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Women and men still need feminism

Young women today believe the battle for equality is long over. They couldn't be more wrong


Hermione Hoby

The Observer, Sunday 23 August 2009

In 1985, my mother's bare breasts got her into the Sun, though not in the way you might think. Roughly of the same generation as Germaine Greer, she is a feminist, albeit one whose wave-making was on a more modest scale. In fact, we were both in the paper: her decision to feed me as baby while teaching at a girls' school was not, in her eyes, a radical act of defiance. It was simply common sense. Yet when it comes to the position of women, common sense was then, as now, in short supply: breast-feeding in public still, ludicrously, causes a fuss.

Watching Trilogy, a play now in its last week at the Edinburgh Festival and billed as a "celebratory venture into modern-day feminism", I was reminded that my generation needs feminism just as much as our mothers did. With performances culminating in audience members joyfully singing "Jerusalem" naked on stage, Nic Green's remarkable show is rightly the talk of the town.

Many, though, seem to be discomfited by its second segment, based on the landmark 1971 debate on women's liberation in New York, a blustering affair featuring Greer and, chaired, bizarrely, by that arch-misogynist, Norman Mailer.

I imagine it was this footage, including the high jinks of Jill Johnston, theVillage Voice writer, rolling around onstage with girlfriends, that afterwards prompted a woman my age to say: "Aren't we past all that?" The answer ringing in my head, more loudly than ever after watching Green and Co, is: "No."

We may be past all "that", if the "that" is being able to shave our armpits and wear sexy shoes without fear of betraying the sisterhood. We are not, however, beyond the need for feminism. Like Green, I'm a woman in my twenties and though my mother probably suffered more sexism than I will, women (and men) of my age must carry on where our mothers left off. We've come a long way; the distance we feel from the entrenched sexism of Sixties America, for example, is largely what makes Mad Men such compelling viewing, yet there's just as far left to go.

From the bothersome ageist double standards of TV executives, to the simply horrifying more than one in four believe that a woman is totally or partially responsible for being raped if she is wearing "sexy or revealing" clothing to the comments last week from Gosport's Conservative Association's chairman that he'd only select a female MP if they were attractive we're deeply mistaken to think of this as a post-feminism era.

When I was five and watching PMQs (no doubt waiting for Sesame Streetto come on rather than displaying political precocity), I apparently asked why everyone on TV was a man. Nineteen years on, I could ask the same question: Britain has just three full cabinet ministers who are women; only 126 of 645 MPs are female.

Can anyone seriously believe these figures are dictated by merit? Women still do not have the equal opportunity to play an equal part in society. My generation needs to embrace the sort of feminism that has nothing to do with man-bashing and everything to do with Green's good-humoured and simultaneously deeply serious outlook.

It bothers me greatly that we aren't all calling ourselves feminists. As television presenter Lauren Laverne asked last week: "How stupid do you have to be to say, 'I believe in gender inequality?'" More stupid than a five-year-old, I'd say.


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