Goodbye to all that ...

In the Eighties we had Greenham Common. In the Nineties we have Ladies Who Lunch. So who says British feminism is dead? Genevieve Fox reports
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The Independent Online
Career women have dined well of late. Yesterday 500 women of "real achievement" sat down at the 40th Women of the Year Lunch, an invitation- only party at London's Savoy hotel. Today the Working Women Mean Business awards will be announced at a breakfast at London's Hyde Park Hotel. British feminism, it seems, has been reduced to Ladies Who Lunch.

Not that the Ladies Who Lunch would call themselves feminists anyway. The F-word is out. To be simply a woman is in.

Women of the Year chairwoman and fashion designer Paddy Campbell described yesterday's charity fund-raiser as "a celebration of women's achievements across the professions". Was it a feminist initiative? "I don't really like that word," she replied. But how do we avoid it? Is it feminist to recognise women's achievements?

Maureen Rice, editor of Options magazine, which launched Working Women Mean Business in 1983 in recognition of the growing number of women setting up in business, says: "For the Options reader feminism is a bad word. She still thinks it means not shaving your legs or that it is an academic, middle-class exercise."

Is feminism in terminal decline? Has it done something more profound than swapping dungarees for designer suits and given up on the cause altogether? The sale of Virago, the nation's leading feminist publisher - founded in 1973 by a triumvirate of Seventies sisters - gives mixed signals. Sales may have plummeted and new titles been cut back but at least two companies - Bloomsbury and Little Brown - see sufficient life in the market to have bid for its shares last Friday. As Virago's publishing director, Lennie Goodings, says: "Virago will show profits at the end of the year and will remain a healthy name."

The theoretical battle, some say, has been won: the days of female artists constructing menstrual huts for women-only exhibitions, of separatist feminists with penis-envy attaching Le Funnel, the cardboard tube that enables a woman to urinate standing up, of communes and crew-cuts, are long over. All that contributed to the hoary and horrible label that feminism has been trying to shrug off since the late Seventies.

This is the golden age of post-feminism - Wonderbras, not burning bras - an age in which the right to sexual equality in all fields is taken for granted, so much so that the nation's best-known feminist, Germaine Greer, in her new book The Slip-shod Sibyls (Viking) condemns anthologising second-rate poets just because they are women rather than good poets, and the chairman of the capital's police federation accuses the Metropolitan Police of being sexist, as he did at the organisation's annual conference last Friday.

But feminism's seismic shift from the margins to the mainstream has created a gulf of misunderstandings and cross-purposes. Seventies sisters glare at their Eighties counterparts and the younger generation are left in confusion. The Americans have had Susan Faludi, (on the male backlash), Naomi Wolf (on women not having to be slaves to beauty), Katie Roiphe, (on date rape) and Camille Paglia (on everything else in between) to give young women a palatable, up-to-date discussion of the position of women in society. Young, beautiful (with the exception of Paglia, but she makes great copy) Ivy League-educated authors published by mainstream publishers, these American feminists we love to hate have been heavily hyped here in the UK. While most major publishers include women's studies or books about women in their lists, we still have no Faludi of our own. All we have is the 56-year-old second wave feminist Germaine Greer and 36-year- old Suzanne Moore, who were reduced to a public catfight in May.

So why doesn't a publisher step into the breach with a nicely packaged, homespun feminist sensation more relevant to British culture and experience?

Not through want of trying, it seems. "Everybody wants a British Susan Faludi," says Belinda Budge, editorial director of Pandora, set up in 1982 in the wake of Virago's success and since bought by HarperCollins, "and everyone has been looking".

British advances may not equal American advances, publicity budgets may be smaller, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if and when they find her, they'll hype her all the way - providing, of course, that she is sufficiently attractive, telegenic and soundbite-friendly.

Belinda Budge believes that far from signifying feminism's final death throe, the sale of Virago in a recession-damaged market now reeling from the dissolution of the Net Book Agreement indicates that books about women are hot property. "The fact that there are buyers for Virago shows that feminism is still out there, that it is vibrant, it is happening," she says. "The one thing Virago has got is branding and a very good reputation."

In an industry increasingly loath to take risks, Virago is undoubtedly a brand loyalty that its new buyer will trade on. Speculation suggests that it may capitalise on that reputation in order to introduce more male authors (it was the introduction of a black male author to the list that recently divided ranks at Virago) in a market where men and Loaded magazine on one hand, and men's studies on the other, are increasingly fashionable. For it is resistance to change both in publishing and for feminism that has perhaps been Virago's undoing.

"Publishing has changed a great deal over the last two years," says Margaret Bluman, publisher of women's non-fiction at Penguin. "It is a great deal tougher for everyone. It has to keep reinventing itself in order not just to survive but to thrive. Virago invented and revinvented itself in the Eighties; it didn't do that in the Nineties."

Marketing may be enough to turn a glamorous women's title into a publishing success in America, but publicity directors can't weave the same magic over here. "British feminism comes out of a socialist feminist tradition," says Margaret Bluman. "It has never been as personality-led as American feminism. There has always been an ambivalence about putting feminists on pedestals; Greer has been an exception because she has been an outsider, but even she has been criticised. This makes it more difficult to sell a great British feminist tome. We don't think one woman has got the answer."

