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Men v. Women in the 1990s

By Linda Grant ore than a quarter of a century has passed since the beginning of secondwave feminism, the movement which once again took up the struggle for women's rights abandoned or lost when women's suffrage was won after the First World War. It is twenty-six years since the publication of 17te Female Ermuch, twenty-seven years since the Oxford women's conference of 1970 which brought together, at Ruskin College, the women who would become the theorists and activists of British feminism: Juliet Mitchell, Michelene Wandor, Sheila Rowbotham, Sally Alexander, Janet Hadley, Val Charlton, Selma James and Audrey Wise. What were the demands of that conference? They were equal pay, equal education and opportunity, twenty-four-hour nurseries and free abortion and contraception on demand. If we measure feminism's progress since then by the campaigns deemed in 1970 to be crucial to women's advancement, we appear to have got nowhere at all, and feminism can be judged as a spectacular failure, a social upheaval that created vast expectations without fulfilling them. Women still earn around 66 per cent of the male wage, even excluding the proportionately lower pay of part-time workers. Nursery provision is limited and expensive. Abortion has become the battle-ground for the new moralists and no contraceptive can be said to be both entirely safe and entirely effective, let alone free. Only in education have women been seen to have made real advances, beating boys in examinations in virtually all subjects. Who now remembers the names of the conference participants? Who, under the age of forty, recognizes a single one? American feminism produced wave after wave ofhigh-profile writers and journalists, and revitalized feminism for a younger generation with new recruits like Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf. The historic defeat of British feminism is partly attributable to it~ insistence on an alliance with socialism; much of its most fruitful work addressed itself to the grassroots, to communities. In the 1970s it went into town halls and trade unions and, with the Thatcherite assault on labour and municipal socialism in the 1980s, socialist feminism sank with Ken Livingstone into the oubliette of history.

But the demands of the Oxford women's conference have by no means vanished just because the movement that made them its campaigning programme disappeared. Equal pay strikes continue, single parents continue patiently to explain to politicians that they cannot get out of the poverty trap without childcare. What has altered is the attention these campaigns receive in the media which, as ever, is hungry for the new. If feminism no longer seems to be a coherent movement with a leadership and a list of demands, it is because one can only go on for so long campaigning for changes that never come, and also maintain some kind of structured force. It must diversifY in order to survive. And this is why it seems so very difficult to get an angle on contemporary feminism, to have a sense of what it is for and in which direction it is proceeding. It has fractured in places, disintegrated in others, gone up the path marked separatism and been lost to view, or dissolved itself into the mainstream.

Linda Grant is a LondonĀ·based journalist, critic and novelist.


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