Come on girls, let's sort it. What has gone wrong in the women's movement when old- and new-generation feminists condemn one another so viciously? Two new books attempt to offer a way out of the maze

On the Move: feminism for a new generation

Natasha Walter (editor) <em>Virago, 186pp, £9.99</em>

In The New Feminism Natasha Walter argued that feminism should stop bothering itself with women's appearance and behaviour and instead focus its attention on "the material basis of economic and social and political inequality". Feminism was still relevant, she explained, but it had badly lost the plot. The same could be said of Walter's On the Move: feminism for a new generation, an edited collection of essays. Walter presents it as proof that feminism has meaning for young women today, but this half-baked pudding of a book proves nothing of the sort.

It begins badly with a gloriously false syllogism on the second page of the (very brief) introduction, where Walter announces: "All the writers here feel that feminism is central to their lives. That's telling in itself, because it's not as though these women are alike in any other way." Well, not that telling. No more telling than, for example, picking five brown eggs from a basket of mixed eggs and saying, "Look, these five eggs are all brown." It is hard to agree that these writers are so different from one another, when a glance at the contributors' notes reveals most of them to be middle-class professionals clustered in the media and politics. Why pretend the book is representing something it is not?

"What does feminism mean to you?" I asked my sample of one, 21-year-old Georgina, who was looking after the children the day I wrote this.

"Hairy armpits," she said, extracting the toddler from his all-in-one suit.

"Not relevant then?"

"Definitely not."

The contributions to On the Move are an ill-assorted bunch. Most amount to little more than a tedious ramble on the essay title, "What feminism means to me"; only a minority stand out for having anything interesting to say. There's a measured and thoughtful reflection by Jenny McLeod on her upbringing in a Jamaican family in 1960s London; a deft short story by the award-winning writer Helen Simpson, in which a confident 17 year old collides with the dreary realities of middle-class motherhood; a powerful snapshot by the novelist Livi Michael of dire poverty and desperately constrained options among young women on northern housing estates. Serial pregnancies by miscellaneous men are about all these teenage girls have to look forward to. Michael's is the only essay in this meagre volume that confronts feminism's giant stumbling block: that gender and economics remain frighteningly enmeshed, that for a great many women biology is still destiny.

Katherine Viner, an editor on the Guardian, touches on this theme in her impassioned railing against exploitative images of women, sexist representations and sexual double standards. There is real anger in her essay, fuelled by a profound exasperation that so little seems to have changed since the 1960s. She cites a recent report by sociologists at South Bank University, which found that teenage girls were routinely consenting to sex when they didn't want to. (Boys, are you listening? A girl can consent to non-consensual sex.)

Viner provides some startling figures on readership of the mass-market centre-shelf men's monthly FHM, now read by a third of all men aged 18-35. As Viner rightly wants to know, how can women feel complacent about feminism in the face of the proliferation of this kind of neo-porn? Her essay brims over with despondent fury and undermines Walter's own view that the personal is no longer political.

Other contributions are less successful. Helen Wilkinson, from the think-tank Demos, strives valiantly to bring Margaret Thatcher into the feminist fold, with the aid of some bizarre reasoning. She describes Thatcher as the "zealous midwife" of the revolution in gender roles that took place during the 1980s. Thatcher, Wilkinson says, deserves our praise for presiding over the increase in women's trade union membership; for the increase in women's rates of employment; for the growth of women in management. "The rapid growth in the number of working mothers was attributable in large part to the economic policies [Thatcher] pursued," Wilkinson writes admiringly. Soon we shall be praising Hitler for founding modern Israel.

Five of the contributors to this volume are teenagers. Most striking about them is how anachronistic their hopes for the future sound. Happy marriages, successful careers, shared housework, a few children. Their aspirations come off the page like an echo of my own of 20 years earlier. They have only the vaguest insight, as I had, into the enormity of the task that awaits them. Is this how it should be? Is it enough to give girls the belief that the world is their oyster? Or has feminism let them down, by giving them hopes it still cannot promise to fulfil, by failing to tell them about the persisting gap between rhetoric and reality? These questions remain resolutely unanswered.

What does feminism mean to young women today? These essays don't in any way hold together as an answer, but they do underscore the need for one. They highlight the fragmentation of feminism's constituency, the lack of that shared experience on which feminism in the 1970s was so confidently founded, the new obstacles that have sprung up to replace the old ones, not to mention the sheer resilience of the old ones. If only Walter and her contributors had set out to ask the question, rather than just prove an answer.

Rebecca Abrams is the author of "The Playful Self: why women need play in their lives" (Fourth Estate, £12.99)

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