Britain is not only a more sophisticated market, its questions perhaps more complex. Its campaigns were also fought long before its American sisters propelled them on to the covers of Time and Newsweek: Greenham Common positioned women in global politics in the early Eighties; the "reclaim the streets" marches of the Seventies brought the rape issue into popular consciousness; pro-choice debates have been hitting the headlines since the Seventies. Meanwhile, 32-year-old Naomi Wolf is just waking up to the abortion debate and 34-year-old Katie Roiphe is just waking up to the issue of rape.

"The moment has passed for those kinds of books," says the Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore. "Things have changed in a fundamental way. Political debates are not being conducted in academia but on the streets. Today organising work and child care for men as well as women is a big discussion across all political spectrums. Feminist voices are less and less relevant. Books that claim to be the new great thing are summaries of what has gone before, although there are new things to say."

So if the industry can't come up with something new, surely it could drum up a variation of a familiar theme, the British equivalent of a Maya Angelou or an Alice Walker, say? Or maybe the public would rather read the rags-to-riches fairy tale of supermodel Naomi Campbell, a sexy black woman? As Pandora's Belinda Budge says, "The oral tradition recording women's experience is more and more difficult in a pressurised market. That kind of publishing has had its day."

Pitting a Young Feminist against the post-New Men that are beginning to fight back might be popular. But that wouldn't be new either: publishers tried that with Yvonne Roberts's Mad About Women: Can There Ever Be Fair Play Between The Sexes? (Virago), published in response to Neil Lyndon's No More Sex War: The Failures of Feminism (Sinclair Stevenson) in 1992. It was the "man's book", inevitably some said, that stole the limelight in terms of sales and media attention. There is Natasha Walter, a literary critic who is now out in the field researching a book, to be published by Little Brown next year, looking at the feminist agenda for women under 35 (though, like the Ladies Who Lunch, they won't call themselves feminists either). That may or may not say anything new. If not, our hopes fall on the populist Suzanne Moore. She has been commissioned to write a book on feminism by Picador. But when asked if her book might step into the breach as Britain's answer to Susan Faludi's Backlash, she replies: "I am a feminist, not a performer."

It is not just the reluctance among some writers to be turned into media darlings that makes the publishers' quest difficult. On the one hand, Moore may have got it wrong; there may be nothing new to say. The ground has been broken and it is now just a question of getting on with it, of putting the theory into practice. "It has," as Maureen Rice says, "become much more of a woman's world," after all. "Things that used to be called 'women's stuff' have entered the mainstream. The employment rights agenda has been driven by women because so many women work."

But many believe there is still plenty of grassroots campaigning to be done for the rights the middle-class armchair feminists left behind: Delia Jarrett-Macauley, editor of an anthology of black writing, Reconstructing Womanhood, Reconstructing Feminism: Writings on Black Women (Routledge, December 1995) - an unfashionably worthy title if ever there was one - says: "There are so many categories of women - black women, underpaid women, women with disabilities - who are not part of feminism's chichi intellectual elite."

Meanwhile, the (white) novelist and journalist Maureen Freely believes that feminism has failed her by failing to acknowledge the problems of motherhood. Feminism, she writes in her plaintively titled new book, What About Us? An open letter to the mothers feminism forgot, (Bloomsbury), "is dominated by women 15 years younger than I who hardly seem to realise that it [motherhood] exists." She has a point.

Britain's pitiful childcare provision is the single largest obstacle to women holding their own, and rising, in the workplace they now dominate. Its publicly-funded childcare for children over three years of age (35- 40 per cent compared to France and Belgium's 95 per cent) is currently neck and neck with Portugal as the worst in Europe, according to figures published by the Commission of the European Communities in 1990. Britain also has the worst maternity and paternity leave arrangements in Europe, according to the Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Women may be fuelling the workforce but 40 per cent of them are working part-time and one third of female workers earn less than two-thirds of average male weekly earnings and 79.5 per cent of men's wages on average. The number of female executives actually fell from 10.2 per cent in 1993 to 9.5 per cent in 1994, according to the Equal Opportunities Commission. Meanwhile, life for the country's 1.4 million single mothers has never been harder and last week's postponement of the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill threatens to leave unmarried women and their children inadequately protected from violent partners.

Try making all that into a bestseller. Far more entertaining to watch Absolutely Fabulous, Roseanne or the covertly feminist road movie Thelma and Louise, to witness Beth and her mum, Mandy, fighting for the recognition of domestic violence in Brookside or female employees of Firman's Freezers supermarket complaining about sexual harassment in Coronation Street. Feminism doesn't need to be wrapped up in book jackets; it is part of our popular consciousness already - another reason why a feminist sensation has failed to deliver.

Naomi Wolf's latest book, Fire with Fire: The New Female Power And How It Will Change the 21st Century, decried feminism's image as "anti-family, anti-male, white and middle-class". That is one message in a sea of irrelevancies and repetitions that does reverberate on this side of the Atlantic. Perhaps all we need is a working-class wit and mouthy, married mother of colour and media-darling-wannabe who will never change her mind to write a book and pluck away the hoary hairs of feminism once and for all.

A black Victoria Wood, perhaps. Or a thin, non-Caucasian Jo Brand? Nominations gratefully received.