A new generation of feminists is fighting for the movement to have a clear and formidable image at a time when the economy is in danger of making it an irrelevance.
Leading feminist thinkers gathered in London yesterday to debate the next wave of the movement. While the first wave of feminism saw suffragettes demanding votes for women, and the second brought the women's liberation movement, the radical writings of Germaine Greer and the Equal Pay Act, the objectives of the third wave have yet to be decided.
Fears that hard-won women's rights may be eroded in the recession are reinvigorating the British feminist movement, with issues such as the pay gap, "workaholic cultures" and childcare taking centre stage.
"Feminist issues haven't gone away. Instead, the downturn is throwing them into starker relief," said Patricia Hewitt MP, speaking at the Fabian Society's conference on feminism.
Zohra Moosa, policy officer for race and gender at the Fawcett Society, which campaigns for equality between the sexes, added: "At Fawcett we have seen a renewed sense of urgency on cornerstone issues such as violence against women in the past few years."
Leading feminist groups such as Fawcett, Object!, and Million Women Rise are running successful campaigns on issues ranging from sex trafficking to the pay gap. Meanwhile, bloggers, authors and magazines have been grabbing the attention of a younger generation of feminists.
"Our brand of feminism is different from what has gone before," said Ellie Levenson, author of The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism, to be published in July. "However, feminism clearly has an image problem. What we need to get across is that you can be feminine and a feminist."
These image problems are not deterring British women from taking direct action. Last March, 5,000 women in London protested against male violence with the women's coalition Million Woman Rise. In November, more than 2,000 turned out in support of Reclaim the Night, demanding justice for rape victims.
Equality is the subject of a new YouGov poll this weekend, which revealed the real reasons people believe there are so few women in top jobs in British companies. Carried out for the Fabian Society and the Barrow Cadbury Trust, the survey showed that 42 per cent of people think that male bosses instinctively prefer to promote male employees, with 35 per cent believing that sexism and discrimination in the workplace were significant limiting factors for women.
Having children was still seen as the biggest obstruction preventing women from reaching the top of the career ladder, with 55 per cent of people citing the shortage of affordable childcare as the main reason for this state of affairs.
"Workaholic cultures are hard to crack, and the reality still is that far too many women – and a growing number of men – have to choose between career and family," said Ms Hewitt at yesterday's debate.
But some feminists believe that the 2009 movement lacks coherence. "It is not clear what the feminist agenda now is," said the feminist writer Alison Wolf of King's College London. "Those women who supported Hillary Clinton just because she was a woman are from an older generation. The younger ones did not know what they were on about."
Pioneers of the 21st century
The publisher: Marie Berry
Founder of 'Knockback' Magazine
Set up 'KnockBack' as a free antidote to magazines such as 'Heat', which she says damage women's self-esteem.
The campaigner: Sandrine Levêque
Campaigns Manager, Object!
Works to counter the normalising of the porn and sex industries through lads' mags and lap dancing.
The writer: Ariel Levy
Author of 'Female Chauvinist Pigs'
The New York journalist's book examined "raunch culture", in which porn and stripping are seen as liberating.
The activist: Sabrina Qureshi
Organiser, Million Women Rise
Instrumental in organising events including demos against male violence. www.millionwomenrise.com
The net pioneer: Catherine Redfern
Founder, The F-Word
Her influential website revived interest in feminism. www.thefword.org.ukReuse content