WE'RE not in the habit of making the connection between self-esteem and democracy, dignity, political activism and freedom of sexual expression. But in the future, we'll have to. The issue is that fundamental, which was made perfectly clear at the conference by representatives of groups who every day deal with people who don't value themselves. Self-esteem is the route to revolution, the map for the new millennium. Virginia Woolf said it with special terseness and relevance for women: "We must develop the habit of freedom." And to do that, we have to understand the forces that conspired against us to ensure we never acquired such a habit in the first place. If you're my age, you were brought up with the belief that being female demanded that a woman earn her living through caring for and nurturing the male breadwinner. When you were young, you were never told how remarkable you were, or, as you grew, that you were smart, courageous and valuable. This training in selflessness carried over into everything we did in the home, the community, the movements we joined, but the price we paid was literally less self. No wonder it has been hard to develop the habit of freedom, to stand up and be heard, to take our place in the world. And no wonder so many of us were - and are - ambivalent about feminism. A woman at the conference asked me: "How can I become a feminist, do all the brave things I want to do, and balance that with my need to be attractive to men?" I told her to stay curious and eloquent, to accept that some of the rarest relationships in her life would be with women - and to learn to really snog. She should take heart from the fact that, as she ages, she will get more radical, which is our pattern. Remember what Dorothy Sayers said: "An advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force!"
BUT whatever programmed us to believe that anonymity and selflessness are the proper conditions of women? I can think of one thing: religion. As a not-so-good Catholic girl, my relationship with the church was defined by my mother's reaction when the priest came calling to talk about my father's funeral. Somehow their conversation spiralled into a furious argument which ended when Mum dumped a bucket of dirty water over him and slammed the door in his face. But if the messenger left something to be desired, I was still attracted by the message. That is why I am so annoyed that religion today is less about the meaning of faith and the perception of the divine in the mundane than it is about control. It begins with the concept of God as a white male entity. A few years ago, The Body Shop in America stuck a Mother's Day poster in the window which read: "God couldn't be everywhere so she created mothers". It practically caused a mini-riot in the malls of New Hampshire. This is the state where the religious right has managed to have the word "imagination" banned from use in schools. The people who see sacrilege in our sentiment are also against family planning and freedom of sexual expression for women or gay people. John Boswell, the Yale historian, has convincingly detailed how the Catholic Church conducted same-sex marriages in the Middle Ages. They were solemnised in exactly the same way as heterosexual unions, with friends and family on hand to celebrate afterwards. So much for the Dark Ages. Even if there was nothing then to compare with our present well- defined movement of spirituality, the world seemed a more holistic place. Body and soul and the land were integrated. So what went wrong? First the Renaissance, then the Reformation, put paid to medieval unity. So the suggestion around is that now the spiritual hunger in our world springs from the way we've been conditioned to believe in opposites: mind v body, reason v emotion, power v partnership and, ultimately, men v women. This either/or approach has clearly exhausted its usefulness.
THINK-TANK. Now there's a thought. It has always had a kind of right- wing secret society feel to it, probably because that is the kind of think- tanker I'm sometimes faced by in Oxford Union debates. Demos is non-partisan but, like all think-tanks, it is trying to set political agendas. With "Tomorrow's Women", it hopes to ignite a debate on how women's lives are likely to change over the next decade in the UK. Let's start with a commitment to day-care centres attached to the workplace. But I've got think-tanks on the brain because Gordon and I have just joined the Fabian Society, founded in 1884 by George Bernard Shaw, among others. Its house magazine, the Fabian Review, is filled with insightful, sometimes reflective pieces on the direction of the Labour Party. I'm already under the spell of its sneak previews of possible futures. What really bugged us both is that we've only just discovered this - so much for our political consciousness.