FEMINIST activism was reborn last year as angry women took to the streets in SlutWalks, Miss World protests and Reclaim The Night marches.

They said "Eff Off, Heff" to the arrival of the new Playboy club in London. And in August, some 400 women gathered in Birmingham for a UK Feminista activist summer school. Their message? Equal pay and equality of opportunity were on the agenda, but the strongest emotion was unhappiness with the narrow sexual parameters through which women are defined, and the creeping pornification of our culture.

The early sexualisation of girls provoked the most anxiety, with Mumsnet, The Sex Education Show and the Coalition Government all whipped into hysteria about padded bras, raunchy music videos and porn-star T-shirts. Reg Bailey, author of a Government report on the sexualisation of children and head of the Mothers' Union, warned that Britain has been "sleepwalking into a world where our children dress like pole dancers".

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At times, puritanism and fearfulness about girls' sexuality seemed to be the driving force. A devout Christian farmer in Northern Ireland, who objected when pop star Rihanna performed a topless video-shoot in his field, hoped she would "find a greater God". Meanwhile, Tory MP Nadine Dorries introduced a bill calling for girls-only sexual abstinence training in schools.

Young girls' ambitions narrowed within a celebrity-dominated consumer culture that rigidly stereotypes genders. One survey showed that most young girls want to be famous and that their top role model is Cheryl Cole. The vast majority of female teen idols conform to an idealised femininity: Beyonce, Rihanna, the Duchess of Cambridge, Tulisa. News of Beyonce's pregnancy caused one of the biggest Twitter surges of the year, suggesting that the world wants women to be beautiful, sexy, fertile and having children. Meanwhile, the royal wedding was really just another reworking of the Cinderella tale.

No wonder girls think looks are paramount. Nor were they disabused of this notion: one of the year's publishing sensations was Catherine Hakim's Honey Money, which argued that women should boost their earning power by upping their "erotic capital" – a combination of looks, charm and sexuality.

By contrast, Natasha Walter's 2010 book, Living Dolls: The Return Of Sexism – a much-quoted text during 2011 – documents the increasing pornification of our culture and attacks "bio-determinism", the idea that men and women are genetically built to have particular characteristics. Society, says Walter, is uncomfortable about women who seek power. As a result, she adds: "30 years after Margaret Thatcher managed to crack the stereotype temporarily, British politics has reverted to an aggressively masculine cabal: the leaders of all the major parties are men. Women who attempt to break through this wall of masculinity do not need to be substantively attacked, they can simply be mocked as unfeminine, and the operation of the stereotype will do the rest."

The statistics support Walter's case. Just 22% of MPs, peers and Cabinet members are female, and men lead all the main UK parties except the Greens. Scotland fares better: last May's Holyrood election resulted in a parliament that is one-third female. The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon continued as Deputy First Minister and the Scottish Tories installed their second female leader, Ruth Davidson. Yet research published just last month confirmed that senior media figures remain predominantly male, and in the boardroom things are little better: only 23% of senior managers are women.

Women bore the brunt of the year's austerity policies, being victims of more than two-thirds of Chancellor George Osborne's latest welfare cuts. This followed the axeing of the health in pregnancy grant, cuts to housing benefit, limited child benefit and slashed tax credits, and more than one million women are now unemployed. So concerned were women's rights campaigner, the Fawcett Society, that it organised a day of action titled Don't Turn Back Time. Spokeswoman Anna Bird summed up the mood, talking of "a watershed moment for women's rights", with the austerity agenda creating a "tipping point" which risks reversing decades of progress towards greater equality.

One of the most surprising statistics to emerge showed a reverse pay gap; that young men were lagging behind women in their 20s, and women only really start to fall back in their 30s, when they have a family and experience the full restrictions of the lifestyle package known as motherhood. Perhaps this explains why the issues that galvanised a new generation of young feminists were not pay and equal opportunities, but pornification and sexual violence. Raunch culture has become so pervasive that even feminist activists had to play it sexy to get attention. The year's most high-profile protests were the SlutWalks which took place across the globe, triggered by outrage at the news that a Canadian police officer had advised women not to walk around dressed like "sluts" if they wanted to avoid getting raped. Reclaim The Night marches against sexual violence have been around for decades, but the fact that many of these marchers emblazoned their T-shirts with the word "slut" or wore oufits that were evocative of glamour costumes, drew news coverage and debate. London Feminist Network director Finn Mackay expressed mixed feelings about the success of these strategies: "Why are we more palatable when we are not angry?"

