It would be easy to believe from the papers these days that women have never been more oppressed. From the columnist Caitlin Moran to the comedian Bridget Christie, a new creed is preached: that we are the victims, not the victors, of the sex war. Feminists claim we are objectified by the builder’s whistle, that a strange man attempting to flirt with us is tantamount to sexual assault. Suddenly, just as it seemed we women were about to have it all, a new wave of feminists has begun to portray us as feeble-minded — unable to withstand a bad date, let alone negotiate a pay rise.
Worse still, they are ditching what was best about the feminist tradition: solidarity with the sisterhood and the freedom of every woman to do as she pleased. Feminism 4.0 consists of freely attacking other women over, erm, crucial issues such as bikini waxing, wearing stilettos and page three of the Sun. Moran writes that it is childbirth that ‘turns you from a girl into a woman’ (causing every woman in my office to snort involuntarily) and that feminism will only triumph ‘when a woman goes up to collect the Oscar for Best Actress in shoes that aren’t killing her’. The revolution will be televised, with ‘Nicole Kidman in flip-flops’.
Well, if this is feminism, then feminism is dead, and the triviality of the fights feminists pick is the surest proof of its demise. What started as a genuine crusade against genuine prejudice has become a form of pointless attention-seeking.
I was born in 1983, and was fortunate to grow up in a country where it was blindingly obvious that women ruled: with a queen on the throne and a woman in Downing Street. I was a grocer’s daughter, educated at a state school, living in the flat above the shop, and I looked to that real feminist icon Margaret Thatcher as objective proof that I could get wherever the hell I wanted in life, provided I sharpened my wits and gave it my all. I knew, without having to be told, that where you were born was not necessarily where you’d end up, because Maggie, facing far greater odds, bulldozed every obstacle foolish enough to stand in her way with sheer bloodymindedness and an attitude that screamed ‘never say die’. Feminists in the West, if they had any sense, would stop moaning and whingeing, order Germaine Greer a crown of laurels, stick her on a four-horse chariot, and march her in triumph through the streets of Rome so she that could offer a blood sacrifice to Emmeline Pankhurst. The totemic battles were hard fought — and they were won. The next generation should be encouraged to enjoy the spoils, not worry old wounds.
Today, girls outperform boys at school — and have done since the mid-1970s. They are more likely to get five good GCSEs. A third of them go to university, compared with just a quarter of men. Once in university, they do better and are significantly more likely to graduate with a first or 2:1 degree. And equality? In many courses, it has gone a bit beyond that. Last year, women constituted 55 per cent of those enrolling in courses in medicine and dentistry and 62 per cent of those enrolling in law. Business, banking and the professions may be dominated by men today but, judging by the rapidity of our ascent, this won’t last long. As Boris Johnson has observed, when my generation reach the peak of our careers, the entire management structure of Britain will have been transformed — and feminised.
Since the suffragettes won us the vote, women have made greater strides than men have made in millennia. In fact, the demographic doing worst in schools is white boys on free school meals — only a quarter of whom gained five decent GCSE grades. So yes, there are gender equality issues — but they are deeply unfashionable. Who will wave placards, or lie on the carpet of film premieres, for the cause of under-performing boys?
Most self-styled feminists argue that we still struggle in the workplace. On close inspection this isn’t borne out either. Women in their twenties have out-earned men in for the last few years; now the under-40s are doing so as well. The speed of our trajectory is startling. Across Europe and America, and particularly in Scandinavia, women are pushing their way on to executive boards and into the seats of power. The French government has passed a law which will require that two in five executive board members of the largest public companies are women. Feminists argue we need quotas in this country, too, but isn’t there a sweeter triumph in the sisters doing it for themselves?
So the next generation have everything to play for — if only they aren’t encouraged to view themselves as helpless victims at the mercy of an insuperable patriarchy. Only 19 per cent identify as feminist nowadays, which perhaps isn’t surprising since it’s become so dull. In the 1970s, feminists were ball-breaking, ass-kicking, devil-may-care thinkers — the likes of Greer, Gloria Steinem and Susan Sontag. Now the ‘voice of a generation’ is Harry Potter star Emma Watson, who delivered a highly praised speech to the UN, lamenting that her girlfriends had given up competitive sport because they were worried it might make their arms look ‘muscly’.
But while Watson frets about the tyranny of the male gaze, it’s being eyeballed by a feminist which is truly terrifying. These middle–class aesthetes love to boss other — particularly working-class — women around, sneering at how they dress and behave. They disapprove of Beyoncé and Rihanna flaunting their beautiful -bodies in pop videos with a vehemence you might expect from the Taleban. In April, an advert featuring a busty model appeared on the Tube, with the tagline: ‘Are you beach body ready?’ Within hours it had been defaced; within days 44,000 signatures had been appended to a petition demanding it be removed. Making sure women are covered up in public, so their bare flesh doesn’t offend anyone, is something you’d expect in Saudi Arabia, not here, where we should be free to dress as provocatively as we please.
Why shouldn’t we wear make-up, stockings and suspenders if we like? From Elizabeth I to Bette Davis, women have considered lipstick, high heels and killer hairdos to be legitimate weapons in our arsenal, as effective, in their own way, as crossbows and bazookas. But new feminists are determined to drain the fun from life, and illustrate how awful it is to be a woman in the UK.
Another challenge girls apparently quail at is trolling on the internet. So let’s say you have received threats from some maladjusted loser who disagrees with something you’ve said. Should you call the police? Abandon Twitter? Or perhaps relish the insults, in the manner of Maggie, who said: ‘I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding. It means they have not a single political argument left.’
Alternatively, you could remain impervious to insult entirely, like rock goddess Chrissie Hynde, who last month was trolled by feminists after confessing that she had suffered a sex attack aged 21 and took ‘full responsibility’ for it. Twitter lit up with the unedifying spectacle of hundreds of women attacking her for expressing her honest opinion, until even the Guardian’s Julie Bindel felt moved to point out that Hynde herself was ‘not a rapist’. Hynde’s magisterial response? ‘If you don’t want my opinion, don’t ask for it.’
But when it comes to sex, new feminists are excessively squeamish, so much so that one timid male, Samuel Fishwick (24, 6ft 3in, GSOH) has compiled a guide to romance in the age of equality. Approaching the -Vagenda blog for advice, he was roundly informed that a man must never ask a woman to meet him for a drink at a location near his abode: ‘It makes women think you’re going to turn their skin into a lampshade.’
Does it, though? Or are feminists exaggerating ridiculously — spending so much time dwelling on their own vaginas that they fail to use their brains? Surely we should be revelling in the fact we’re the ‘second sex’ no longer, and teaching our girls how to rely on what Emily Bronte called our ‘no coward’ souls.
Emily Hill is a freelance writer. The Evening Standard Londoner’s Diary had her gatecrash a funeral and the Mail on Sunday sent her down a sewer.