In March 2004, I took my mum Jena to a neighbourhood lunch for pensioners, all widows. They had brought old photographs and talked about what it was like for women way back whenever and the changes they'd lived through. Besides Jena, two other ladies were Asian, two were Afro-Caribbean and one an Armenian. The rest were native British, mostly Londoners.
Norma, 90, sharp and chatty, missed the hats. They made lasses look respectable, she said. Otherwise, they all agreed that though the past was simpler – "Everyone knew what to do" – today's girls had it far better. Look at the machines now available! And the husbands! Why they speak to kids and even change nappies! As we left Jena said: "Everything is so much easier for you – but still you all complain. See the good side." Two years later, almost to the day, she died.
Tomorrow it is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day (IWD) so, in Jena's memory, I will try to see the good side first before going on to moan, a duty surely for a feminist for whom complacency is the biggest enemy of progress.
We are on that road up. It feels like a precipitous journey and we often slip back or tumble a long way down or have to survive avalanches of abuse and masculine resentment. Some things have even got worse. Mountaineers say the most arduous trek seems worth it when you appreciate where you've got to and the astonishing vistas.
In the west more sisters are getting into powerful positions in business and politics, cultural and social domains. We are not yet at the peak but look how far we have come. Our daughters can be plumbers and professors, pensive poets and pushy pioneers, can sweep up all opportunities before them, and our sons will make their choices without needing to humiliate and suppress the other half. That shift has happened and the values are getting embedded.
In British families now, there is greater parity and more love between equals than ever in our history and the engagement of fathers in child-rearing is quite remarkable. In the east and south, millions of females are treated as dispensable, cheap, goods, but even in the most conservative of societies the winds of change are blowing.
IWD joyously celebrates these advances, and the noisiest, merriest planned gig is at London's South Bank. Over three days next weekend, the Women of the World (WOW) festival will bring together classes, races, religions and nationalities. The wonderful Annie Lennox will be there – so too kittenish and knowing campaigners, young hairdressers promising miracles, actresses, politicians, dancers, more, more, more. Commentators are speaking at debates or probably doing unexpected things – I am performing my one-woman show. It will be some party. However, this good cheer should make us more mindful of the lot of men, even those who want to drown feminism in a bath of acid.
The luncheon above was a reminder of one stark, sad fact – women outlive men in every part of the world. We win that one fundamental race of life. From their studies, gerontology researchers at the University of Newcastle conclude that male cells are not genetically programmed to last as long as female cells.
Danny Dorling, the esteemed Professor of Human Geography, believes masculine behaviour is partly responsible. Women "are not doing the risky behaviour that men do – driving too fast, getting into fights and drinking large amounts of alcohol." (The gap may soon be reduced by gals behaving badly.) Whatever the causes, men die earlier and yet have had to work more years than women before retirement. It is completely unjust.
Another, lesser, male grievance was placated last week when the European Court of Justice ruled that companies could not impose differential charges on actuarial calculations based on gender, even though reckless young males cause vastly more car accidents than do more cautious females. The judgement was sound though some females did get into a lather over it. Embarrassing. Feminism was never only about our rights and advancement. The battle for female equality is at the vanguard of the battle for equality for all – not only women. We're all in this together.
Men too have a responsibility to see why we must fight and fight on until our half of the human race gets its rightful share of the world – of dignity, respect and rights. That just doesn't happen at present. When evidence is presented of sex discrimination, why don't men speak up more? The appalling rape statistics should shame them – but it is left to women's groups to protest. Did I miss the march of the million refusing to condone this evil?
If as many men were savagely killed by their partners as are women – and every week – then blokes would not remain so blasé nor would they blame the victims for provoking the attacks. Please don't all rush off tweets and blogs and emails to remind me of the mad, bad and dangerous wives and girlfriends who whack their husbands and lovers, some extremely seriously. That is acknowledged, and I think there are more sufferers than we know. Even so, the figures for murders by so-called loved ones are clear – almost all the dead are female.
Sexism is rife in popular culture and our national conversations. More men need to oppose the sexualisation of young girls and the fascistic body images forced on them when they are teenagers. Again most lads are completely inured to it or think it is all just fine, great fun. Charlie Sheen behaves as he does – a father of two tiny toddlers – and chaps think he is one of them. Brittney, just as dysfunctional, was never this indulged, not that I think she should have been.
What's shocking in the gander is rather marvellous for the goose. On the Lorraine Kelly show last Thursday, they had a man in his seventies with a newborn baby. Fine, I say. But why then the hysteria when older women want the pleasure? Again it was left to women to ask the question that chaps never ask. So gentlemen, tomorrow, wish us well and promise yourself you will try to become a bit more menimist. Remember we are in this together.