Jane Fonda is magnificent. Looking every inch the Hollywood matriarch, she was arrested for the fifth time in recent weeks on the eve of her 82nd birthday.
As the crowd in Washington DC sang ‘Happy Birthday’, police officers led her away in handcuffs. Her crime? She is the organiser of Fire Drill Fridays, weekly protests outside the US Capitol against the climate emergency that has seen California, and now Australia, in flames.
Speaking earlier this week on The Late Show, she worried that her generation was not doing enough to tackle climate change, compared to the legions of young people who have been inspired by Greta Thunberg.
“Well, humankind is facing the greatest crisis that we’ve ever faced, and there were all these young students that were sacrificing a lot and working so hard,” she told the host of the American TV show, Stephen Colbert.
And she explained why she had decided now was the time for direct action. “We don’t do civil disobedience as a first effort, but we’ve been petitioning and writing and marching and begging the government and they don’t hear.
“We’ve used every lever of democracy and so we have to take a step further... risking getting arrested.”
The star is taking time off from her protest to film the latest series of her hit comedy show Grace and Frankie, but environmental charity Greenpeace will make sure Fire Drill Fridays will continue in her absence.
It is 50 years since Jane Fonda first hit the headlines for her activism. In 1970, she was arrested in Cleveland on trumped-up drug charges. It was later revealed that Richard Nixon’s administration had ordered her arrest for her protests against the Vietnam War.
A giant leap for womankind
Her police mug shot became a viral sensation, 35 years before the internet. The image of a 32-year-old Fonda, her fist raised in a defiant salute, inspired a new generation of feminists.
Even her shaggy hair cut was seen as a political statement. She had just ditched her long blonde locks for a more casual look, little knowing that it would become, as American Vogue was to suggest later, “a symbol for women who won’t back down”.
It is also 50 years since British feminism took a giant leap for womankind. The first National Women’s Liberation Conference took place in Oxford in February 1970, heralding a series of events held throughout the country over the next decade where women argued for seven straightforward, but significant, changes to society.
These included equal pay, educational and job opportunities, free contraception, abortion on demand, the right to a self-defined sexuality and an end to discrimination against lesbians.
We may have secured more control over our reproductive system, but there is still a long way to go before we have equal pay. The World Economic Forum has just predicted that, across the world, women will have to wait 257 years to be paid the same as men.
Violent sex the new normal
A recent investigation by online newspaper The Ferret showed that, in Scottish schools, boys still outnumber girls in ten subjects such as maths, physics and computing, while girls make up more than three-quarters of the students studying art, fashion and childcare.
Our 21st-century girls may have made it out of the kitchen, but many of them remain trapped in the nursery and beauty salon. And I doubt if those pioneering feminists anticipated that, 50 years after first making their demands, their sisters would be fighting to maintain their legal status as female against a horde of trans-women, in beards and beads, insisting their lived identity matters more than a woman’s natal sex.
The last demand, which was added in 1978, was a call for “freedom for all women from intimidation by the threat or use of violence or sexual coercion regardless of marital status”.
Recent research by Health Scotland shows that the risk of partner abuse is highest among young people aged 16 to 24 years.
And one in three young women, born long after the first Women’s Liberation conference, have experienced unwanted choking, slapping or spitting during consensual sex. Violent sex is the new normal, just as sex in the dark once was.
Life, it seems, is tougher now for young girls than it was for those of us who reached our teenage years in the 1970s, which is why it is incumbent on us older women to follow Jane Fonda’s example and stand up for what is right, whether it is protesting government inaction against climate change or fighting for sexual equality.
Even though Fonda has long been a symbol of the women’s movement, she admits she was a late adopter of feminism.
Girls trapped in push-up bras
Writing in 2016, she said, “In 1970... I learned that 5,000 women in New York City were demonstrating for legalised abortion. I wrote in my journal: ‘Don’t understand the Women’s Liberation Movement. There are more important things to have a movement for, it seems to me.’”
But as she entered her sixties she had an epiphany. “When I turned 60 and entered my third and final act, I decided that I needed to heal the wounds patriarchy had dealt me,” she wrote.
“I didn’t want to come to the end of my life without doing all I could to become a whole, full-voiced woman.”
There are many negative things about ageing, not least having to turn the volume on the television to its highest setting, but it is also a time of liberation. Women of a certain age care far less about what people think about them, and far more about what is right and wrong.
Older women can speak out freely, without the need to worry about their career prospects, or whether their partner approves of their opinion.
We can say choking during lovemaking is wrong, full stop.
We can point out our natal sex is real, end of. And we can campaign, until the dying light, against climate change, illegal wars or the structural inequalities that trap our girls in a world full of pink plastic, push-up bras and pout-plump lip-gloss.
Fifty years on from the first Women’s Liberation event, we can, like Jane Fonda, become whole, full-voiced women. Just try not to get arrested.