If feminism has undermined the private lives of Bill Clinton, a few MPs, and the motley crew that is our monarchy, I say "good"

It's good to be back where you belong. To be put firmly in your place is one of the joys of writing for the New Statesman, after all. It's been so long since I've written for anything left-wing that I'd forgotten that to be a woman on the left is to be subject not to permanent revolution but permanent ticking off.

Men, for instance, know more about feminism than anyone else. Last week's issue of this paper had an article by John Pilger sorting out good feminists (old) from bad feminists (young). Another John (Lloyd) had a go at feminism as a "destroyer of private life".

It's very confusing. Either feminism has gone too far in an alliance with the nasty tabloid media in order to prevent public figures being allowed to have any privacy, or it has not gone far enough and we have produced a generation of women who think liberation is being able to wear whatever damn colour nail polish they please.

I don't blame either John for being mixed up. Feminism as we know it is a crazy, mixed-up business, or it should be if you are doing it right. But what I really sense here are the politics of containment. Certain kinds of feminism are OK and certain ones are not.

For Pilger, feminism is acceptable as long as it recognises "the over-riding importance of class". Well, that's an old argument and lots of women got so sick of being over-ridden by male class warriors that they did begin to examine how the personal is political.

Maybe some of them ended up navel-gazing with their theories about the unconscious and sexuality and turned feminism into a form of therapy. But maybe, just maybe, this was, at the time, another way of looking at things, another way of defining politics.

I certainly do not agree with everything Natasha Walter writes in The New Feminism, but to describe her book as a "branch office of capitalism" is simply to refuse to recognise that 1999 is not the same as 1969. Most feminists worth their salt now realise that there is more difference between rich and poor women than there is between men and women of the same class.

Most women recognise the effects of "economic engineering" because they live them. Middle-class women pay poorer women to do their childcare and housework. Don't think we don't see the irony of the situation. I know the personal is political. I know there is an interplay between class and gender and one of the times I know it most is when I pay my cleaner or child-minder.

As for feminism having undermined private life, well, I say "good". Whose private lives are we really talking about? A few adulterous MPs, the president of the United States, the motley crew that constitutes our monarchy? It is not that I believe that political probity can be read off sexual fidelity, as John Lloyd put it. Yet every public figure who is prepared to parade his family in front of the cameras - and which of them isn't? - is asking us to collude in the fantasy that, indeed, we can read public decency from private lives.

Clinton could chomp as many moist cigars as he liked as long as he didn't spout guff about honouring the family at the same time. If feminism was part of the reason that Clinton got into a mess in the first place then feminism has surely failed.

Actually, I have been dreadfully let down by the response of many American feminists to Monicagate, for it betrays just how class-bound they remain. Clinton's behaviour has been excused on the grounds that a) the women he has abused are somehow worthless anyway - bimbos or trailer trash; b) the Republican alternative is far, far worse; c) he is married to Hillary, as if feminist credentials operate as a kind of dowry; and d) they would give him one anyway.

We either buy the line that we cannot expect too much from public figures in case we stop the best of them - ie, men - entering public life; or we insist on a few basic standards. Not cheating and lying doesn't seem to me like such an impossible demand.

Of course men don't want their private lives invaded. Prince Charles was probably not over the moon after that Panorama interview. A peculiar mix of feminism, globalised media and puritanical witch-hunts did produce a crisis for the American government.

But it is the job of feminism to make the powers- that-be uncomfortable. These powers are economic, social, cultural, personal and political. A successful feminism must attack on all fronts.

John Pilger may prefer to take us back to the heady days when young women were proud to call themselves socialist-feminist. But such nostalgia does not in itself make a movement. At some point we have to explain why many women don't want to identify themselves in these terms.

John Lloyd may also prefer to look back to a time when one's private life was left well alone. But the feminist agenda has leaked into all sorts of areas of our lives.

If some men are angry and befuddled by such changes, so be it. If feminism has undermined the difference between public and private lives, if it has undermined the old political certainties of those who would tell us what to think and in what order to think it in, then it's fine by me. But what do I know? I'm only a woman.

Suzanne Moore is a columnist with the "Mail on Sunday"

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet