So you thought feminism was dead. Well think again, says Natasha Walter: women in the Nineties are networking their way up the greasy corporate pole
The Athenaeum, in line with most of the pillared and panelled clubs in St James's, London, does not admit women as members. But tonight, something a little un-toward is going on: 30 smartly togged-out women are sitting comfortably on squashy sofas, drinking champagne, with daughters or nieces gathered around them. And they are listening to Lady Justice Butler Sloss and Margaret Hodge MP remind them, "If you want to find something out, ask a woman," or, "Don't just think about it, do it!"

This is the City Women's Network (CWN) event to mark last month's "Take Our Daughters to Work" day. Founded in 1984, CWN is only one - a rather conservative, select one - of a plethora of women's networks that now exist in most occupations. These include Women in Management, Women in Medicine, Women in Banking, Women in Management in Publishing, Women in Film and Television, Women in Fundraising, Women Architects Group, Women's Advertising Club of London and Women in Dentistry. They are forging links among women in all kinds of environments and showing them, as the writer Naomi Wolf put it, to "remember and take possession of the will to power". Women are using them in ever greater numbers as glass ceilings gradually crack and women's earnings edge up.

CWN's chair, Alison Thorne, is keen to spread the message of honest- to-goodness power-seeking to young women. "When I go into schools to talk to girls I encourage them to think about what they should do to build up a career, to build leadership skills. That they should aim to be head girl, to cultivate people that count."

Thorne is also keen that women should go for the trappings and culture of success. "Women need a decent suit, a car, jewellery, they should dress for success. Previous feminists didn't bother with all that."

The 300 Group, meanwhile, the "all party campaign for women in parliament, politics and public life", was set up 15 years ago by a group of women involved in politics. They were horrified by the discrimination and lack of support systems women trying to enter polities faced; 15 years on there are still only 65 women in Parliament.

Fiona Driscoll, the elegant, fast-talking chair of the group, who also runs a PR company, says: "I see the 300 Group as a kind of kindergarten. If women think they're interested in parliamentary politics they come to us, they network, they learn. When they are ready, they should leave us and join a party network to get a seat. We give people a chance to practise."

Driscoll is upbeat about what this can achieve: "There is a danger for all networking groups of slipping into the moaning minnie syndrome, the victim syndrome. We should resist that because it doesn't take us anywhere. I find it fantastic sitting in a room with 20 women, all of them pretty hot shit, who will be running the country in 10 years' time."

At a 300 Group training day on the economy that I attended, women from the Treasury, business and MPs clarified economic issues and shared information in bite-sized pieces that often played on Margaret Thatcher's trademark imagery of the household economy. Yet the day was surprisingly light on "women's issues" such as childcare and maternity leave, concentrating instead on the overall economy.

One member of the audience, Carole Cohen, clearly a pillar of the Conservative community, with a honey-coloured hairdo and a gilt-buttoned suit, joined the 300 Group "to support women" and is now preparing to stand for selection as a parliamentary candidate herself. It's salutary to hear a woman who looks the part of the ideal Conservative wife, saying: "I heard Teresa Gorman talking about how there should be more women in Parliament and I thought, yes, I support that. I want to make a difference."

Next month sees the launch of Women in Journalism, whose 50 founding members reads like a Who's Who of female hacks. Louise Chunn, ex-women's editor of the Guardian and now associate editor of Vogue, is on the Woman in Journalism committee. She believes that the organisation grew partly out of women's increasing strength in the profession: "It's because we're getting there, because things are looking quite good - it's founded on rising confidence."

For her, as for many women in such organisations today, the traditional networking skills - making contacts and sharing experiences - are secondary to the group's campaigning role. "I don't need to network now. But I'm interested in how you change things. If you write to a newspaper editor on a Women in Journalism letterhead saying, we have noticed that again this year you have failed to promote women to senior positions, maybe you can embarrass or cajole people into changing, and really get more women into the boardroom."

Campaigning is not the point for all groups, however. Women in Management is one of the largest networks and has a low-key, friendly, inclusive profile, with simple aims - to support and run training for women in, or aspiring to, management.

Its chief executive, Jean McIntosh, says: "Even if women have got amazing qualifications, they tend not to sell themselves as well, whereas men talk themselves into a higher job than their abilities would necessarily give them." Meanwhile, at a meeting on "Team Building and Leadership: Developing High Performance", 60 women in suits and silk shirts listen to a management pep-talk, wineglasses in hand. A high proportion of them are consultants and advisers, looking for business among their contacts.

But even when a network has so little desire to campaign, it still helps to change the culture of the workplace. This training session stressed the importance of "feminine" power strategies in management - more consensual than competitive - and encouraged women to believe in their own ability to lead. Similarly, although the CWN event at the Athenaeum was hardly a tinderbox of radical thought,every panellist and questioner talked about discrimination and resistance, and there was an urgent emphasis on the need for flexible working patterns to fit family and career together.

As women's networks grow in influence, they are likely to meet a backlash, especially in politics. What happened to Emily's List, which funds the campaigns of women fighting for selection as Labour MPs, is a striking example of the kind of problems faced by clubs exclusively for women seeking power. The organisation, which hands out money to the most deserving applicants, was trivialised as a metropolitan, style-conscious forcing ground. As Barbara Follett, founder of Emily's List and Labour candidate for Stevenage, says: "The reason it's so criticised is that it is a threat to the status quo. People are often most vociferous in opposition when you're closest to winning."

The backlash - especially when it comes from women - is miserably draining, but the networks won't go away. Who can say the women's movement in Britain is dead, when 1,000 women are members of the 300 Group, 250 of CWN, 1,250 of Women in Management? It may be a far cry from the radical consciousness- raising of Seventies feminism, but it is pragmatic and feelgood.

These women - most of whom unapologetically call themselves feminist - are working out strategies of training and research and campaigning that may change women's lives. The lives in question are middle class, certainly, but the discrimination faced is as real, if not as harsh, as that faced by women further down the ladder.

As Ginny Dougary of Women in Journalism says: "The climate has changed. We still feel terrific anger about our discrimination, but now we're going to do something about it."