22 SEPTEMBER 2007, Page 18

Scared of sexists? Try upsetting the feminists

Sarah Vine's Great Big Glorious Book for Girls was a number one bestseller: it was also attacked by 'the Sisters' as 'a conscious act of aggression' against her own sex As a study published the other day showed, the equality gap is far from sewn up. Despite the fact that women managers climb the career ladder faster than men and reach positions of responsibility five years earlier than their male counterparts, they are still paid less . . . an average of 12 per cent less, rising to 23 per cent at senior level.

Are you still there? Because if I were you I would have wandered off by now, perhaps to tidy my sock drawer, or empty the bins — or perform any number of more fascinating tasks; anything apart from listening to yet another whingeing career woman bleating on about the unfairness of it all. It is not that I don't care, of course I do: I am a woman and I have a job; but it's like another recent headlining report, the one about e-numbers making children hyperactive — tell me something I don't already know.

Many aspects of the female condition are not 'fair'. Always having to put the loo seat down before you go for a pee, for example, or dealing with a frankly psychotic set of hormones, or not being able to get your partner to gestate a baby for you while you fly off on a series of vitally pressing business trips. Overall, however, I am more than happy with my chromosomal lot in life — especially since I am fortunate enough to live in a wealthy, secular country such as Britain where psychopathic religious zealots do not (as yet) prevent me from driving a car or threaten to kill me if I wear the wrong clothes.

Sure, we need to bridge the pay gap; and yes, we urgently need to do something about anomalies such as women's pensions (women are in effect paid less than men, since to qualify for the full state pension you need to have spent a minimum of ten years in employment — apparently raising the next generation of taxpayers does not qualify as `work'). But the truth is that women and young girls in Britain today have opportunities our grandmothers could only have dreamt of — and which plenty of women in less enlightened parts of the globe today are denied.

This is because, apart from a few pockets of resistance, the battle for recognition has largely been won. I am not saying we must down weapons altogether; but there is definitely a solid truce in place. And this in itself presents a uniquely new opportunity: to reclaim our femininity, once rejected because of the restrictions it imposed on us; and to do so on our own terms.

Let me explain. It used to be the case that for a woman to succeed in a male-dominated working environment she was obliged to act like one of the boys. In my own experience, of newspaper journalism, the females who succeeded were the ones who had bigger balls than the boys.

They were not just as tough, they were tougher; they were not just as foul-mouthed; they would have made Bernard Manning blush. They played the game, and they played it brilliantly; but even when the ball was on their side of the net, the court still fundamentally belonged to the boys. The price of success was not just a loss of the feminine; but a screaming, bolt-upright-atthree-in-the-morning horror of it.

It is a fear that persists, and it is the core of self-loathing inside every unreconstructed feminist It is the terror that by very virtue of their sex they will one day, through weakness or forgetfulness or just sheer exhaustion from all that pretending to be tough — betray The Cause. Then, like a second-rate horror movie, the Sisterhood will turn up at their front door and daub 'Useless Girl' in scary red paint across it before forcing them to write 'Is This What Brave Emmeline Pankhurst Was Force-fed For?' 100 times over while listening to the entire Joan Baez canon. Oh yes. If you think the patriarchal supremacy can be scary, you should try upsetting the Sisters.

Unthinkingly, unintentionally and entirely by accident, I invoked their ire this summer. I co-wrote The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls. Children's books editor Rosemary Davidson and I penned what we thought was a light-hearted response to the Dangerous Book for Boys. It is purple and gold with pretty, retro illustrations. It is full of things for girls aged roughly eight to 14 to do with their friends, from putting on a play to making hummus. It is, in all honesty, fairly innocuous stuff, a summation of the sort of things Rosemary and I got up to during our own childhoods and a manual for entertainment that doesn't involve a computer, television or nagging your parents to death. We thought the little girls would like it. And they did: it reached number one in the Sunday Times bestseller list.

And yet: what fury it caused among the socalled Sisters. Rosemary and I were reviled not just for jumping on the Dangerous Book for Boys bandwagon (fair dos, actually, but it doesn't mean the book is rubbish), but for even daring to suggest that girls might like different things from boys. It was dismissed as sexist propaganda, a reversion to the 1950s. One even asked me if having a chapter entitled 'Needlecraft' was a 'conscious act of aggression'. An act of aggression? Are these women mad?

What is an act of aggression is trying to make women, and especially young girls, feel ashamed of what is part of their very nature: their femininity. It is such a rigid — and dare I say it, male — way of thinking. The female psyche is so much more complex than that. Women can be power-broking ball-breakers one minute and snugly mothers the next. They will segue, almost seamlessly, from discussions about corporate strategy into wafty mental meanderings about the new Chanel handbag, or a particularly choice shade of lip-gloss. And that is a good thing. Just because you like making pom-poms with your children doesn't mean you've got wool between your ears; just because you depilate before going demonstrating doesn't mean you're any less loyal to your cause. Exfoliation and emancipation are not mutually exclusive.

So, in defiance of the ladies from Islington, I'm not that exercised about the 12 per cent deficit. It's nothing compared to honour killing, sexual slavery, female circumcision (shall I go on? No? Oh, all right). After all, women have the moral high ground: as the survey showed, they're five years ahead of the game in terms of ability. The pay gap is just the men clutching at straws. Let them enjoy their little victory, because it won't last long. And besides, we can always take our minds off it all by whipping up a nice fresh batch of fairy cakes, right girls?

Sarah Vine writes for the Times. The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls by Rosemary Davidson and Sarah Vine is published by Penguin (£18.99).