Notes from the fourth wave of feminism

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Can’t you just call it humanism instead? Or equality?
I have no idea how many times I have been asked questions like these.
– What about equivalence? some people might suggest.
– Call it neutralism! others demand.
Call it everything but feminism, seems to be the message.

Most people involved with these issues have at some point received these “well-intentioned” suggestions, from people who think the women’s movement is justified, but that we are ruining it for ourselves by using the f-word.

And sometimes similar thoughts can strike even the most convinced of feminists: Because, is it really worth it? To insist on using this controversial word? There’s no doubt that our lives would have been easier if we just gave up this labour of Sisyphus by trying to cleanse the word feminism of its associations with man-hating. Can’t we just find a new word?


The fact that many struggle with prejudice against feminism – without bothering to understand what it’s really about – should not, strictly speaking, be the feminists’ problem. It’s tempting to ask people to do a quick search on Google before throwing themselves into the debate.

Alternatively, we can try explaining to these people that there’s nothing wrong with the terms humanism and equality, it’s just that feminism contains something more. Namely, the acknowledgment of how there are systematic differences in power, money and opportunities that are based on gender. In short, feminism is the name of the fight against gender discrimination. As a feminist, you do not want a person’s gender to limit their freedom or opportunities in this world. Simple as that.

So, why are so many people still afraid of using the word “feminist”? I find that it’s often due to a misunderstanding. Many people think that feminism is a gender struggle, that one side will win and the other is destined to lose. As though freedom was like a cake for us to share, where more for you means less for me. But that’s completely wrong. The truth is we all win in a more equal society.

In the book The Spirit Level (2011), British social epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson write about the close link between a country’s economic and social equality, and its levels of welfare. In short: Countries with small income gaps and a high level of equality between women and men, score consistently better on issues like health, well-being, life expectancy and economy. In other words, countries that maintain traditional gender roles lose out on several fronts.

The Nordic countries regularly top the lists of the worlds’ most egalitarian – and happy – people. Most recently in December 2019 when the World Economic Forum compiled The Global Gender Gap Index, where the four top positions went to Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. The basis for these types of accolades often focuses on the high numbers of women at work and our many good welfare schemes for maternal and parental leave. In Norway, we have a gender equality law, a gender equality minister and a separate party dedicated to feminism. Right now, Scandinavian feminists have wind in their sails: Every week, there are panel discussions, lectures, stand-up shows and festivals dedicated to feminism, in addition to a seemingly endless stream of articles, books, comics and blog posts about gender and gender equality.

My own book, Women in Battle (2017), has been part of this trend, or ”the forth wave of feminism” as some call it. So far, the book has been sold to 27 countries, and therefore I have travelled a lot the last couple of years, giving speeches about the history of feminism. While on these trips I’ve been struck by how different people think about gender roles and gender equality from country to country. Take International Women’s Day: As a Norwegian feminist, I’m used to March 8 being seen as a day to commemorate political struggle. The Norwegian papers are all week full of articles about gender and equality. Women in their thousands march through the streets to highlight current issues and to celebrate victories that have already been won. The contrast to all this was enormous when I visited countries where Women’s Day is treated like a combination of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. In many places, March 8 is seen as an opportunity to give the woman in your life a box of chocolates, a bunch of flowers or maybe a pink postcard with a small declaration of love written on it. “Thanks for all you’ve done this year,” for example.
Personally, I’d be quite annoyed if a man gave me heart-shaped chocolates on Women’s Day.

My point is not that Scandinavian women are better feminists than other. Or that all our problems regarding gender equality have been solved. They certainly haven’t. But because for decades we have been lucky enough to have the authorities on our side on a number of important issues. Women in Scandinavia live freer lives than many others, and since we have achieved so much, I believe we have a responsibility to pass on our experiences beyond the Nordic region, while at the same time supporting those who find themselves sailing against the wind.

Because, unfortunately not everything moves in the right direction at the moment. Recently we’ve seen authoritarian leaders seizing power in a number of countries, like Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the United States, and Brazil. These offensive forces threaten freedom of speech, gay rights, and women’s sovereignty to their own bodies. This means, among other things, that access to birth control is getting worse and that the possibility of having an abortion can become more difficult for many women. It’s as though what these patriarchs are really dreaming about is a return to the days when “women were women and men were men.” In other words, a time when women stayed at home and were dependent on their husbands, and no-one had heard of LGBT (LHBT in Norwegian).

