You don't hear the F-word so much these days. Oh, it's not totally disappeared. There are websites that unapologetically use it (there's one even called The F Word) and women who still cling to it, but it's not quite the badge of honour (or, equally, disdain) that it once was.

How often, after all, do you hear the word feminism these days outside the Guardian women's page? We have, it seems, moved on. Indeed, according to a press release for cultural commentator Laura Kipnis's new book, The Female Thing, these days we are living in a "post-post-feminist world".

But if so, "post-post" what? It is now more than 30 years from the high-water mark of the women's liberation movement, before it crashed and burned in the wake of Thatcherism, and yet there's a mood of reappraisal in the air.

Already this year veteran activist Lynne Segal - now "hovering around 60" and currently professor of psycho-logy and gender studies at Birkbeck University, London - and writer Michele Roberts, also a veteran of second-wave feminism, have published memoirs that revisit their younger selves and the foreign country that was Britain in the 1970s. Both, coincidentally, are appearing at this year's Book Festival in Edinburgh, where they will be discussing the past, present and future of feminism.

"It would be really foolish to say it's a worse world," Segal claims when asked to compare then and now. "Young girls' sense of a certain type of entitlement and a certain kind of confidence is much greater, it seems to me, than 30 years ago."

Roberts agrees, up to a point. Depressingly, the glass ceiling is still in place and sexual attacks remain prevalent.

"I think we're also seeing in our very materialistic modern culture a lot of young women being quite nervous about growing up and therefore resorting to things like self-harm and anorexia," she says. "I think there are pressures on women these days to get incredibly good jobs, earn lots of money, buy lots of things and attract a high-flying bloke."

That was not how things were in the 1970s. Reading Making Trouble, Segal's account of how she left Sydney and found a new home at the heart of London's women's movement, and Paper Houses, Roberts's take on how she found her way to writing through feminism, what is immediately striking is how different the world seemed back then. And in some ways more joyful.

The mediatised cultural memory of the era is all IRA bombings, miners' strikes, marches and three-day weeks. But Segal and Roberts remember the period as essentially an optimistic one.

"Women's liberation very much emerged out of the 1960s with all its wild hopes for egalitarianism and more - for changing society at every level," recalls Segal. "The early seventies were like women's sixties, I think."

Roberts concurs. "I remember the seventies as very carnivalesque and joyful because it was so experimental. Of course, very painful things happened too, but socially they were heady times."

Roberts doesn't avoid the pain in her memoir. There's her very candid account of her fear on being charged by police on horseback during an anti-BNP march, the constant harassment from passing men that she suffered while wandering around London, and, most frighteningly, a kidnap ordeal in Bangkok.

"We had a phrase for it. Men saw us as sex objects', and I really think they did. We were like playthings. We were like toys, sexy toys."

And yet it's the sense of freedom and connection that feminism offered both women that is at the heart of their memoirs.

Segal recalls campaigning for "basic women's rights" - for better childcare, reproductive rights and against violence against women. "You'd be out on the streets, going to a meeting several times a week, taking up one of these causes. You knew everybody else involved so they became like family outings."

What is obvious is that it was a very different kind of family than the ones the women had grown up in. How much of their thinking was a reaction against the lives they saw their mothers living?

"Very much," agrees Segal. "I mean, everything in culture generally (in the 1950s) was extolling the happy, healthy nuclear family when at the same time, at another level, everyone was aware of the problems.

"The first marriage guidance council was created in the postwar years, yet we would later discover that enormously high levels of depression and low-level conflict in the family was the life of our parents."

In Making Trouble, Segal, who was raised in Sydney before fleeing to London in 1970, says her doctor father was incapable of showing his daughters any affection, while her mother, a gynaecologist, though a successful professional woman, was stuck with a philandering husband who installed his mistress as the family's housekeeper. It was not a model to emulate.

"In my early twenties I became pregnant and seemed to get into all sorts of other scrapes. It was women's liberation that seemed to make it easier for me to connect up with other people in similar situations," she says.

"Single mothers, as I had become by 1970, were a top priority for women's liberation in terms of how the world was going to become a world that would include us and enable us to take part in life generally."

Roberts, meanwhile, saw her mother, a teacher, come home from her job and then do all the housework. "I could see that though my father was a devoted breadwinner and husband, he was not required to help at home". She could also see her brother was being brought up to do (or not do) the same.

She was raised in the Catholic church, which she says taught women "to hate our own bodies". Both were ways of living she wanted to escape. The Utopian politics of the left in the seventies offered an escape route and a chance to explore alternative forms of living - the commune model, for one. Roberts lived in houses where clothes, property - even beds - were for whoever wanted them. She found it something of a challenge.

"The ideals of the communes in which I lived were wonderful on paper - sharing property, sharing your clothes, not having personal possessions, attempting to live out an ideal of free love. But in practice, of course, it was quite difficult.

"I was living a conflict inside myself between my wish for privacy and solitude and indeed my wish to have my own books, and my desire to serve the revolution by trying to live in a completely new way."

Segal has a much more sanguine memory of collective living. "I had a child, and if you had a child, communal living could be a very practical solution for someone who still wanted to be out there, engaged in the world and enjoying the fun of life. In the seventies, for quite a number of years, I lived with two other single mothers and we had all sorts of ways of making our lives, as well as our children's lives, go very smoothly."

Does that seem very alien now? Perhaps, and yet Segal, who still stays in a house with other people who are not family members, points out that we now live in a time of alternative family forms - a legacy of the women's liberation movement. "There are lesbian households with children and gay households with children," she points out.

The nuclear family is no longer the only model. It's an idea that she thinks could be extended, too. "I know a lot of people facing old age today who keep wondering if we can get nearer to a very loose form of more collective living. After all, old people's accommodation is a form of collective living."

The revolution begins at pension time? Michele Roberts appears at the Peppers Theatre, Edinburgh, on Saturday at 7pm. Her memoir Paper Houses is published by Virago, priced £16.99. Next Friday (August 24), Lynne Segal is at the ScottishPower Studio Theatre at 2pm and the Highland Park Spiegeltent at 7.30pm to discuss Feminism Past, Present and Future with Laura Kipnis and Sarah Dunant. Her book Making Trouble is published by Serpent's Tail, priced £10.99.

An evolution in three decades

  • The Equal Pay Act is passed.
  • Miss World interrupted by women's liberation protesters.
  • Germaine Greer publishes The Female Eunuch.
  • Annie Nightingale becomes first female DJ on Radio 1.


  • Switzerland gives votes to women in federal elections (it was the 1980s before they could vote in cantonal elections).
  • US bans sex discrimination in the workplace.


  • Feminist magazine Spare Rib is launched.
  • The Jockey Club allows women to be jockeys.


  • Women allowed on the floor of the London Stock Exchange.
  • Scottish Women's Aid opens refuges for "battered women" in Glasgow and Edinburgh.


  • Contraception becomes free to women in the UK.


  • Sex Discrimination Act passed.
  • Margaret Thatcher elected leader of the Conservative Party.


  • Equal Opportunities Commission established.
  • Domestic Violence Act passed.


  • The first Rape Crisis Centre opens in London.


  • Margaret Thatcher elected Prime Minister.
  • Agnes Curran becomes the first woman governor of a male prison, at Dungavel.


  • The Greenham Women's Peace Camp is disbanded.


  • Clara Furse appointed first female chief executive of the London Stock Exchange.


  • Baroness Amos becomes first black female cabinet minister.


  • Condoleezza Rice is first female national security advisor to a President of the USA.


  • Civil Partnership Act gives same-sex couples legal rights.


  • Angela Merkel becomes first woman chancellor of Germany.