But the weapons of humour and fun were deployed to great effect during last year's most high-profile demonstrations. When Dominique Strauss-Kahn faced accusations of sexually assaulting a New York hotel maid (the charges were later dismissed), French feminists turned out in fancy dress beards to protest. The latest UK Feminista protest involved activists wearing fake "muffs" marching down Harley Street in protest at a "pornified culture driving increasing numbers of women to seek vaginal cosmetic surgery". And the year's most readable feminist book, Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman, managed to make feminism – "the most fun you can have as a lady that doesn't involve crisps" – sound like a hoot.

The year 2011 dawned with a feminist breakthrough. On January 1, Dilma Rousseff became Brazil's first-ever female president. Rousseff too has been dubbed Iron Lady for her no-nonsense style and head-on attack on corruption in her country. Closer to home, one of Europe's most powerful figures is Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel who, in recent months, has been seen gliding through swathes of men as she negotiated the vexed future of the eurozone.

Worldwide, there are now 27 female heads of state, and when biopic The Iron Lady is released next week, with Meryl Streep in the title role, cinema-goers will be cast back to the last time a British woman not only ran the country, but was a global symbol of feminine power. In truth, though, we don't need a film to remind us of Maggie. She was around all last year, colouring our perceptions of female politicians, whether they be Merkel, Rousseff, or even American presidential hopeful, Michele Bachmann. All major female politicians today are either haunted by her or, in the case of Bachmann, positively invite comparisons. Like Thatcher during the late 1970s, Bachmann has provoked debate among feminists as to whether they should support the anti-abortion, family values-promoting Republican. "Rejecting the sole female candidate on the basis that she is not the right sort of feminist is losing the war to win a battle," opined one female columnist. "Women are better represented in politics with Bachmann in the race, no matter how unpalatable her views."

Exactly how Streep's portrayal of Thatcher will affect the Iron Lady's legacy remains to be seen. Opinion is divided on whether the one-time Tory leader advanced, or hindered, the cause of womankind. On the day she was elected prime minister in 1979, feminists wielded placards bearing the slogan: "We want women's rights – not a right-wing woman." Was Thatcher anti-feminist, or did she – by proving that a woman could govern a country – actually promote equal opportunities? It's true that she did little to promote women in her own government and as prime minister she froze child benefit and refused to invest in affordable childcare, instead criticising working mothers for raising a "crèche generation". Yet, as author Tim Lott puts it: "Thatcher clearly didn't identify with feminism or support many of its aims and causes, the irony remains that it is someone whose attitudes were fundamentally invidious to women's rights who provided the greatest English role model of the 20th century for what, when she came to power, was still called women's liberation."

Are today's women Thatcher's daughters: haunted, troubled and constantly kicking against an old ghost? The new film serves as a reminder that in the 30-odd years since she became prime minister, British society has failed to produce anyone to oust her from her plinth. Indeed, far from living in an age where female power is commonplace, the UK Government is, at the dawn of 2012, depressingly masculine.

Can we in some way blame Thatcher for our current predicament as women? Actually, I rather agree with Germaine Greer that the ideological legacy of Thatcher wasn't entirely her creating. As Greer puts it: "What is clear from any reading of the vast mass of documentation of the Thatcher years is that Thatcher herself is not the author of Thatcherism, which is a thing of shreds and patches." Nor is she entirely responsible for the kind of narcissistic individualism that characterises post-feminism today. But as a female role model she is a mixed bag. There is something to celebrate in the idea that in her finally we had a woman showing us that ladies weren't all sugar and spice and all things nice: they could take a country to war, get involved in dodgy arms-dealing and ride around in a tank. This is liberating at the same time as it is depressing. But for those who believe women should have a role in power without being surrogate men, she was simply too much one of the boys.