The Nineties miss has never had it so good. Or has she? In the first of a four-part series, Rosalind Miles discusses the pleasures and pressures of life for girls today

The making of the modern girl Part 1
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Legs, even knickers showing, hair and clothes flowing, she strides boldly out of the adverts down every street in the land, flounces off the pages of every woman's magazine and lords it over the late-night chat show set. By Calvin Klein out of Lady Chatterley, she is the triumph of Seventies feminism, the answer to Freud's "great question", proof that women can have love and work. She is the modern miss, and she's never had it so good.

Or has she? History loves to flirt with the idea of female freedom, only to shove women back in the closet as soon as their hour is done. From the forging of the US frontier by Annie Oakley to the British Land Army of the Second World War, there is a "now-you-see-it, now-you-don't" quality to the New Girlhood that should give us pause. Much of the hullabaloo looks like sheer advertising hype. How much of what we see in the modern maid at play can be real, and how much is just another image-maker's device to foster the illusion of progress we have not had?

Some things have changed, for sure. This is the first generation of women in history not to make getting a man, marriage and a family their sole or primary goal. Figures from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys show that the number of marriages has now slumped to its lowest for more than 50 years. The age at which women marry for the first time has risen steadily to almost 27, giving young women a decade of freedom from domesticity which most will put to the kind of personal or career development unthinkable in their mothers' day.

Today's young women also feel free to pick apart the traditional man/marriage/motherhood package, taking only the bits they want and happily discarding the rest. You want a man, but not marriage, dear? You live together, that's all. Marriage, but not children? The 1995 survey Hopes and Realities by Guttermacher Research Institute showed that childbirth is falling world-wide, while figures from Britain indicate that around a fifth of today's under-21- year-old women will choose never to have children. You'd like a child but not a man, madam? We offer you the single-parent option. You'd rather not mess with a male to get pregnant? Have we got the technology for you!

Now that getting a man is no longer the main purpose of life from the age of 12 onwards, girls are free to concentrate on their schoolwork in an apparently bloodless revolution that has reversed another entire belief- system of the past. The faith in men's higher intelligence, used for centuries as the raison d'etre of male dominance, has taken a terminal blow with this month's confirmation from the Chief Inspector of Schools and Head of the Office for Standards in Education that "girls outperform boys at 7, 11 and 14". Girls are more successful than boys at every level in the GCSE, and are now achieving success in traditionally "male" subjects like design technology, computer studies and maths. We have female astronauts and ambassadors, female weight-lifters as well as weight-watchers, women sewage-workers, CEOs and priests. No wonder girls are walking tall.

And yet. All revolutions, all calls for freedom, all movements for equality have always stopped short of sexual equality. The undoubted progress that women have made has always been in the form of "two steps forward, one step back". The girls who are succeeding academically now are also becoming 5 per cent less fit than boys, warns Professor Neil Armstrong of Exeter University in a study presented to the Government last year, through the bias of the National Curriculum towards team games "for the lads". Over- protected by parents, girls also walk and cycle far less than boys, with the result that some 13-year-olds have only the physical maturity of girls of 9, in the least fit female generation ever known.

Worse, the girls who slog so hard at school are still held back at degree level. The girls who so easily do better than boys at A-level are still only half as likely as the same boys to get Firsts or Upper Seconds at university. And the higher, the fewer. Ninety years since the first woman professor was appointed, only one professor in 20 is female. At the end of this, girls emerge into a world where even after 21 years of effort since the first equal opportunities and pay legislation in 1975, women are still only getting around two-thirds of what a man receives for the same work. And, of course, he still needs two-thirds more leisure time than a woman, so the unfair domestic burden will smoothly fall on our young girl's shoulders as in tradition.

With these eternal and apparently unchangeable sullen realities of worklife and home, no wonder the image of the New Girl striking out carelessly into the future has proved so seductive. The New Girl expects a job which she can turn into a career, and a salary to match. She wants her own place, a car, and the accoutrements that go with her life-style, she wants the freedom to travel and the fun of having sex when she wants it and not when she doesn't, along with the right to expect "a commitment" when she is ready. What she dangerously resembles is a complete inversion, almost a parody of the most dismal stereotype of manhood, the selfish, career-obsessed, dick-driven dork who only screws and bolts.

For all her flaunted femininity then, the Wonderbras, the achingly short skirts and fuck-me shoes, the New Girl is in fact a real lad in drag. Freedom for girls must not involve aping or taking men's, especially when the men are making such a poor showing of the freedoms they have. So, far from being the stronger sex, now they have been forced from the strongholds of patriarchy men are failing in droves, as husbands, fathers, bread-winners, even as human survivors. Male suicide in the age-group 15-25 has tripled in the decades since 1950.

Today's young women have been robbed of the illusion of the powerful protector and provider. ("Prince Charming?" Angela Phillips imagines them saying, "Haven't seen him for ages"). Many now sturdily resolve to go it alone, in another eerie parody of a classic male obsession, the myth of heroic lone endeavour. This course is likely to be as difficult, dangerous and dysfunctional for most women as it always was for the desperados alone on the range. We do not win equality and fulfilment for women by re-enacting all men's mistakes. Men and women are designed by nature to share a world, and it is unreal for women to plan lives without men.

In deciding to do without men, today's girls are in effect punishing them for not being strong, capable, all we once hoped and believed they were and continually disappoint by failing to deliver. But to reject men as partners because they are biologically, socially, and intellectually weaker than women is another historical revolution with perhaps far more profound implications than those we have considered so far. Those days of devaluing the female are gone, but if our young women cannot consider sharing their lives with men - as husbands, partners or simply friends - then they are depriving themselves of the fullness of human experience, not merely condemning young men to the frozen wastes of alienation from which many do not return.

The "I'm all right, Jack" sparky singularity of today's young women holds another fear, too. Their growing-up has seen a virtual holocaust of marriage, the highest divorce rate this country has ever seen. Much of their go- it-alone thinking is seen as a triumph of feminism, the first wave of girls brought up by feminist mothers, born knowing that a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle, and determined to go forth uncluttered to conquer the world. But many of their mothers were not victors but historical casualties of feminism, individually unable to profit from that great revolution in thought. Many of them raised their consciousness enough to leave their marriages, but not enough to stop them desperately and often unsuccessfully seeking another to take its place. They were also often too late or too unconfident to hit the newly opening career trail. They are the many bitterly discontented, divorced middle-aged women who have finished up with neither love nor work. The danger then is that today's girls are in fact living out mothers' resentments, not their own golden land-of-promise aspirations.

And all this does not even begin to tackle the intractable prospect of wanting to bring a child into a world of work that takes no account of the family needs of men, let alone those of the mothers of the future workers of the world. With the "having-it-all" formula looking more and more like "doing it all", it is clear that the modern girl still has it all to do before she can inherit the earth.

And yet. As I meet these bold, brilliant creatures who talk with such uncanny fluency, these cock-eyed optimists who take for granted what we have been trying to tell them for the past 20 years, I can't help thinking that if anyone can do it, they can.

The author is married with grown-up children. She is a contributing editor of Cosmopolitan magazine.