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Why feminism is still desperately important

I'm afraid the F word may have to pop up quite lot.

Then again when you've been a card-carrying feminist for as long as I have, it engenders no embarrassment whatsoever. Feminism matters. Arguably it has rarely mattered more. Not least since measures to "reform welfare" are battering women disproportionately because of the sectors in which they predominate and their role as principal carers.

Yet it is a moment when the very word seems to carry an in-built disdain not just among the Neanderthals trapped in an adolescent view of women as sex toys but, just as infuriatingly, among a raft of women who should know better.

If I hear one more youngish woman intone in print or on the airwaves that "It's not that I'm a feminist...", I may reach for the metaphorical revolver.

It remains a profoundly unequal world in terms of power, earning capacity, and opportunity, and yet somehow women whose mothers and grandmothers fought the good fight in terms of pay and discrimination feel able to consign their efforts to sociological history. Been there, done that, old hat.

Except we've been there and not done that. Equal pay is still a mirage, political representation seems to be going backwards, and, on its second birthday this month the 30% Club, set up to get more female execs in the boardroom, felt able to celebrate the fact that there were only half as many all-male boardrooms as 18 months ago.

Put the bubbly back in the bottle girls. We're talking just under 7% female representation in board rooms overall, and a lot of that tiny number are part time non-executive members wheeled in to offer a fig leaf of respectability.

Yet we still have some leading women prepared to argue against quotas either in boardrooms or parliaments "because it's important women get there on their merits".

Of course all the good old pinstriped boys got there on merit didn't they? Nothing to do with the time-honoured practice of handing round directorships to pals. Boardroom incest is so ubiquitous, nobody seems to think it worthy of investigation let alone criticism.

Alison Brittain, head of retail banking at Lloyds, worried aloud in an interview last week that if women were promoted on the basis of quotas they would, in effect, be risking a second class-label. Yet she admitted that she couldn't think of another way to close the gap satisfactorily.

She also argued that women were often their own worst enemies. If she had a senior vacancy on her team, she told us, men would flock to apply if they had two of the 10 necessary attributes. Women would hang back until they thought they had nine.

Her point was reinforced a couple of days later by Karren Brady, one of the very few women who wield power in English soccer having been managing director at Birmingham City and now vice-chair woman at West Ham.

She revealed that she had fielded applications for the team manager's job from chaps whose stated expertise was being good at Playstation footy. Karren, happily, takes little in the way of snash from the men by whom she is comprehensively outnumbered in the beautiful game.

When she was first introduced to the playing squad at Brum, one of the lads thought it witty to observe he could see her boobs in that top. She advised him he wouldn't have that difficulty when he was sold to Crewe. And he was, indeed, transferred.

So. Much work still to be done in politics, business and sport, but the gold medal for mediaeval mindsets surely must go to religion. It was instructive to note that at every opportunity during the high-profile stushie over bishops in the church of England, the hardline minority wheeled out a woman to argue the case against women.

It wasn't about equality, they trilled, just about scripture. And, obviously, they knew much more about that than a matched set of Archbishops who had come to precisely the opposite conclusion.

Having women as priests but not as bishops is like saying you can come into the classroom and help the kids learn, but please don't entertain any notion of becoming a head teacher.

And while that offensively discriminatory attitude is bad enough in England, and while we remind ourselves how swift our own dear Church of Scotland was to embrace the notion of a female moderator, we find that brand of intolerance in other faiths has rather more devastating consequences.

Islam is not a chauvinist religion. But the patriarchs who have twisted its teachings into unrecognisable shapes have essentially waged war on womanhood. Think of the woman murdered in Afghanistan this month for the unpardonable sin of working in a vaccination clinic in a country.

Think of the young Pakistani teenager shot and left for dead because she campaigned for female education.

Think of those countries where female infanticide is still rife, where female genital mutilation is still the norm – and carried out by women! –where marriageable women, and too often girls, are traded like chattels man to man. And then tell me feminism is passé. Come out of the closet fellow feminists, you have nothing to lose but your lowly place on the caste list.

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