It was a rude shock for women who spent the 1970s campaigning for equality to realise that the crude sexism and misogyny which blighted student debates a generation ago are still directed at those who dare to expect their opinions to be taken seriously.

However, the neanderthal behaviour at Glasgow University Union was depressing because it was carried out by people who might have been expected to know better.

The past few months have amounted to a disturbing catalogue of the continuing degradation of women from the gang rape which caused the death of an Indian student to the attack on Malala Yousafzai, an Afghan teenager, for her determination to go to school, to research showing teenage boys in Britain believe it is sometimes acceptable to hit women.

When Republican candidates in the US elections can talk of legitimate rape, and the tide of sexual violence has reached tsunami proportions on the internet, frustration that the gender pay gap remains as inevitable as death and taxes can seem almost trivial, but it is still economic dependence which shackles women to violence, degradation and poverty in societies across the world. Into this maelstrom of concern came Fifty Shades of Grey, the internet publishing phenomenon which features graphic depictions of bondage and has made its author EL James a multi-millionaire.

Fifty Shades of Feminism, a riposte born of a conversation between three high-profile feminists, author Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes, director of literature at the Southbank centre, and psychotherapist Susie Orbach, is a compendium of women's voices on what feminism means today. Inevitably, they include well-known names uttering well-worn refrains. Fifty years after Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique lifted the lid on the myth of the fulfilment women found as wives, mothers and homemakers, it is disappointing that analysis of women's lot is still largely the province of those who may not have it all but have an enviable life compared with most women across the world or with previous generations.

A much needed wake-up call is sounded by Carlene Firmin's incisive description of how girls and women associated with gangs, as wives, girlfriends, mothers and sisters, are increasingly threatened and bullied by social media. They are powerless to fight back and don't see feminism as something that includes them. Yet they are not only vulnerable to violence but often discriminated against by official services.

Against this desperate need, Kathy Lette's encouragement to sisterhood, "Women are each other's human Wonderbras: uplifting, supportive, making each other look bigger and better", can seem glib, even with her parting shot that the fight is far from over: "Remember that any women who calls herself a "post-feminist" has kept her Wonderbra and burned her brains, because we still have a long way to go".

Let's face it, it was the dungarees and political lesbianism that accelerated the arrival of that dangerous label "post-feminist". So it's a relief to read Jude Kelly on unsuitable behaviour and how that phrase has been applied both to women playing football and women cheerleading in support of male football teams. Her conclusion: "Feminism needs to be a big, bold, baggy overcoat that can accommodate each fully-rounded female, with all her huge ambitions and cuddly toys."

While too many of the essays are by women with little cause for complaint, they are interspersed with sage nuggets from wise women down the centuries, shades in the sense of those who have gone before. From Mary Wollstonecraft ("Taught from infancy that beauty is women's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison") to Rosa Luxemburg ("Those who do not move do not notice their chains").

This alphabetically arranged collection is given a cheering, sassy start with Margaret Atwood's Update on Werewolves: "Long-legged women sprint through ravines/ in furry warm-ups, a pack of kinky/ models in sado French Vogue getups/ and airbrushed short-term memories/ bent on no-penalties rampage".

There's a welcome breeziness, too, in Bee Rowlatt's contribution, in which her recipe for a liberated life is to ask what Mary Wollstonecraft would do in the situation as in the career versus babies dilemma: "She tucks the baby under one arm and sets off in a series of ramshackle boats, to Norway. In 1795."

Jeanette Winterson provides the burst of rage that has been missing for the past few decades. Her target is porn, which she defines as "a highly toxic, addictive substance that uses excitement/satisfaction pathways in the brain to addict the user". It is a call to action and a salutary reminder that the important battles improve the lives not just of women but of men and, especially, children.

Editor and contributor Rachel Holmes and Bidisha will be talking about Fifty Shades of Feminism at the Aye Write book festival on Sunday, April 14, at 7.30pm. For tickets visit or call 0141 353 8000