NATASHA Walter is a serious young woman who has written a serious new book about the state of women, men and feminism in Britain today. She calls it the new feminism and, like the old, it has an ambitious agenda. Much to her distress, though, no one seems very interested in this. Instead the subject on everyone's lips appears to be, well, lipstick.
"One photographer asked if he could take my picture putting on my lipstick," she says. "I said no." She seems perturbed, despite the fact she is a journalist and so must know how small our brains can be. I do my best to console. Look at Mrs Thatcher. She tried to change the world and we talked about her handbag. Princess Diana wanted to ban landmines, we worried about her hairdo. So perhaps it is predictable that when a serious young woman writes a serious book on feminism with one not-so-serious chapter on fashion, we should all talk about lipstick. "The feminine feminists" shouts one huge headline. "We'll wear lipstick and Wonderbras, whether men like it or not," says another.
This kind of thing upsets Natasha Walter. I look at her, sitting quietly at her dining room table in her white shirt looking around her white front room in her North London flat and I think that she is hardly the type to go round sticking her Wonderbra up at the world. I smile at her through my lipstick. I can't tell if she's wearing any. I decide it would be unsisterly to ask. "It depresses me that people are going to latch on to this book and say this is the book that says feminists should now be wearing high heels and bright dresses and lipstick," she says fiercely. "It is not that book. It is saying that women can wear what they like. The fashion chapter is only a small section. It's a little thing. It's not central." At this point Ms Walter, who talks quickly, sighs in disgust. "Maybe it was a mistake to write that chapter at all. I feel that it is going to distract from the more important issues, people are getting hung up on that."
Actually, she really should have seen this coming. "Are you a feminist? You don't dress like one," is a comment she often encounters. "Did you have a special outfit to write this book in?" asked one senior newspaper editor. But then, as everyone told me before the interview, she is beautiful and this must be confusing lots of people as well. Can feminists be beautiful? Of course they can, you may roar, but just go and ask someone else. There is a wonderful bit in The New Feminism where schoolgirls are asked what a feminist is. "She's a fat, hairy, angry lesbian," they chorus with no prompting whatsoever.
Natasha Walter is none of these and has always been happy to call herself a feminist. So has her older sister and her mother, a social worker. Her father is an atheist of repute who runs the Rationalist Press Association. Her parents were in the peace movement and Greenham was a regular topic in their North London home. So Natasha Walter grew up a feminist and now, aged 30, hasn't changed the tag though she may yet change the face of feminism. Somehow, she says, the idea of equality in the workplace, equality at home, equality in life got separated from feminism in Britain. "Women want these things but they don't want to call themselves feminists because they are scared of the baggage," she says. "This is particularly a problem among young women. I talked to a 30-year-old barrister who had been at Cambridge and who was very clued-up about it all. And I asked if she would call herself a feminist and she said she wouldn't because her colleagues might think she was a lesbian. That is such a pity!"
The new feminism would change all that by concentrating on the pragmatic. No longer does the personal have to be political. Now the personal stays personal. "Can a woman dress like a mannequin and be a feminist? Can she have rape fantasies and be a feminist? Can she have a white wedding and be a feminist?" Walter asks in the book. "Can she be a prostitute and a feminist? Can she be a Conservative voter and a feminist?" More controversially, I wonder, can she be a fat, hairy, angry lesbian? The answer to all of these questions is yes. A feminist can be anyone as long as she or he shares in a commitment to equal rights and opportunities. "Feminism is not a religious movement," notes Walter. "To gain its ends it needs not ask for inner sanctification."
She wrote the book because she got tired of waiting for someone else to do it. It occurred to her that someone should when, as deputy literary editor of the Independent, books by American feminists kept landing on her desk. She reviewed them. She interviewed the authors. And she wondered why the Brits were so quiet. "I felt there was a lot happening here that wasn't coming through," she says.
She has changed all that. In this book she maps out the place of women and feminism in Britain today with a rationality that would make her father proud. Fact follows fact, interview follows interview. No one can say that Walter has not done her homework. She began her quest with the idea that there were lots of young, optimistic women out there, and she was right. But she also found a lot of other women living lives blighted by inequality, at home and at work. Poverty. Rape. Abuse. The book does not shirk from this reality. The picture is not pretty but it is definitive. The book jacket, however, is having none of this. The back blurb talks of a "celebratory and optimistic movement" and the cover is so white that Persil must be involved in some way. This seems related to the lipstick situation, a link that Natasha acknowledges. "The reality is really depressing and I think this is one reason why the publisher has made it look like a reasonably light and happy book. At one point there was a cover line that said: 'A Breath of Fresh Air'. I really hated that and I was glad when they lost it. It's that kind of feel-good thing. It's like people don't want to handle the other stuff. They think that it is boring and depressing. We don't want to talk so much about that."
This should depress me but, for some reason it doesn't, and it strikes me that Walter has a special talent for making others feel good. This comes through in her book and in her demeanour. She sees things as they really are but she does not get bogged down by it all. Women, she says, have to stop their old self-destructive ways. "Look, we cannot solve things on the individual level. Women have often thought that it's down to me. We think: 'I have to fight with this man to do more work in the house. I have to go out and persuade my employer to give me this. It is all down to me and if it collapses, it's like a big failure in my life.' But it is not just down to individual women. It is down to groups of us to help each other and to try and move things along and to change things. I feel that very strongly."
So when can we expect the revolution? Her last chapter lists some ambitious goals to do with reorganising work, stamping out poverty, etc. What is missing, however, is the bit about how this actually comes to be. "I know that in a way it is unconvincing because it's not something I can write down and say, do it like this. It is a group thing but I do believe it is happening." Then she smiles and - lipstick or no, revolution or no - I do feel better.
The New Feminism is published by Little, Brown, price pounds 17.50. It is reviewed in 'The Sunday Review', page 27
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