Historically, feminism has been about modernization. The women’s movement has continually strived to adapt old norms, traditions, and ways of thinking – and work out new ones, for modern times and modern people. Some will always oppose the breaking of traditions, but they normally lose in the long run. The world is rolling forward, slowly but surely.

Feminism can be described as history’s most successful revolution. Few movements have created such great social change in such a short time. Little more than a hundred years ago, women were denied the right to education, to work, to divorce, and to vote in political elections. These things were reserved for men.

Thanks to the women of the first wave of feminists which emerged in the late 1800s, these fundamental rights were won in many countries. The next big feminist wave was in the 1960s and 70s involving feminists who had grown up in a society where most women were housewives. There were barely any kindergartens, and there were certainly no women’s shelters, since no-one then was talking about violence against women or sexual abuse in the home. Abortion was illegal. Homosexuality was illegal. And there were hardly any female politicians. The women’s movement tackled all of these issues. The Scandinavian feminists of the 1970s fought for abortion laws, kindergartens, and women’s shelters, and their efforts provided the next generation with far greater freedoms than they had experienced themselves.

These amazing results are not achieved by being polite or careful. The women’s struggle has largely been about forcing our way into the men’s world – be it working life, politics, sports, religion, or art. The women at the front, kicking down the doors often do so at great personal cost. You’re unlikely to become popular from showing up at the party totally uninvited. The author Virginia Woolf pointed all this out in 1929, saying: “The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.”

We could say that the #MeToo movement is a preliminary highlight of the feminist wave we are in now. It was the activist Tarana Burke who, as early as 2006, began to say “metoo” as an invitation others to share their experiences of abuse and sexual harassment. But it wasn’t until the fall of 2017 that the campaign really started getting noticed; when Hollywood actresses began sharing their personal stories using this as a hashtag. It all quickly become a worldwide grassroots movement. Here in Scandinavia, the campaign attracted a huge amount of attention, and still does. Gradually, as more of the stories reached the media, a number of men in politics, the media, and entertainment industry lost their jobs and positions.

Major changes to social attitudes usually take a long time, but this time it happened fast. Just one year after the first twitter message had been sent, a survey conducted by the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, showed there had been a strong positive effect on society and the workplace. Four out of five Norwegians agreed that #MeToo had highlighted a real problem in society, and nearly two out of three believed the campaign had helped reduce sexual harassment. Many workplaces, schools, institutions, and organizations immediately sat down and made action plans to combat sexual harassment, and formulated rules on how to handle those situations in future.

Of course, women had been vocal about sexual harassment before #MeToo, for example, the Norwegian feminist magazine Fett launched the #jegharopplevd (#IHaveExperienced) campaign in 2015. We have been sharing stories about abuse, groping, and the feeling of being reduced to a sex object for decades. However, many women found they were not taken seriously, or their stories were simply not believed. You could risk losing friends and even your job if you reported anything. But then #MeToo came along, and the huge numbers of reports meant that the world was forced to listen. In short, the message was that a vast number of women – far more than we had assumed – had been subjected to abuse or varying degrees of unwanted sexual attention during their lives. Since the campaign has spread so widely, and across so many countries, you no-longer have to stand there alone wondering if sexual harassment is just “something you have to put up with.”

In the past, many men excused their bad behavior by saying, “it was just a bit of fun!” or “can’t you take a joke?” or “why don’t you just take it as a compliment!” Now, women all around the world, have made themselves clear: When random men shout, honk the horn, whistle, or blow kisses at us in the street, it is not perceived as a compliment, but as a possible threat.

More and more people open their eyes to the gender based injustice and the dangerous developments in international politics. Previous victories are not carved in stone, and hard-won rights can be lost again. This is why people all over the world have started protesting in the streets. In recent years, millions of women have taken part in demonstrations against Donald Trump’s attitudes to women, a record-breaking number of women have gone on strike in countries like Spain, Chile and Argentina, and in January 2019 five million (!) Indian women lined up for a remarkably long human chain to protest against gender discrimination.

People are waking up. It’s time to roll up your sleeves and join in!

Marta Breen is a Norwegian journalist and author of non-fiction with a particular focus on women, including female artists, music groups, women in media and in history. She is a freelance journalist for NRK and other Norwegian journals, and a regular columnist in Dagsavisen, where she regularly writes about feminism.

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