Still on the case

Observations on feminism. By <strong>Angela Neustatter


I can't answer Zoe Williams's question "Where have all the feminists gone?" (NS, 16 January) on behalf of her generation, but as one of those she labels yesterday's feminists, I will clamber, with at least a semblance of agility, on to my soapbox. Those of us whom she credits with achieving rights and recognitions for women are still on the case, concerned with abortion and rape, supporting sisters who suffer discrimination and sacrifice at the altar of male custom. Our convictions are as impassioned as ever, our gatherings as vigorous, our words as unequivocal.

Williams can be forgiven, however, for believing there has been a mass exodus, for our voices are not, as they once were, ever-present in newspaper columns, television discussions and radio chat shows. Though we have a good deal to say, we no longer fit those formats. Indeed, one distinguished female journalist was told by a liberal newspaper that her pieces now belonged at the bottom of the page in the "batty woman in the basement" slot.

No, today's columns go to young women, most of whom seem happy to fill them with breathless Polyfilla: the celebrity dalliances, the indiscretions of Cherie Blair, the vagaries of being a yummy, crumby or scummy mummy. Nothing to frighten the readers. They may secretly yearn to take on women's issues but they know they'll have editors sending them packing on their six-inch heels if they suggest such a thing. And after all they have to eat.

An obvious response to all this is that I am a bitter old has-been - but hang on, I do get asked to write, quite a lot. As often as not, however, it is on the understanding that we don't want any heavy-handed feminist stuff. Something lifestylish, uplifting or (to be fair) weighty on other subjects.

Nothing wrong with that, so long as it's as well as, not instead of, subjects vital to women. Williams is right: women need to be told what it would be like to return to the days of backstreet abortions, of men's power over women enshrined in law, of conjugal duty and no arguing, of domestic violence as a private matter, of maternity leave as a quick route to the bottom of the career ladder.

The challenge for our daughters' generation is to design their political movement in a new way, so they won't have to wail, as Jill Tweedie once did, "I blame the women's movement for ten years in a boiler suit", but find instead a way to walk the walk in Angelina Jolie garb (if they want) and at the same time talk the talk about the things that matter. And should they want it, we, yesterday's women, are still around to give a word or two of guidance.