Is this what we meant by feminism?

'It is now commonplace to see young women vomiting on the city streets, gouts of beer and curry staining their half-naked dresses'

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It is 1970, and I'm one of a group of some two dozen women from the media, attending the meeting held once a month in a room above a pub at which we exchange news and moral support. Most of us are dressed in flared trousers or patchworked jeans with flimsy or psychedelic shirts. Most of us have husbands (not partners) and children at home. We are full of righteous indignation, not least because we are paid less, much less, than our male colleagues. We are politically correct (though the phrase hardly existed then) and probably a bit humourless.

It is 1970, and I'm one of a group of some two dozen women from the media, attending the meeting held once a month in a room above a pub at which we exchange news and moral support. Most of us are dressed in flared trousers or patchworked jeans with flimsy or psychedelic shirts. Most of us have husbands (not partners) and children at home. We are full of righteous indignation, not least because we are paid less, much less, than our male colleagues. We are politically correct (though the phrase hardly existed then) and probably a bit humourless.

But the one thing we have overwhelmingly in common is, in the face of widespread ridicule, a passionate concern for women's equality. We are "women's libbers" - Nova is our favourite magazine and Germaine Greer our torchbearer.

Those were the early days of feminism - battling rather than balmy days - and many of the goals we discussed - wages for women who stay at home with young children, for instance - have still not been achieved. Yet the gains over the last three decades have been immense. Unfortunately - and I never thought to hear myself say this - so have the losses.

Women, especially young women, have lost tenderness, judgement, any realistic sense of their own place and value, decorum (not an absurd attribute, least of all in public) and self-control. They have abandoned many moral let alone sexual standards, and are instead obsessed with their own bodies, make-up, hair and clothes.

Values have been replaced by a lust for experience, excitement, exposure, affluence, drugs and alcohol. I say this reluctantly, partly because the young women I am talking about are criticised enough already; and partly because when I, now a grandmother, was a demure, twinset-and-pearls 18-year-old, I dare say I would have given anything to be like them, rather than the dull, cowed, outwardly obedient but inwardly resentful clone of my middle-aged mother that I appeared.

But the news that an 18-year-old woman allegedly connived in, aided and actively encouraged the rape of a lone, helpless and terrified woman by a gang of teenagers strikes a moral chord with me as ringingly as did the Bulger case. A jury will decide the truth or otherwise of these particular allegations, but there is little doubt that girl membership of gangs, and girl violence, is on the increase in an alarming way.

How did things get so far? What are the influences, role models and aspirations of these violent young women who form gangs, drink, smoke, swear and parade themselves half-naked, laughing, sneering, leering like their male counterparts?

Almost before they're into their teens, they are told by the magazines they read, the television programmes they watch, as well as by their contemporaries and older sisters, that by far the most important thing in a girl's life is how she looks.

She must be pretty, unnaturally slim, fashionably dressed and alluringly made up. She is offered the unattainable, superhuman beauty of supermodels, or the frenzied acclamation given to girl pop groups, as ideals to aim for. Only in this way can she ever hope to attract the admiration of boys and achieve what every teenager wants more than anything else: popularity.

With hormones ricocheting round their bodies, it's in the nature of adolescents to be temperamental, unsure of their identity, despairing one moment, ecstatic the next. The answer, they are told, is: conform! Be bold, smiley, bright-eyed, shiny-haired; laugh and cavort, smoke, drink, drop some Ecstasy and dance, have fun! Look, everyone else is!

Insecure teenagers quickly look for courage and an appearance of maturity in cigarettes, drugs and alcohol. Thus fuelled, inhibitions lowered, they can show off, misbehave, attract attention and mock the ugly, staid, boring rest of us. Anyone over 30 is old; over 50 is geriatric. We drive through city centres or travel home by Tube at weekends, watching their antics with shock and incredulity as they pull faces at us, wrinkling their satin skin, or snog their boyfriends defiantly.

And this is just girls in their mid-teens. As they grow older, the drinking and drug-taking become more frenzied. It is now utterly commonplace to see young women vomiting on the city streets, gouts of beer and curry staining their transparent half-naked dresses and splattering their high-heeled shoes. They may be the centre of a laughing group, propped up by a friend; sometimes they're left to cope alone, terrifyingly vulnerable.

Are they ashamed? Apparently, not in the least. On Mondays, you overhear young women boasting about their drunkenness, totting up the number of pints they had, how they were "really, really out of it". Sometimes they'll boast, too, about how many guys they pulled, though I have not yet heard anyone boast about attacking a woman.

How can we reverse this trend, not as far back as my cheerless youth, but some way in the direction of decent behaviour, to say nothing of the avoidance of destructive problems created by drug and alcohol addiction? Where are the role models?

It is not enough to say that the Christian church provides them. Most of these young people have hardly been to church in their lives. It is surely significant that the only form of religion that does seem to appeal to them is that of the extreme and rigorous cults. These treat women like the Shakers or the Amish, often enforcing draconian codes such as full-length skirts (no trousers, of course); no make-up, long hair, and submissive, virginal behaviour.

They reduce young women to the status of acolytes for the authoritarian men who preside over these cult churches. I do not suggest that this is how young women should conduct themselves; on the contrary, I see these Old Testament edicts and dress codes as unscrupulous manipulation.

But there is a clue here, I think, and it is that the young respond well to clear, strong guidance. It is no infringement of their liberties to tell young women that certain forms of behaviour are expected of them in public, not least because they may put themselves at grave risk otherwise. One of the reasons that, until fairly recently, one school-leaver in every five girls became a nurse - not any more! - is that young women often have high ideals and a touching desire to serve, expressed by a desire to look after those who are suffering.

If we expect more of today's young, we must offer them more. Big business has exploited them and their spending power and filled their heads with detritus that is largely ephemeral, briefly modish, insubstantial or actively corrupting. Of course, there are better things on offer; but the voices promoting them are small indeed beside the foghorn blaring and rackety jingles of the TV commercials.

It is time for feminism, which has achieved so much, to confront its failures. If ladettes or girl gangs, or whatever name we give them, are behaving badly, then we - their mothers and grandmothers - must share the blame. We fought for their freedom but never taught them how to use it.

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