In a Sunday newspaper magazine, 10 pages promised to "unleash" our inner goddesses with corsets, frilly knickers, suspenders, lacy stockings, "triangle" bras, other skimpies and boob scaffolds. A female journo raves: "Lingerie shopping is almost as satisfying as buying shoes. And that's as good as it gets." Really, dear girl? As good as it gets? The journey for gender equality in the UK started with Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 and arrives in an underwear emporium at the end of 2011. I know it is the season of good cheer, fun stuff and cheeky pleasures, and I only pick on this article as typical of countless others which nudge women into thinking of themselves as sex objects and pleasers and divert us from naked, brutal realities.
Last week, an academic study found that a wide sample of men could not differentiate remarks about women's sexuality made by convicted rapists from quotes in four, hugely popular, mid-shelf lads' magazines. Even more disturbingly, the magazine stuff was harder and cruder than the fantasies of sexual attackers. Here are two examples of "advice": "Go smash her on a park bench" and "a girl ... likes feeling like a dirty slut ... you can try all sorts of humiliating acts to help her live out her filthy fantasy". The researchers concluded that the magazines normalised sexism and violence against women.
Meanwhile, savage male sexual fantasies roam the internet and sex is as fast and addictive as a delivered pizza. We hear of brutal assaults on teenage girls by their boyfriends and domestic violence and murder figures remain unspeakably high. Just look at how many husbands and boyfriends killed their families over the past 12 months. Shireen, a reader of this column, was 17 when she fought off a rapist, someone she knew. He was never charged. She won't stop crying because she fears for her newborn daughter. "She will suffer. I suffer," she says. "It is worse now than it was. Women and girls are used, abused and still expected to smile and look pretty. They lecture the Taliban and don't want to see what is happening here, in Britain."
Admittedly, these are extreme examples. However, though slow progress has been made since the 1980s, in terms of females in Parliament, top jobs, positions of influence and entry into occupations previously closed to them, appearances are deceptive. Last week, a newspaper analysed the number of women on key TV programmes, writing in newspapers and in politics. Wollstonecraft would scream at the findings – from BBC Radio 4's Today programme, through the newspapers to the commanding political voices, white men overwhelmingly dominate in terms of numbers and the agenda. And if you complain about the unfairness and stupidity of sexism or racism, you are turned into an effigy, scorned and burned. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of sisters defending the hideous status quo – women in drag who seem to have injected themselves with vast quantities of artificial testosterone. Like the headhunter Heather McGregor, man enough to be asked on to the Today programme, who ordered those who believe in unfairness to have a reality check or move to Cuba.
For all the progressive laws passed and real changes in how many men treat women, base attitudes persist and now, as we move into a gloomy economic environment, sexist personal and institutional behaviours and male brutality are considered understandable or unavoidable.
Cameron and his buddies detest the equalities and human-rights legislation because it interferes with business, the god of our age. I was a panellist on Channel5's The Wright Stuff all last week, a live two-hour programme. Callers to the programme, many of them powerless people, articulate ideas and describe their lives compellingly and make you understand what they are going through. Women who had lost their low-paid jobs phoned in, spoke with dignity about how difficult it was for lone mothers on state benefits to raise children, and the intolerance of neighbours and even friends. None of them blamed the Government. We know cuts in public services are disproportionately affecting such women. As I was leaving the studio, a female studio guest came up to me and said her husband had been laid off and was now drinking and beating her up. "I can't leave him or tell the police," she said. "The job was his life, so he's just taking it out on me."
There is much praise for Meryl Streep's portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in a new biopic. Enthusiasts say it shows the "Iron Lady" overcoming deep Tory prejudices. Even so, she didn't champion equality and her own example changed little for womanhood. Individual success has come to some, but men still rule from the bedroom to the boardroom. There will not be another woman PM for a long time.
Some younger women are, thank God, organising against the injustice and objectification, excelling in higher education and fighting for access and power. Many, though, are pissed, passing out, sleeping around, up the pole, nihilistic – existential responses to a world that still denies them, now with force and reactionary zeal. It is really hard to be a woman and, trust me, a Stella McCartney floral-printed bustier with matching briefs (£130) won't make it all go away.Reuse content