The New Statesman Profile - Melanie Phillips

She calls herself progressive yet adopts a judgemental tone that has the left fuming. Melanie Philli

Melanie Phillips, stirrer of controversy and sayer of the unsayable, has turned her attention to feminism. An unspoken conspiracy is afoot to encourage badly behaved women to exclude men by undermining their breadwinning role, and so to dismantle the family. And Phillips still calls herself a progressive.

The Sex Change Society: feminised Britain and the neutered male, published by the Social Market Foundation, has already provoked Julie Burchill to imply that Phillips is suffering from sexual frustration and Suzanne Moore to suggest she should get out more. In her current book, Phillips argues that "gender feminism" has pushed men to the margins of family life by undermining marriage. A loose alliance of academics, political advisers, journalists, lawyers and civil servants has stripped shame from illegitimacy and stigma from divorce, while tax, benefit and childcare policies have redefined the mother-child unit as the family for political purposes.

Fatherhood, meanwhile, is no longer defined by breadwinning; instead, men are encouraged to do more in the home, and women to go out to work. The eventual outcome of all this is that men become unmarriageable and have no incentive to stick around because they have no distinctive role. The state is forced into a sex-change: instead of providing the cash to enable mothers to stay at home, it takes on the caring role so that they can go out to work.

Phillips writes as she does because, like all true believers, she is convinced that she will be proved right in the end. This austere quality is emphasised by her fiercely short haircut and strong, defined features. Her mental toughness is not in doubt: she is clever, cogent and disdainful of common assumptions.

Phillips joined the Guardian in 1977 from New Society, and became in turn social services correspondent and social policy leader writer. She was also the Guardian's news editor and a columnist before moving to the Observer in 1993, when the two papers came under the same ownership. "The Guardian made me what I am today," she says drily - which partly helps to explain the betrayal felt by many on the left, who took her for an ally.

Yet though she says she never saw herself as being of the left, she refuses - infuriatingly for many - to sign up to conservatism: "I've always put myself on the side of progressive politics, by which I mean that I fundamentally believe that politics should be about remedying what's going wrong in society, and particularly looking after the most vulnerable. And I don't see how one can believe in progressive politics and support or endorse family breakdown. I think it's absolutely selfish individualism to say we don't have a duty above all to other people, particularly to people who are more vulnerable than us, ie, our children."

So does she rile people because her views are deeply regressive, but clothed in deceitful liberal concern for the underdog? Or, as she believes, "because there's a fear of the argument. If people really thought I was barking and had lost the plot, they wouldn't be so defensive. The insults - reactionary, fundamentalist - are designed to shut the argument down. And the reason for that is that the argument has resonance."

If you accept Phillips's central premise, that the vast majority of children are best served by being brought up by both natural parents - and most people still do - her position has a powerful internal logic. Current levels of divorce and illegitimacy are a cause for concern, as is the existence of entire communities in which a resident father is an aberration. The obvious response, according to Phillips, is to make divorce harder (restoring the notion of fault) and to make having children out of wedlock less attractive.

She nicely exposes the contradictions into which the pursuit of choice has led us: women are encouraged (by the culture and by fiscal, benefit and childcare policies) to be financially independent - until marriages end, anyway, when men are again expected to be breadwinners. "Fathers are no longer to play a distinctive role, but must still pay for it if they are separated or divorced. A society that no longer says marriage entails binding responsibilities suddenly insists on those responsibilities outside marriage."

Phillips's marriage-rescue plan suffers, however, from one enormous problem: it depends on the restoration of the male breadwinner. "Before and after children, there is much greater symmetry of roles. But when children come along, women's priorities change, and given a level playing field, I think that in the majority of families the main income would be the man's, by their mutual choice."

Unfortunately for her, mass male unemployment is a function not of gender feminism, but of the decline of manufacturing. Phillips acknowledges that even she is stumped here: "It depends on macroeconomic policies, and I'm not an economist. But you do have to give priority to the family wage."

Meanwhile, if the general assumption is that women will give up or ease off when they have children, why bother promoting them? Phillips herself might never have become a columnist. "I think that's the wrong way to look at it. If a woman wants to work full-time after her baby's born, that's what will happen, but motherhood changes a woman's perspective, and usually they don't."

This lays her open to the charge of hypocrisy. Here is a woman who has two teenage children and has always worked; who writes in her book: "If both spouses work, who is the custodian of the relationship?" Yet Phillips is married to the BBC's legal affairs correspondent, Joshua Rozenberg, and has been one half of a dual-career couple for 25 years. "These are strokes of enormous good fortune. But to expect all women to go out to work on the basis that all women can have the kind of childcare I was able to provide, the kind of considerate employer I had and the kind of work that meant I could dovetail it with my family responsibilities is unrealistic."

She is deeply disappointed in the government. "I did think that Tony Blair felt there was a hole at the heart of Labour's policies, created by the collapse of the family. I still think he thinks that, actually. But no sooner did he say that marriage was the best way of bringing up children than he said there was nothing wrong with the other way. They're very reluctant to do anything that involves hard choices between people's lifestyles. They're trying to have it all ways, which is precisely what has undermined marriage, by making it equivalent to everything else."

She's impressed by common-sense Conservatism, "though I think only a small minority of them are prepared to put it into practice because they're terrified of a back-to-basics fiasco. But if William Hague were to go down this road further, he would seriously undermine the Prime Minister."

In the end, the tone of Phillips's analysis is deeply dispiriting. To a suggestion that most of the cabinet live in families, she replies harshly: "Not married families. Not first married families. And if you look at the whole of the government establishment - ministers and their most influential advisers - the vast majority do live in irregular households." The judgement seems out of step with the times and feels emotionally repugnant. (Although not, Phillips insists, to the ordinary people who write to her on a weekly basis in response to her Sunday Times column.)

Marriage comes across as instrumental: the male "refuses to take responsibility for his offspring unless marriage compels him to do so". There is something unattractively paternalistic about this, as if her ordinary people can't be trusted with the companionate marriages that survey after survey suggests they want. They must instead be safely corralled within an institution, their fearsome sexuality contained. "Both men and women have sexual appetites that they will indulge if given the opportunity." She writes crossly of marriage being "reduced to a love affair".

While acknowledging that she has benefited from equity feminism, Phillips declares: "I have never classified myself as a follower of any sort of "ism", apart from journalism and Judaism." The Jewish tradition is "very much concerned with social organisation. To that extent I'm a child of my background. But I'm not motivated by religion, I'm motivated by a concern to put society right." The Jewish tradition is also strongly matriarchal; and just as it is easier for the happily married to be positive about marriage, it may, perhaps, be easier for the Jewish mother to be positive about domesticity.

She is an ameliorist, rather than a radical. She is also a pessimist. Although she denies that her latest book is a counsel of despair, there is an underlying sense that the poor are always with us. She certainly doesn't see the combination of contraception, mass education, women in the workplace and a radically changing economy as presenting opportunities to reshape our intimate relationships and escape the idea of gender as destiny.

Her response to the turbulence of family life is to look back approvingly on a time when women withheld their sexual favours until a man from the right income bracket came along. It can't help but feel like a retreat. For someone whose analysis can be searching, and whose concern is evident, she has backed herself into a corner.