Strike While It's Still Hot

It is a dangerous myth that the utopian dreams of the 1960s and 1970s either evaporated amid yuppie excess in the Eighties or were left buried beneath the rubble of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The last half century should not be read as the death of idealism at the hands of unfettered capitalism and unrestrained militarism, and nobody with a love of freedom should mourn the collapse of Soviet totalitarianism.

Forty years ago today, Betty Friedan and thousands of fellow feminists took to the streets of New York for the Women's Strike for Equality. She had documented the loneliness, isolation and dissatisfaction of women living in a society in which they had no other role than to somehow make homes.

The notion that women would want equal access to employment and education seemed radical and laughable to many, and feminists are still burdened by caricatures, but they stormed the Bastille and the evidence of liberation is everywhere.

It was reported earlier this year that women now make up the majority of the US workforce for the first time in history and most managers are also female.

Commentators now fret about the under-performance of men when compared with the success of women in bastions which had until recently been the preserve of males.

Last year, of those in the UK entering higher education, 49.2% were women while only 37.2% were men.

Once in university, women outshone their male counterparts. Some 63.9% of women won a first or 2:1, compared with 59.9% of male colleagues.

Whether we realise it or not, all of us who enjoy the benefits of living in a society where arbitrary stereotypes no longer block the freedoms of sisters, friends, daughters and mothers owe a debt to the campaigners who took to the streets.

Yes, there have been other trends in the post-war West which have brought misery, such as family breakdown and the misuse of drugs, but to quote Martin Luther King: “Let us realise the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

No amount of glucose-gold nostalgia should make us want to turn the clock back to a recent moment in time when blacks were segregated in the American South and routinely discriminated against in Britain. Earlier, simpler times were for many people painful days of ever-present prejudice, just as millions of men had their ambitions thwarted by a regressive class system.

Now is not the time for people on either the left or the right to abandon progressive ideals or shirk from battles that look unwinnable. Progress was pushed forward with courage and commitment and such sacrifice is needed as dearly today as it will be tomorrow.

A Thursday column