As a student in the late 80s, I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Sexual Politics by Kate Millett. I knew that challenging the patriarchy was an urgent task, and I knew how to accomplish it: by making banners and drinking tea in the Wadham Women’s Room (at the Oxford college where I was an undergraduate). The banners were deployed on marches such as the one that protested against MP David Alton’s 1987 private member’s bill to end late abortions. “Keep your hands off my body,” we shouted, supremely confident, blissfully blind to any ethical nuance in one of the defining issues of gender equality – that of our reproductive rights.
Looking back now, what strikes me most about our feminist vanguard was how timid it was. Wadham still has a Women’s Room, but now it is available for women who can’t get home at night. Why didn’t we think of that? Of the 10 undergraduates at college on my course (PPE), I was the only girl. I asked the tutor in charge of admissions why. He explained that in his experience “clever girls who come here don’t work very hard”. I was outraged but too timid to say so, and I was also pathetically grateful I’d slipped through the net.
Fast-forward to the 2000s, and I’d fallen out of love with feminism during the previous decade. I couldn’t get my head around third-wave feminism. I’d tried. I found it fractured and confusing. In the 90s, when I worked for a radical publishing house, I organised a public event at a north London community centre in which the panellists discussed “feminist pornography”. The event was packed and lively, but secretly I found it depressing. Could this really be the route to equality?
By the early 2000s I’d had two babies, and I’d read the two books about motherhood that everyone else seemed to be reading. One was Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, a lament on motherhood; the other was Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does it, an uber middle-class view of the “double burden” of work and home. My student dreams of imminent gender equality appeared to drown in a sea of nappies – until I had my own, I hadn’t truly considered the impact of children on a woman’s life.
The decade did, however, bring legislative progress, most notably with the introduction of asylum gender guidelines in 2004, the Civil Partnership Act in 2005, and the gender equality duty, which came into force in 2007, placing a legal duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity between men and women. I cheered the appointment of the first black woman cabinet minister (Baroness Amos), the first female foreign secretary (Margaret Beckett) and the first female home secretary (Jacqui Smith).
By the end of the decade, I had re-engaged with feminism. The plurality of voices of the third wave brought not only a fresh energy, but also a fresh confidence. Embracing individualism means not having to be apologetic for valuing yourself. That’s a lesson I wish I could go back and teach my 18-year-old self.
• Monica Ali is a writer and novelist whose book Brick Lane was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize