Neatly coiffed heads to one side, they shrieked with recognition at Fay Weldon's literary description of a woman desperately planning a dinner party on the way home from work. We have been there, their laughter said, kept that ungrateful husband happy, held those nightmare dinner parties. This was sisterhood, Home Counties style.
The readings were the focus of a fund- raising reception for the relaunch of the Fawcett Society - the suffragette movement formed in 1866 to fight for the vote. Four actresses, including Janet Suzman and Jane Lapotaire, read texts ranging from Rousseau to Naomi Wolf to a packed room in New Bond Street in London's West End.
'Feminists are no longer on the defensive,' the press release said. 'A new wave of younger, lively women and men are joining together with veterans of the earlier women's movement to build a stronger and more effective voice . . .' Right on] I thought. But there was a significant lack of those 'lively young women and men' in the almost exclusively white, female audience. Sporting uniform Aquascutum box- cut jackets and Italian leather handbags, they appeared to have an average age of 50.
'These are rich, middle-class women. Most people can't afford 35 quid for a reception,' said Orlanda Teale, a volunteer - and, at 23, the youngest woman in the room. 'I'm the only one of the younger ones who is here because I was doing the publicity so I got a free ticket.'
Where were the black and Asian members? Lots of them worked in the office, she said, adding a little defensively that the gathering was not really representative of its membership. 'The problem is, it being fund-raising,' she explained.
Point taken. It's hard, as a young woman, to criticise the feminist movement. Today's female twentysomethings are only too aware that their freedoms rest on the those gained by previous generations. But it was impossible not to feel a little cynical that this particular bit of female empowerment was so white and middle class - and chiefly comprised of women who least needed it.
As one visitor noted, it was a bit like a professionals' club: gallery owner stood chatting to physiotherapist, university principal to politician. What frustrated her (a mere stripling of 35) was that nobody mentioned plans. 'Nobody talked about what was going to happen - they read old texts and celebrated their history - it was interesting, but it didn't say much,' she said.
'I find the older people can be quite backward looking,' said Ms Teale. 'The suffragette element is very important for them. Some older members look at things from an older perspective, working on things like pension rights instead of child care.'
'I think until a year or two ago the organisation was quite stagnant,' she added. 'It had a predominantly older membership. But in the last six months it's really started growing.' The Fawcett Society is attempting to increase its student membership by organising NUS debates. 'It's very important for the younger people to come in. People of our age face completely different problems. People in their fifties look on things very differently - as the recent reporting on date rape shows.'
Jane Lapotaire, like the other guests, appeared to have little problem with the ethos of younger feminists. In fact, they seemed quite relieved that Naomi Wolf et al had allowed them to put on make-up again. 'The fact is, I don't like having hairy legs,' said Ms Lapotaire, resplendent in a gilded suit.
But this young feminist found an irony in the fact that these women, celebrating a movement famed for its passion for equality and its militancy, should be complacent enough to feel that future plans did not even warrant even a mention. Planning NUS debates? Why not invite some students along? Fighting for equal rights for part-time workers? Issue a few free invitations to less well- off groups. I appreciate that it's a fund-raising event, but ask people to contribute what they can afford. Everyone would benefit from exchanging ideas with a wider social base. Until then you're left with something that looks suspiciously like any other gathering of benevolent middle-class women who know what should be happening but can't quite see how to act on it.
'It's not quite throwing yourself under a horse, is it?' said one of the younger women as she left. Come back Emily Davison, all is forgiven.
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