Joan Smith: The march from minority to mainstream

Forty years ago this weekend, the first Women's Lib conference called for radical changes that transformed the prospects for girls
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The Independent Online

Four decades ago, when the first women's liberation conference was staged in Oxford, I was at school in Hampshire. I knew nothing about the momentous meeting at Ruskin College, but I felt frustrated at every turn, running up against bizarre assumptions based solely on the fact that I was a girl. I didn't know there was a women's liberation movement in the UK, but I was already a feminist.

At my girls' state school, I wasn't allowed to study economics; that was taught at the boys' grammar school on the other side of town. When it came to choosing A-levels, I was advised to take anatomy, physiology and hygiene so I could become a nurse and resume my career after having children. To a girl who had recently mortified her mother by publicly announcing that "marriage is a patriarchal institution and I want nothing to do with it", this was a singularly useless piece of advice.

What made me even more angry was the way one or two girls disappeared from the school roll after the holidays, amid rumours that they had "got into trouble". Clearly, as I tried to tell the headmistress, there was an urgent need for sex education at the school; she dismissed my call, saying the subject was covered in biology lessons. I tracked down one of these "disappeared" girls and found her living in a council house with her equally youthful husband and a tiny baby. Her education had been abandoned.

Shame was a huge issue for girls. Working in Manchester as a young journalist, I interviewed a woman who had been confined in a mental institution for 30 years because she had had an "'illegitimate" baby. I thanked the gods that I didn't believe in that abortion had been legalised and the contraceptive pill was available, but other people didn't share my thinking. Turning up at a family planning clinic to get a prescription for the Pill, I was surprised to be addressed as "Mrs" and explained that I wasn't married. "We call everyone Mrs to avoid embarrassment," an angry nurse told me. Not long afterwards, I discovered how hard it was to get a mortgage as a single woman when you didn't have a man to act as guarantor.

Throughout these battles, I couldn't understand why it should be such a struggle to be treated like any other human being: like men, is what I really meant. And when I began reading the great feminists texts, it was a joy to encounter the fierce intellectualism of writers – Kate Millett, Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin – who thought about these things in pretty much the same way I did.

Now, the culture I live in has changed out of all recognition and feminist ideas have become mainstream: the right to equal pay for equal work, paid maternity leave, women keeping their surnames on marriage, unconditional access to mortgages and bank accounts, not having to tolerate sexual harassment, girls studying the same curriculum as boys (and outstripping them in some subjects), recognition that not all women want to have children. I'm not arguing that we've achieved all these things, but there have been huge changes for the better in women's lives.

Of course I want to see more women in Parliament and in boardrooms. And I'm glad that where the State has failed, notably in the area of equal pay, lawyers have begun winning settlements for women in the public sector who have been underpaid for decades. Quite right too: they've been let down by employers, trades unions and politicians who still seem to think that "worker" is a masculine noun. But that doesn't alter the fact that there's never been a better time to be a woman in Europe. That isn't the case for women in developing countries – I have just returned from Sierra Leone, where most girls are subjected to female genital mutilation and most adults are unable to read – and we need to do our bit to ensure that they get rights we take for granted.

All political movements change and develop. In the Nineties, the Spice Girls embodied a populist version of feminism – "girl power" – which didn't appeal to me, but which some young women found empowering. At around the same time, Diana, Princess of Wales, pioneered a species of victim feminism which encouraged women to feel sorry for themselves. Now a new generation of feminist writers is arguing that equality is an illusion, and suggesting that young women's lives are being ruined by the commercial sex industry. The authors are too young to remember what this country was like half a century ago, and don't seem to know about the tumultuous debates around sexuality which began in the Seventies.

Feminists have struggled for decades to make space between puritans on the one hand and pimps and pornographers on the other. In the late Seventies, I covered the Yorkshire Ripper murders and couldn't avoid thinking about sexual violence while I was learning about sexual pleasure in my own life. In the first decade of the 21st century, I'm proud to have been involved in successful campaigns to establish legal rights for trafficked women and to criminalise demand for paid sex in certain circumstances. But I don't believe that young women are having their lives ruined by the existence of pole-dancing clubs, unless they have the misfortune to work in them.

I know many young women who travel fearlessly – last year my god-daughter spent her university vacation in Ghana – and are more inclined to join Amnesty International than aspire to be "glamour" models. Feminism is an unfinished revolution, but it's given the next generation opportunities we could only dream about in 1970.

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