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Katy Guest: Ladettes, feminists and a dame... Why women have moved on

Eileen Atkins may be a distinguished actress and one of the original bra-burners – and we have a lot to thank her generation for – but she has missed the point about feminism today

When a venerable actress gave an interview to an enduring magazine last week, it looked as though she was trying to cause a stink. In the well-rehearsed words of angry old farts through the ages, Dame Eileen Atkins began by with an eloquent soliloquy on political correctness. "[It] makes you want to behave badly – which I do," she said – adding crucially, "but I wonder if it's just me being another angry old fart." Her theme at the time was smoking, which is being cruelly thwarted by the feeble-minded health police. But as she relaxed into her role, she started to do something really shocking: she tried to reclaim feminism.

In the Radio Times interview, her comments seemed to arrive apropos of nothing. "In my late teens and twenties, I was in love all the time," she said, reasonably. "Now girls are expected to have sex before they're 12, which is terrible. It really upsets me when silly girls get as drunk and aggressive as boys. My skin crawls when I see laddish women presenting television shows who almost slap their thighs as if they're in panto. I think, 'Stop. This isn't what we meant by feminism.' It's gone completely wrong. Women think they can have a fantastic career and four children, and knock themselves out trying to do it all."

Phew. Did Dame Eileen take a deep breath after insulting most women in Britain in these six, short sentences? Did she look back over her speech and wish she had softened it? If she did, it is not reported. The headlines, of course, wrote themselves. "Laddish women are eroding feminism, warns Dame Eileen," was just one.

It is tempting (for the modern woman) to dismiss Dame Eileen as an old bra-burner who has lost the plot. She was, after all, the one who used the words "angry old fart". And since her iconoclasm in the interview knew no bounds, perhaps she was trying to make people angry. There came a point, as she discussed her role in the new play The Female of the Species, when she even belittled Germaine Greer, for goodness' sake. She clearly didn't give the interview to try and win fans among the sisterhood.

But this was a curious choice of words. "Women think they can have ... it all," she said, sounding more like a Daily Mail leader-writer than someone in the tradition of the Suffragettes. "This isn't what we meant by feminism," she informed us. But what did we mean by feminism? Who are "we"? And who owns feminism, anyway?

Dame Eileen's rhetoric hits precisely the point where the half of the population that will cheer "Well said!" sheers off from the half that will boil inside at her words. It is not the idea that girls are expected to have sex before they are 12, which most people will think is a point too far – nobody expects girls to have sex before they are 12, and a lot of effort goes into making sure they don't. The problem is in the injustice of her comparisons. Does it upset her when boys get drunk and aggressive? How many children can a woman have and still expect to enjoy a career? How many for a fantastic career? And how many children can men have?

Dame Eileen says that feminism has gone wrong. Too right it has, if the word itself is now used as a way of embracing these tired old double standards. What is upsetting is not that laddish women present television shows; it is the insidious creep of these values into everyday discourse, to the point that a "feminist" will claim them as her own.

When the Dame Eileen headlines faded from front pages last week, they were replaced by news about new crime statistics released by the Ministry of Justice. "Menace of the violent girls", said one article. It didn't reveal that four times as many men were arrested for violent crimes last year. Does Dame Eileen find that upsetting? It wasn't feminism that dictated that women have to be smarter, work harder and stay soberer than men in order to be treated the same way. In May, Alan Gordon, the vice-chairman of the Police Federation, complained that women can no longer be relied upon to provide a "calming influence" on men when they are drunk. And why should they? Surely they credit men with enough intelligence to know their own limits.

Or perhaps feminism means shouting, "Leave him, Tarquin. He ain't worth it", before bundling your fella into a cab. In fact, men commit 87 per cent of violent incidents. Faced with a large group of drunken lads or ladettes, which one would you cross the road to avoid?

In reality, it has been a long time since anyone has been faced with any genuine ladettes at all. Dame Eileen's skin crawls, she says, when she sees laddish women presenting television programmes. Has she been sneaking home from the Vaudeville Theatre for a cheeky Vimto and a night in with Charlotte Church's new programme, by any chance? The show contains a sketch called "Lady to Ladette", in which Church teaches posh young women the fine arts of drinking, dancing and ordering kebabs in a Cardiff accent, and it is by far the funniest part of the programme. "I don't like to advocate binge-drinking, but it happens," she says. "Girls in Cardiff can drink. Me, mainly. A night out should consist of a lot of alcohol, an outfit which looks good at the start of the night and is in tatters at the end. Lots of dancing, so you get so sweaty your hair looks like you've been in the rain. Followed by a big-ass meal like a doner kebab."

It is funny because Charlotte Church is a funny, lovable young woman, even if she does – no! – drink pints. She is also five months pregnant with her second child, and hasn't been seen in Cardiff's Kebab Alley for some years. The show on which the skit is based, ITV's Ladette to Lady, was cancelled earlier this year because of low ratings. The ladette, Dame Eileen please note, is dead – long live the real woman.

The word "ladettes" entered the Concise Oxford Dictionary in 2001, defined as: "... young women who behave in a boisterously assertive or crude manner and engage in heavy drinking sessions". Typically, as soon as a dictionary can define a cultural moment, it is gone. Three women summed up the ladette generation of the mid-1990s: Sara Cox, Zoë Ball and Denise Van Outen. In a phenomenon that would have come as no surprise to the bloke in the East End boozer or the working men's club in the North, they were regularly seen to drink lager, swear and chat up members of the opposite sex – to do as men did, in other words. A word had to be invented for these shocking individuals, and thanks to their "male" behaviour, the word was "ladette".

And where are they now, these pioneers of whole pints, assertiveness and no-strings good times? Cox gave birth to her second child in March. Ball now spends her Saturday mornings having "a family cuddle" in bed with her husband and six-year-old son. Van Outen works out and grows organic vegetables in her garden in Hampstead. Of the Spice Girls, all but one is a mother – and yes, they still (mostly) have fantastic careers. Dame Eileen doubtless finds that appalling. Where did feminism go wrong?

To criticise Dame Eileen's remarks is not to imply a lack of gratitude to the generation who did so much to change women's lives. But feminism means something different to women now. Of course it does. The theory of equal work for equal pay means more than equal stress for today's women and less than equal leisure time in which to wind down. Who can blame them for daring to ask for an equal amount of fun?

The problem she addresses is nothing new: women drink. Not as much as men, but they do. Samuel Pepys wrote about women who "would scold for drink and be drunk as devils". Even Kebab Alley has nothing on Hogarth's Gin Lane. The difference between those women and today's young ladettes is that women now have choices. That's partly thanks to women such as Dame Eileen and the sacrifices they made. She may not approve of the way that women use their (still) growing freedom; but we use it or lose it. And as long as women do believe they can have a fantastic career, a wild night out and children too, feminism isn't dead yet.