The bra-burning days of yesteryear gave so much yet get no thanks

9th April 2010 at 01:00
"I'd like to see women burning their bras in Fargate." Thus did an aspiring young journalist declare his support for the feminist ferment of the early 1970s.

He was writing - I was writing - for the Sheffield evening newspaper, The Star, at the time. Fargate was one of the main shopping streets in the city, and it was not a common sight in 1971 to see women divesting themselves of their nether garments in central Sheffield and turning them into impromptu bonfires. I'd guess it still isn't today, though it's a while since I visited.

My enthusiasm for the new wave of feminism sweeping the Western world coincided with being asked to write for the embarrassingly named "Teen and Twenty Column" the newspaper had just launched. Everywhere, young women seemed to be on the march, demanding equality in all aspects of their lives. And to me their demands then - as now - seemed perfectly reasonable.

My thoughts wound themselves back to those days when watching the Women series currently being screened on BBC Four and, in particular, the first programme which tracked down and interviewed some of those feminist firebrands. Germaine Greer was there, of course, as were her American counterparts Kate Millet and Marilyn French. Now in the autumn of their years, none showed any regrets for the excesses of their youth, other than the fact that those excesses were now so decidedly in the past.

Not long afterwards, I left the newspaper and started in further education. Had Germaine and company sparked something in the young women I was teaching? The answer was yes and no. The spirit was there - the fire and the fight - that said they no longer wanted to stand in line behind the men. But still their ambitions were blunted by the mind set of being seen as - and seeing themselves as - the "second sex".

Instead of doctors, so many wanted to be nurses; or para-legals rather than lawyers; and, most noticeably, secretaries rather than bosses. I lost count of how many bright young women told me that after the A-levels they were taking, they were off to learn shorthand and typing.

Today, secretaries still exist - though the ubiquitous personal computer means that most of us end up being our own secretaries. But none of the students I teach tell me they want to be one any more. Nor would they be anything less than outraged if I suggested that (as in the early '70s) they could not walk into a bar on their own, open bank accounts or sign up for a mortgage unless they had a man in their life in whose name it would be registered.

So are they grateful to their demonstrative sisters of yesteryear? Not exactly. The morning after that programme had first been broadcast, I asked my - largely female - PreAccess class if they had seen it. None had. I gave them a bit of background. None of them had heard of any of the names I mentioned, not even Germaine's.

Then I asked how many would count themselves feminists. Three hands were tentatively raised. One or two admitted they weren't sure what a feminist was. And others had swallowed the tabloids' caricature of a feminist as a butch, man-hating harridan in overalls.

We talked a little about the freedoms that women of their age have now compared to the much narrower options available 40 years ago. We even got to suffragettes - another word some of them had difficulties with. When I asked who saw themselves as a feminist now, almost all the hands shot up.

Should my principal find out that I have been spending class time carrying out my own "equality audit", I hope he won't take exception. Particularly as he is actually a she - something almost unheard of in the days when the bra bonfires were burning at their brightest.

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