A day but not an era for women

Today will be a feminist celebration. But it is salutary to recall how little progress has been made
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The Independent Online
Today is International Women's Day. The heart sinks. "It's celebratory!" says the Fawcett Society, which is co-ordinating publicity for myriad events around the country. All the fun of the fair sex will be there: the unveiling of plaques to outstanding women of Hackney, a workshop on Tolerance in Harrow (a subject women are already well familiar with), and a fast-paced lesbian comedy in Lambeth. Newham presents The Wandering Womb by the Angels Theatre Company. Brixton hosts a lesbian craft fair, (what are the crafts?) and North Tyneside celebrates with a Big Women's afternoon of fun (size 18-plus).

This is an unfair selection, of course. There are also events for women carers, exhibitions to encourage women into the Internet, discussions on the UN Peking conference on women, talks on eating disorders and employment rights, concerts, cabarets, reading and lectures. But why does the word "women" link itself so easily with alternative crankiness? A woman spinning wool from her own flock of sheep, aromatherapy, aqua-dance and graphology are all a part of Women's Day, too. Wales is holding vigils with lighted candles "as recognition of the suffering of so many women internationally".

The think-tank Demos has been looking at the attitudes of younger women (twenties and early thirties) toward feminism and equal opportunities. With one voice they say they feel "alienated from the gender politics of the women's movement". The very idea of Women's Day seems anachronistic, they say.

Demos offers these findings in a slightly breathless fashion, as if it were anything new. But it was ever thus. The golden era, so-called, of feminist ideas in the Seventies only ever attracted relatively few activists. Every sensible movement that raised its head above the crowd was instantly split asunder as schism followed schism. Usually, militant lesbians and revolutionaries were to blame: someone further to the left and further out to lunch always stood up and claimed to be more black/working class/lesbian/regional than everyone else. If any sister appeared in the press she was accused of ego-tripping, so statements were issued anonymously.

It always did alienate most ordinary women, cooking, washing, working, cursing under their breath at their lot. They were understandably reluctant to identify with the tofu-eating worshippers of Lilith and biofeedback. "What do we want? Abortion! When do we want it? Now!" I remember shouting on some demo or other, before stopping to reflect on the sheer oddity of the sentiment.

Despite its fissiparous and barbarous tendencies, however, the women's movement of those times did somehow change the attitudes and expectations of women everywhere. Ideas that started with a blue-stocking lite burst out through women's magazines to a hugely diverse readership. Magazines such as Woman's Own and Honey seized quite radical ideas very early on and disseminated them through a universal and classless women's network that would be the envy of any other political movement. Everything from ironing to orgasms, glass ceilings to dirty floors, was discussed in a vibrant magazine industry hungry for new copy. Unfortunately, men weren't reading the same things.

The Demos sample of women say they don't identify with the women's movement. I wonder what and where they think it is? There hardly is one, apart from the loony Lambeth leftovers. The worthy old Fawcett Society plods on. A host of excellent single issue campaigns often score victories, like the coalition of equal pensions groups that helped to overturn government policy in the Lords on divorced women's pension rights. Or the Maternity Alliance and the Child Care Coalition and others beavering away. But there is no big picture, no big idea, no rallying cry.

The Equal Opportunities Commission was the Labour government's response to rowdy women's demands in the early Seventies; though after so many years of Conservative appointments, it looks like another deadish duck these days. However, inadvertently perhaps, yesterday it exposed one of the root causes of women's disadvantage. A formal investigation into an employment agency called Workforce found the company guilty of discriminating against men by advertising jobs, mainly in packing lines, for "the nimble- fingered" or work "in a predominantly female environment". Men were not being sent for these posts. The EOC has struck, it seems at first sight, a blow for men, in keeping with these backlash times.

But there's more to it. Why would employers strive so vigorously to keep men out of women's jobs? For very good reasons. On average women are paid 25 per cent less than men, making it impossible for women to support a family single-handed, the greatest single injustice and the only one that really matters. Virtually all the women in these jobs are married or co- habitating with a working partner. They can only afford to take these pittances because they are adding to a breadwinner's income. If their partner were to lose his job, women in this low-paid work would resign at once, as their wages are deducted from the family's social security.

There is much boasting about how many British women work compared with other Western countries, as if it were a symbol of liberation. But employers only get away with such low pay because the women are supported by men.

If suddenly a low-paying employer found he had a large number of male breadwinners on his hands, there might be an outcry about starvation wages at sub-Income Support levels. Those who favour a low-pay, price-them- back-on-to-the-market policy should strongly advocate the continuance of sex-segregated work. The huge growth in jobs for women, and zero growth in jobs for men, is largely because of the sex/wage differential.

Recently, I visited a Nottinghamshire factory employing newly redundant miners. There they sat, burly, tattooed men stitching pink lace underwired bras destined for Marks & Spencer. When I filmed them for a television story about pit closures I was inundated with letters of sympathy for the men. So sad, people wrote in, that these fine men should be brought so low. I too found the sight strangely touching. Job segregation is deeply imprinted in our psyche, along with all our other notions of what men and women should do and be. Their (female) supervisor said the men had perfectly nimble fingers, and were just as good as women at the work.

Meanwhile, today is Women's Day, but what real change? Much in attitude, much less in fact. Major companies only have 3.7 per cent female board members. And only 2.8 per cent senior managers are women. Women managers earn 16 per cent less than male managers. The gap between what women want and expect and what they get is a root cause of divorce, and the gulf between women and men still yawns. Demos's young women don't like gender politics, for women rarely feel they are a political group or a race apart. None the less, the battles remain to be fought. The cause has not died, only the fire.

The writer is the BBC social affairs editor.