The new feminists are tackling inequality and poverty

In his column (5 March) John Pilger accuses feminists now of having all but "severed ties with the aspirations of ordinary women" by talking about relationships and lifestyles rather than poverty and economic inequality. He asserts that I, as the author of The New Feminism, speak for this new trend.

The argument of my book is that feminism should move away from discussing women's personal lives and instead concentrate on the real inequality that women face. "Look at what we lack," I argue in the first chapter. "We lack support for women facing grinding poverty, for women bringing up their children alone in miserable circumstances. We lack training and education for women in dead-end jobs. We lack legal support and refuge housing for women fleeing violence." In the second chapter I argue that behind the freedoms of middle-class women lies the reality of working-class poverty. "If you look closely into the effects of sexual inequality in Britain, you come up against a hard, miserable word, an unfashionable word. Poverty." Among the women interviewed for the book are single mothers bringing up their children on benefits, home workers earning just £1 an hour and factory workers earning £90 for a 40-hour week.

For some reason that utterly escapes me, Pilger goes on to associate feminism today with a trivial column by Barbara Ellen in the Observer. If Pilger really wanted to see how younger women are currently reassessing feminism, he might more profitably look at the volume of essays I have just edited, On the Move. There he would find writers as diverse as the MP Oona King, the activist Julie Bindel and the novelist Livi Michael tackling questions of inequality, violence and poverty.

But it's much more fun to sneer at "the public voices of feminism" without reading any of their work, isn't it, Mr Pilger?

Natasha Walter
London N6

I would suggest that John Pilger looks at the historical roots of the division between "ordinary people, men and women" before indulging in any more clarion calls. He would find a deep-rooted, institutionalised sexism within the British trade union movement that is only now being eradicated. Remember how the introduction of child benefit was delayed for so long because many unions disliked the idea of money being paid directly to the mother rather than the (male) head of the household?

Even more relevant is the case of Arthur Scargill and the miners' strike, that emblematic event. There was, of course, no question of women ever being allowed to work underground, even in the majority of jobs where skill and not brute strength was required. Moreover, the attitude of the miners' leaders was that women were helpmates, supporters, their role similar to the "ladies auxiliaries" found in such bastions of male supremacy as cricket clubs, the Roman Catholic church and the Conservative Party.

Fifteen years on there's still a lot of residual offensive and condescending sexism to be rooted out among the representatives of the working classes before its friends such as Pilger can issue a rallying call for unity.

Nicholas Faith
London N7

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