For a century, the one rarely disputed truth about sexual politics was that men and women were at war with each other. Men had an unfair share of what women needed and wanted. For women to gain more, men had to lose. Conflict was inevitable. The great battle was for equality, the politics as obvious as a playground seesaw. Women could rise higher only when men went lower.
Eventually, men picked up the women's refrain. Pioneers of the men's movement saw the problems that males endured - unemployment, soaring suicide rates, shorter life expectancy, poor educational achievement - and some reckoned the blame lay with the opposite sex.
But this blame game is starting to look wrong. In many fields a historic alliance is being built between the interests of men and women. Indeed, in areas that the government has identified as crucial to modernisation - the National Health Service, education, the labour market and the promotion of children's welfare - an entente cordiale is being reached, based not on gender conflict but on solidarity. The sex war is over.
Take, for example, the health field. "Back in the Seventies, women took to the streets, seeking control of their own health," explains Anna Coote, feminist and director of health policy at the King's Fund. "With books such as Our Bodies, Ourselves, a feminist critique identified a new fight for equal opportunity and autonomy in a patriarchal system."
But look how everything has changed by 2004. You might expect women to be at one end of the street shouting for better funding for breast cancer research, confronted by men ominously advancing with placards declaring: "What about my prostate?" In fact, instead of conflict, there is an alliance and a burgeoning political campaign. "Both sides of the debate," says Coote, "have recognised that we have far more interests in common than in conflict."
Peter Baker, director of the Men's Health Forum, agrees. The forum has dumped the old language that focused on the inequity of women living longer than men. Such talk, Baker protests, leads to a fruitless argument about which sex is the most hard done by. "Comparisons can suggest that women's health is the 'gold standard' against which men's health must be measured. In fact, women have at least as many unmet health needs as men . . . Better health services are needed for both men and women."
You can see the reasons for this more collaborative thinking by looking at a couple of diseases. We all want to cut deaths from lung cancer, but the answer is not simply to treat men and women the same way. The trick is get underneath the differences between them. So you need to know that if a man and a woman smoke the same number of cigarettes, the woman is more likely to get cancer. She will probably also find it harder to give up, because women are typically more dependent on nicotine, and she is wasting her time even trying to stop smoking just before her period. However, if they both get cancer, he is more likely to die. The consequences of these details are huge in terms of health promotion and treatment.
Another interesting disease is skin cancer. Across Europe, the rates for women are higher than for men. But more men die of the disease than women, according to a recent study by Dr Alan White of Leeds Metropolitan University. The reason? Men go to see the doctor about that melanoma later than women. Women consistently outnumber men in visits to the GP until about 55 years of age, when the prostate starts to enlarge. "Such statistics tell us that it is not the Y chromosome or testosterone dictating that men must die early," says Dr Ian Banks, president of the Men's Health Forum. "It is the environment in which men find themselves. This means that we can make the situation better."
The complexities of biology and gender in these conditions are duplicated in heart disease and mental health, as well as in sexual and reproductive health, where la difference has always been obvious. Feminists and leaders of the men's health movement have realised that getting a better deal for men and women means becoming allies. The enemy is not the opposite sex, but a state- run NHS that is insensitive to gender. Change "is vital for a modernisation process that, as Tony Blair has said, ends the 'one-size-fits-all' approach to public services", according to Julie Mellor, chair of the Equal Opportunities Commission, speaking recently at the UK's first Gender and Health Summit.
The EOC lies at the heart of this new alliance of men and women in which fairly crude, traditionally left-wing definitions of equality - which cast the sexes as opponents - are being redeveloped by incorporating ideals of choice and difference. As Mellor told the summit: "The process should be unashamedly about equality, but in the sense of the Equal Opportunities Commission strapline: 'Women. Men. Different. Equal.' To create equality, you have sometimes to take account of difference. If you tackle different health needs better, then you can achieve better health-equality outcomes."
This pattern of building an alliance between men and women is repeated in the debate about work. As with health, the battle began with women trying to get what the men had or controlled. Conventional wisdom argues that, decades later, the lines of conflict remain much as they were: women are exploited, denied opportunity and still paid 20 per cent less than their male counterparts. Who is to blame? Men.
Yet continuing discrimination against women in the workplace springs from female employees requiring more expensive and disruptive work-life entitlements (such as maternity leave) than men; and from their having more domestic responsibilities than their male colleagues. The answer, then, is to raise male entitlements such as paternity and parental leave. This would support men's role in the home, and create a more level playing field in the workplace. It would also fit with male aspirations, particularly younger men, whom survey after survey report as being deeply disenchanted with their work-life entitlements and with working hours.
Last year, the Equal Opportunities Commission published a seminal piece of research which established that male workers now also need support for their caring roles. The study, commissioned from the University of East Anglia, found that men in dual-earner families now do one-third of the parental childcare. Last month, Duncan Fisher, director of Fathers Direct, the national information centre on fatherhood, was appointed to the EOC board. The message could not have been clearer. The EOC, seen as a "women's rights" organisation, brings in someone seen as a "fathers' rights" person to further the agenda. The two sets of rights are no longer in opposition, but in sync.
We reached this point in the new politics a little earlier with respect to children's education. It is perhaps easier to see the opposite sex as the enemy when they are adults, more difficult when they are younger. Over the past ten years, we have begun to realise that education's goal is not to deliver the same schooling to girls and boys, but to make teaching gender-sensitive, get to the essence of what a child needs because it is a boy or a girl. We have started to discover what works for girls and, delighted with the success of seeing them excel, begun to ask what boys' special needs might be. The answer remains elusive, though it seems, for example, that one-to-one mentoring is particularly successful with adolescent boys, possibly because it frees them a little from powerful policing by their peer group. More important, progress for boys and girls has ceased to be a zero-sum game, with gainers correlated to losers.
In pursuing a modernising agenda around children's welfare more generally, we have been slower to appreciate that the sex war is over. Perhaps the vision is blurred by high levels of family breakdown and domestic violence; by the sight of Spiderman stopping London's traffic; by the endless conflict of warring couples fighting over the children.
As Gordon Brown's largesse diminishes, the role that mothers and fathers play in their children's lives will change. In the world of state intervention into children's lives, men are typically cast as problema-tic and women as co-victims with the children; but in a world where the state's capacities are limited, it should become obvious that the government is missing an opportunity to bring the resources of fatherhood to bear on childcare, particularly in disadvantaged families. Supporting an unemployed man as a parent, thus freeing a mother to work, can also lift a family out of poverty.
Patricia Hewitt, the Trade Secretary and Minister for Women and Equality, realises this. Hewitt announced before Christmas that she is considering allowing new mothers, who are returning to work, to transfer the second six months of their one-year maternity leave to their partners. Suddenly, there is an alternative to passing your baby to a stranger. This policy would increase children's chances of remaining in the continuing care of their parents - as well as enhance women's opportunities in the workplace and men's in the home.
We are seeing increased opportunities for co-operation over children even between separated parents, the group whose conflicts best illustrate public belief that the sex war rages on, with dire consequences for progressive public policy. The government has at last realised that pitching angry separa- ting parents into an adversarial legal system to settle their differences only makes matters worse for children. The Department for Constitutional Affairs is expected to pilot a scheme this year that will divert large numbers of separating couples into a new system, designed to produce a consensual approach to caring for children.
That shift is being echoed in the voluntary sector, where organisations supporting "one-parent" families have usually served only lone mothers. The mould has been broken in York, where the local organisation is now also supporting separated, non-resident dads: if the fathers are more involved in parenting, children will, says the research, be better off emotionally, financially and academically.
Men and women will continue to fight as individuals, sometimes to the point of violence. But a historic shift is taking place in public policy thinking about how men and women can make progress on the issues that matter most to them. The future is not female. Nor is it male. It is gendered and interdependent.
Jack O'Sullivan is co-founder of Fathers Direct, the national information centre on fatherhood