Ayear or two ago, when the British media was hyping ‘post-feminism’, there seemed a deep sense of pessimism among feminists, a feeling of isolation, of women’s gains being under attack. Mrs Thatcher’s Iron Maiden caricature of the Strong Woman curdled our aspirations to public advancement, and we were impotent in the face of her successive attacks on the public provision on which British feminism and British feminists have always relied. However critical we were of the social-democratic welfare state, as individuals we needed its schools and hospitals, and it played an important role in our theoretical explorations. Trades unionism was equally important to British feminism, and while we were critical of the unions, too, we certainly never supported the union-‘free’ workforce the Tories have sought to create.

As we move forward into the 1990s, feminism seems to be stirring from its trough of despond. This may seem paradoxical or illogical (some readers may well feel that it is simply not true), but whereas in the yuppy boom years feminism was, as one Oxford undergraduate said to me bitterly, ‘a dirty word’, the anxieties of recession have revealed a more sober reality. No more swells in the City (single women with lots of lolly), swigging champagne in designer suits; even the government is alarmed by the ageing workforce and thus pushed into promoting more forward-looking policies for working women—in their rhetoric at least. There has also been a more general recognition of the widening gap between the small elite of relatively successful professional women, almost all of whom are white, and the worsening employment, housing and health prospects of the majority.

It is incorrect to refer to an ‘underclass’, because this word implies what the late Victorians called ‘the residuum’—individuals who were too sick, too deviant, too criminal ever to obtain regular work. (For the Victorians and the Edwardians the residuum was the diseased, above all the degenerate dross, of society, hopefully to be eliminated by eugenics, the ‘science of race improvement’.) Today, the term ‘underclass’ carries many of the same ideological meanings and suggests a permanent condition of physical, mental and moral inferiority within the residue itself. Victims—and/or beneficiaries—of the ‘dependency culture’, black youths, pensioners and welfare mothers are lumped into this category with scant recognition of the way in which government policies have, whether deliberately or not, created a no-hope dustbin for those who, for whatever reason, are disadvantaged in the competition for work. That mothers of small children, particularly unsupported mothers—those, that is, not financially dependent upon an individual man—should be placed in this category is a particularly vicious instance of male chauvinism and prejudice, since many of these women could, and should, be given the opportunity to improve their skills, and the support in terms of childcare provision to enable them to obtain proper paid employment. The potential of young men, particularly those from ethnic minorities, is also being wasted, but women are being penalized for precisely that which our society claims most to value and need: the bearing and rearing of children.

This is not a new story; the twist in the 1980s was that many older feminists became uneasily aware that their possibilities for economic advancement were partly dependent on the availability of their impoverished sisters to act as child minders, cleaners and ironing ladies. (Where were their husbands?—but that’s another story again.) Even designer dressing was dependent upon an army of female sweated labour.

It is only my impression—and may be quite wrong—that something in the atmosphere has changed as we embark on this last decade of the millenium. Perhaps it is partly because British feminism has faced the challenge to it made by black women, and what seemed at the time an incredibly painful confrontation has been incorporated into an enriched conception of what it means to be a woman and into a more diverse idea of feminism. The debilitating controversy about pornography continues, but perhaps most feminists would really like to get beyond that now. The lesbian and gay movement has, in the most ironic paradox of all, been re-energized by the attack that Clause 28 of the Local Government Act represented. I am not claiming that objectively things look rosy for women, but perhaps feminists are at least moving on from the introspection and internal strife of the 1980s.