When the writer Natasha Walter described last week her growing realisation that feminism has shrivelled away, she put into words the unease that many women over 40 have been feeling. Old enough to have enjoyed the fruits of the feminist movement and to know what went before, young enough to be living in the thick of life – employed, child-rearing, opinion-forming – they find themselves clinging on unsteadily in a shifting landscape of opportunity. With a mixture of disbelief and despair, they watch the next generation of young women, for whom they had such high hopes, subjected to judgements they thought had died in the Seventies.
Much has been made of the BBC's clumsy efforts to conjure up some older women, having dropped a series of able broadcasters for daring to age. Welcome back. But they should never have been away. And until ITV News fields a woman presenter who can match Alastair Stewart's 57 years, it has nothing to be smug about either.
But the death of feminism is, arguably, not so serious for the older newsreader or for any of us who have reached that comfortable plateau of middle age as for those in their teens or twenties who have yet to look for goals and make their mark.
Natasha Walter spoke with dismay of the young women stigmatised as prudes for recoiling from unwholesome sexual practices. And those of us who campaigned hard for women not to be ranked by appearance or sexual availability, feel only sadness when a clutch of undressed, shrieking drunks staggers down the street in shoes designed to cripple. The Pill has, since the Sixties, brought unprecedented freedoms, but the equality of opportunity to behave badly was not on the gender agenda.
Rather we had in mind the liberation of men and women alike – for defining women primarily by their sexuality is limiting for males too – by a new set of values that would respect and benefit from women's intellect and achievements. It got off to a good start: there were more female undergraduates, often outperforming their male counterparts. And then it simply fizzled out. Women in Britain were not only largely excluded from the boardroom, the Cabinet, the judiciary, the power lists, those few who made it through the glass ceiling were examined minutely for signs of physical imperfection, often by a press still dominated by male editors.
Even now, barely a week passes without an account of a woman humiliated in the workplace. And yet, there are brilliant women scientists, entrepreneurs, artists in all media, academics who are quietly getting on with their innovative work, probably raising children with the other hand. It's just that they are invisible and, often, inaudible. You certainly don't go looking for them on the Today programme. For guaranteed exposure, in every sense, runs the message to 21stcentury girls, you need to sing and dance in your knickers.
Like Natasha Walter, whose new book Living Dolls sums up women's revised status, I have observed the launch of Nuts and Loaded, the pinkification of little girls and the resistance to simple, harmless ways of dignifying women – dropping such qualifying terms as "woman doctor", for example. (It is astonishing how much distress this question of nomenclature can still cause otherwise not unintelligent men.)
And the disheartening thing is, as any of my colleagues, family or friends will wearily testify, I have been banging on like this for years. With a heavy heart I have to agree with Natasha Walter: feminism has spiralled back downhill, another aspect of the social mobility that was promised but has not materialised.
The opportunity to move up and get on was not merely a class issue – it was a gender issue too. If the erosion of feminism happened on Labour's watch, imagine its fate under a Conservative government.Reuse content