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The land that feminism forgot

As far as I'm concerned every woman with a pulse, never mind a brain, is a feminist.

There's no argument, no need for intense discussion, no forests of trees to be felled any more to prove a point in print.

(Yes, trees have died for me to pursue these thoughts but then I'm a journalist, therefore contrarily welded to the last gasp of the printed word and its tree.)

Women like the fragrant, flour-dredged Mary Berry, proudly declaring she's not a feminist and thinks it a "dirty word", now cause me only momentary pause; a bored sigh rather than a flinging of the Mac.

She seems to equate feminism with a loss of inter-sex courtesy and personal respect, plus some bizarre notion of "being looked after" that apparently involves being helped on with her coat.

Now I am delighted to be helped on with my coat, would happily accept a proffered seat on a crowded train and often desperately search for a strong hand to fling my case into an overhead rack.

I always have, but I prefer - particularly financially, however inept - to look after myself and relied, to their great reward, on grasping banks when in need. Not on a man.

In return, though, for the little pleasantries of life, I am graceful and grateful and hope I give men equal courtesy and respect.

Feminism is actually awfully simple and logical. Men and women have equal rights and equal status - in law, in employment, in the home and intellectually.

Does any woman disagree with that? Of course not. See, you're a feminist.

I do, however, get cross when so-called "new feminist" columnists and authors seem to think it's all about their vaginas and the right to reclaim a particularly offensive word relating to same.

The rights I fought for were that no man EVER used that word to me and that I could have a loan, get a mortgage, rent a flat without a male guarantor, and even, heaven forbid, earn the same money.

I think we won all of those.

So why, despite all I've so far written, am I today ready to start an old-fashioned feminist consciousness-raising awareness group in France Profonde?

Why? Because yesterday I sat at my table and listened to French neighbours talk about their lives and felt I was transported back to a past when women were still chattels and had little say in their existence. Yep, the early 70s - the 1970s, for those in doubt.

They had come bearing plants, flowers, crepes and good wishes for the New Year, a tradition until the end of the month.

Touched, I offered them wine. It was 4.30pm. The eyes skittered, and like children offered forbidden treats they giggled and, defiantly, said: Oui.

In their 50s and with farmers, only one married, they unfolded, to my ears, a litany of horror.

The two unmarried, with men with grown-up children, had no formal acknowledgement of their status. If he died, they knew they were "cast out" without any rights.

They paid for all the contents of the house, paid for all the groceries and any luxuries they wanted such as a washing machine. He paid for heat, light and car insurance.

The married one was equally worried, as her husband's children from his first marriage had priority and they didn't like her.

Their roles were clearly defined. They finally admitted they were "maids", "housekeepers".

The men spent most days at the chasse, working even if retired, and on returning home went, with headphones, onto their new thing: the computer.

Gently I asked about nights out - a meal, the cinema, and a party? On their second glass of wine, with much eye-rolling at their temerity, they fell about at the thought.

"He's not interested in that sort of thing," said one. "He has a life with his friends."

"I would like to have people come for a meal," said another."I enjoy cooking. He won't let me - only his family and his ex-wife. Never anyone I know."

The married neighbour has a touch more right to her demands, but even she says: "There's no point trying to change things. He makes it all … very difficult."

Her pause is painful and they all look away, knowing more than I'm privy to but have a fair idea about.

My anger is contained as I describe the rights of women in the country I've left. I cannot believe I am doing this in 2014.

I urge them to another drink but the watches are checked, the men are due home, the meal must be on the table.

I force them to a dribble in each glass. Go back, I tell them, sod the cooking, point them to the fridge and the pan, open a bottle and take control of the TV remote.

Onwards sisters!

They find my words hysterical and leave, I'm sure, feeling as if they've had a raucous couple of hours with a mad foreigner.

Perhaps with shy glances and carefully chosen phrases they'll recount their day to the man who eats but never talks.

I think he'll tell them not to come here again.

I think they will.

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