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Spreading the F-word

So here I am, sitting in a room full of women, discussing the F-word. No, not the one that you hear constantly in the street - and increasingly in the workplace - but that other F-word: feminism.

I haven't picked the topic, it's the choice of one of the women in my access class, who is giving a presentation on "gender inequality in the workplace and home".

As this has a sociological slant, she's gone for a strongly theoretical approach. At times, it's fair to say, she struggles with the enormity of the subject.

Her plan is to cover three "ists", starting with the Marxists. Not surprisingly, this group holds that capitalism lies at the heart of society's inequities. Things were a lot more equal, my student suggests, "back in the day" when we were still hunters and gatherers. She doesn't give any evidence to support this position, and the several thousand years of agrarianism that preceded the industrial revolution seem to be missing from her analysis, too. But she's only got 15 minutes for her talk, so can hardly be expected to review the whole of history.

Aided by an overly wordy PowerPoint, she wades into the perspectives offered by liberal and radical feminists. She does a decent enough job in the end and the main points come through.

Her audience listens politely in the darkened room, but there is the occasional bout of whispering from the far corners and it's hard to believe they're discussing the virtues of Kate Millett over Simone de Beauvoir. Things pick up when we get to the post-presentation discussion, although at first it's pretty dire. "Any questions?" the speaker asks hopefully. There's a shuffling of papers and a clearing of throats. Nobody says anything. I'm supposed to be an observer in all this, but you can't just stand by and do nothing when the train's about to run into the buffers.

"Come on," I say, "we're talking about your lives here. How many of you would count yourselves as feminists?" A few uncertain hands go up. "OK then, so the rest of you are prepared to see your role in life solely as adjuncts to men? You don't expect equal job opportunities, pay and promotion? Basically your futures are as wives and mothers."

That does it. Suddenly everyone wants their say. Of course, they want all of the above and more. Do they expect to get it? "Yes!" they declare. "Well, up to a point," says a dissenting voice. She's heard how many, or rather how few, women sit on the boards of our biggest companies. "But that will have to change," the others chorus. And even if - carried along by the fervour of the moment - they underestimate the difficulties of achieving this, they clearly mean it.

This is music to my ears, because I can't help but recall how such a conversation would have gone back in the early part of my teaching career. In those unenlightened days, rather than aspiring to sit on a board, far too many intelligent young women at this stage of their lives were resigning themselves to careers as secretaries.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a further education college in London

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