of research on men and women's attitudes to various issues. It's intention was to illustrate the differences. In fact, what strikes most is the growing convergence of views on issues such as health, unemployment and the economy. "Women's issues" are rightly now seen as human issues; the male and female experience, in many areas, is beginning to overlap in a way unknown before.

Women have moved into the male world of work and while 6 million adults are carers, 40 per cent are male. Furthermore, 150,000 lone-parent families are headed by fathers, and house-husbands are a growing minority. The quicker these numbers increase, the faster the speed of change.

So, if much of politics is already being feminised, where's the beef? If the outcomes are moving in the right direction, who cares about the label? If Baroness Jay has no wish to be identified with one of the major transforming forces of this century, if she's defensive and dismissive, who gives a toss so long as we see results? Well, results are precisely the point. While the change in society has been monumental, the game is still that women work and men still rule. Feminism's endeavour is to maintain vigilance so the game does eventually become fairer.

Contrary to what many seem to believe in the current F-wake, feminism is also dynamic. Its terms and definitions, always vague, continue to adapt and customise. What has a higher priority in the UK - child care for instance - has no priority at all in the Third World where women and children fight hardest simply for survival. In Britain too, the prime point of recruitment has altered. Thirty years ago, from the moment you were aware of yourself as a woman you also tasted injustice - certain jobs, abortion and all mortgages were out of bounds.

In the 1990s, millions of young women say they live life on equal terms with the lads. (Unless they happen to appear in court in which case they're twice as likely to be sent to prison; or unless they come up against the company's resident dirty old man and discover that sexual harassment is seen as a bit of joke - but these are not universal experiences, so many, many females can say, "I'm all right, Jill," and stuff the sisterhood.)

The feminist wake-up call in the Nineties comes later, when the average girl on the go becomes a mother who still has to earn. Or survive with a family on benefits. (Tougher still if your skin is black or brown.) Graffiti popular in the Seventies read: "Women will never be the equals of men." It was also common to find the following addition: "That's all right. We were hoping for something better."

Equality to me, in the Nineties, is a moronic idea in a society which cries out for radical change, not least in the redistribution of income and the creation of work. Equal in what? In poverty, unemployment, self- destruction?

"The something better" for me, as a feminist, is the creation of a system which allows women and men to make the most of themselves and their children. It means setting aside prejudices about gender to which society still holds dear. It means encouraging self-worth, valuing the role of caring. It means the right to a decent income. And it means honesty about the cultural and biological differences between the sexes, so these differences are used to construct a society which enhances instead of hinders women and men. That's feminism. It might even be New Labour. We'll wait and see.

There now, would that have been so hard for Baroness Jay to say?