The spirit of the suffragettes may have waned in the Nineties, but equal rights are still a mirage, says Julia Brosnan
Early one morning recently, six old ladies dressed up as suffragettes chained themselves to the railings outside Manchester town hall in protest against their meagre pensions. I went along, notebook in hand, bearing the assuredly temporary concern of one who is several decades short of retirement. My main aim was to congratulate them on their magnificent publicity stunt (long dresses, funny hats, menacing chain collection, and all over 70), so it was a surprise to find myself thrust upon a journey into the meaning and purpose of pre-millennial feminism. After all, they'd only donned a few pinafores.

Let me rewind a few years. I grew up when girls were women and the local consciousness-raising group expelled anyone who got it wrong. Life in the late Seventies/early Eighties was something of a forerunner to Mrs Merton - one long heated debate. Not about the pros and cons of feminism (we were sorted on the fact that patriarchy was the problem) but the minutiae of particular strains.

Then a new Eighties generation arrived, including many who would have been expelled from a whole range of groups but for the fact they had no interest in joining. By the time the Nineties got going, everyone was a girl decked out in industrial-strength lipstick and reinforced bras. Meanwhile the anti-feminist backlash kicked in. The men's movement claimed society was overrun with feminists (witness all the High Court judges, MPs, etc) and women-only car parks. (Where are they? Has anyone ever seen one?) And post-feminism came up with the original idea of putting down women in favour of men. Both have been deconstructed by a new generation of feminists, the results of which look remarkably similar to what was going around 25 years ago. But thinking you've seen it all before is but a sign of age - which brings me back to the railings.

"Do you know the story of the suffragettes?"asks Gertie, stalwart of several pensioners' action groups.

I give the sort of patronising "Naturally" that I hope no one gives me when I hit the twilight zone. If they do, I'll punch them.

The ladies then dive into their own heated debate on the subject, and it dawns on me: I am completely ignorant. All I know is the cartoon- and- slogans version involving railings and "Votes for Women" badges. "The suffragettes fought to improve the terrible working conditions of women who were often in low-paid, temporary, unsafe work, just as they are today," says Joan, president of the British Pensioners and Trade Unionists Association.

"The pensions issue is relevant because many women are still in non-pensionable jobs and need career breaks. This is why talk of private pensions is so worrying: many women of our generation couldn't even afford the full stamp and are now amongst the poorest in our society."

Hearing these pensioners talk about the brute facts of existence threw the anti-feminist backlash into even sharper relief. How can feminism be "finished" when many of the things that its forerunners fought for over 100 years ago haven't been achieved? And does anyone still care?

I went looking for some women in their early twenties to sus out their heated debates. I found Kat in the students union. Is she a feminist? "No. I'm not into dividing people up like that. I'm more post-gender and pansexual." Pardon? "I don't want to judge people according to their gender or sexuality."

Does it work in practice? Kat tells me that after living with a girl friend she flat-shared with someone who happened to be male. She was amazed: "It was horrible - he was everywhere. He took up so much space and he never did any housework." Didn't this change her views on feminism? "Oh no," she says. I make a mental note to ask her again in five years' time.

Then I meet Beena. "I do believe in equality but I wouldn't call myself a feminist because of the taboo," she says. Really? "Oh yes - the media stereotype of a woman who's bitter and not getting on in life is very powerful. The word 'feminist' ties a noose around your neck, although I do think the media handle women's issues very unfairly - they're in the dark ages." Did she discuss this at college?

"No, the word 'feminist' never came up - not in the three years I was there." I find this a bit incredible.

"Students were more concerned about paying off their loans. And being Asian, race was a bigger issue for me." Like Kat, she isn't sure whether she'll vote: "I haven't ever voted. I've lost faith; I don't think things will change."

Feeling about 105, I bump into Jo, who turns out to be a modern- day suffragette: "I'm proud to call myself a feminist. As a young women with a career, I think we should have equal opportunities (which we haven't at the moment) and I also think that young working- class women with babies should be integrated back into the education system and given a chance."

Do many of her friends share her views? "Oh yes. I became a feminist at 16 through a group of strong friends at school (a girls' grammar) and a teacher who taught women's history. I did a project on the suffragettes and I'm very proud of what they did - that's one of the reasons I will always use my vote."

In her world, at least, things seem to have come full circle. Jo, who is also well up on the whole "post" thing (modern, gender, feminism etc), tells me that Camille Paglia is absurd. I tend to agree. After all, what has she ever said about Serps?