Everything you wanted to know about fourth wave feminism—but were afraid to ask

New breadth has made it harder to define a coherent feminism for the 21st century—but it has also made space for a greater diversity of voices and perspectives
August 14, 2017

On 22nd January, the day after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, millions of women marched across dozens of countries to demand equal rights. The women’s march was organised in reaction to the hyper-masculinity of Trump’s election campaign, and his attitude towards women throughout—from his stance against reproductive rights, at one point threatening to jail women who had abortions, to his boasts of “grabbing ’em by the pussy.” But the day also became a focal point for grievances that have been building since the emergence of what is now being called the fourth wave of feminism—following on from previous waves that began with the struggle for the right to vote in the late 19th century, moved through the liberation movements of the 1960s and on to the debates surrounding pop culture and gender theory in the 1980s.

But what exactly is fourth-wave feminism, where did it come from, and what does it want?

By the 1990s, feminism in Britain had fallen out of fashion. Received wisdom—even among women—was that equality had already been achieved. Over the preceding century, women had won most of the legal rights for which they had so relentlessly campaigned—from the Married Women’s Property Act in 1870 and the reform bill in 1918, which enfranchised 8.4m women, to the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975. “Feminism: outmoded and unpopular,” declared the Guardian in 2003, after a study found that the women’s movement was “regarded virtually unanimously in negative terms,” associated with militants and bra-burning. As Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg wrote 10 years later in her bestselling Lean In: “I headed into college believing that the feminists of the 60s and 70s had done the hard work of achieving equality for my generation... My friends and I truly, if naïvely, believed that the world did not need feminists anymore.”

Yet we now see an unprecedented amount of discussion around women’s rights issues—facilitated by the ease of networking and communication online—and a wealth of new books on the topic published in recent years. If there is a consistent theme running through them it is that feminism in the 21st century has shifted its focus from legal equality to a kind of discrimination that is harder to quantify—and harder to fight.

For example, as shown by recent figures released by the BBC revealing a significant pay gap between male and female journalists doing the same job, 40 years of equal pay legislation has not resulted in equal pay. In 2017, there is still not a single country in the world where women earn the same as men.

There are many reasons for this. Commentators often blame women, pointing to their tendency to pursue lower-paying professions in sectors such as teaching and care work, while men are more likely to choose high-paying jobs in finance and business. Then there is the challenge of child care: the data shows the pay gap widens significantly after women begin to have children, as they suffer from the fallout of taking maternity leave (there was no shared parental leave in the UK until 2015) and the enduring struggle of mothers to balance a full-time career with domestic work—of which they still do the lion’s share.

"Women at the BBC being paid less than men have written an open letter to their boss telling him to get his act together"
There is also the question of implicit bias—the idea that residual but unconscious stereotypes about women affect how they are perceived and treated, making it all but impossible for them to compete on a level playing field with men. Studies have repeatedly shown that the same job applicant with the same CV is less likely to be considered for a role if they have a female name. As Iris Bohnet, director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School, lays out in What Works: Gender Equality by Design (2016), such unconscious bias affects women at all points of their career.

Suggesting to people that they are discriminating against women without realising it can be a difficult conversation to have. One of the strengths of modern feminism has been its boldness in taking on that challenge—even if it means, as women at the BBC have done, writing open letters to their boss telling him to get his act together. Those working in HR are now sometimes trained in issues surrounding unconscious bias and how that can affect their decision-making—a good start, although as Bohnet points out, making people aware of a bias is not usually enough to overcome it.

Equal pay is just one example. From levels of domestic and sexual violence, which a third of European women say they have experienced, to the crushing pressures of sex and beauty standards that Natasha Walter wrote about so forcefully in Living Dolls (2010), to the habit of men to talk down to women, eloquently captured in Rebecca Solnit’s hugely popular essay “Men Explain Things To Me,” a young generation of women are realising that equality in law has not translated into equality in practice.

The great challenge is that sexism today often passes under the radar. In 2012, Laura Bates, then a recent graduate working as a nanny, decided to tackle this with her Everyday Sexism Project. Bates launched a website and social media channels where women could submit individual instances of sexism they had experienced, with the aim of gathering an inescapable body of evidence. No longer could women’s experiences of prejudice and discrimination be brushed away as a “one off” or as a “coincidence.”

The entries flooded in—hundreds of thousands of them from dozens of countries, later collated in her book Everyday Sexism (2014). “I [had] hoped to gather 100 women’s stories, if I was lucky. Instead, it spread like wildfire,” she wrote. “A video-shop cashier, a midwife and a marketing consultant suffered indistinguishable experiences of sexual assault by senior male colleagues. A schoolgirl and a widow reported being pressured and pestered for sex. A reverend in the Church of England was repeatedly asked if there was a man available to perform the wedding or funeral service… A DJ explained how constant harassment and groping had made her dread the job she once loved.”

The amount of sexual aggression experienced by women and girls on a daily basis was also revealed, as thousands of reports came in about being groped and assaulted on public transport, on the streets, at work and at home—leading some feminists to point to an endemic “rape culture” disfiguring relations between men and women.

Bates’s vital project, and others like it, have been enabled by the internet; but the internet has also enabled a backlash. Alongside other women who have become leading voices in the women’s movement, Bates has been sent abuse and violent threats—hundreds of messages a day—revealing the remaining force of opposition to it.

The feminist revival has also sparked a vocal “men’s rights movement,” which argues that men are being forgotten in the march for women’s advancement. Lurking on dark corners of the internet alongside conservative websites such as Breitbart News, they enthusiastically got behind Trump—and led the charge against Hillary Clinton.

Although it took centuries of campaigning to change laws, it now looks as though they may have been easier to shift than minds. But the social, cultural and psychological issues that fourth-wave feminism aims to address are also more complex and harder to grasp—leading to disagreement among feminists over which issues should be prioritised.

Like previous eras of feminist thought, the fourth wave isn’t a homogeneous movement. The organisers of the women’s march said they were campaigning for “those who believe in a world that is equitable, tolerant, just and safe for all, one in which the human rights and dignity of each person is protected”—but there are differences of opinion about what that world might look like. A particular point of contention has been inclusivity. Although the organisers worked hard at this, not everyone was convinced. Some women from ethnic minorities chose not to participate on the grounds that their concerns were not being prioritised. Some transgender women also felt that references to “pussy power”—a reaction against Trump’s bragging—were exclusionary, part of an ongoing bitter debate between feminists such as Germaine Greer who believe that womanhood cannot be “opted into,” and those who take a more flexible approach to gender. (See the Duel, p18)

These questions are part of a broader debate on “intersectionality”—the idea that different groups of women experience oppression in different ways—and the criticism that feminism has often been dominated by the concerns of the privileged. As the target has moved from legal parity to real social equality, debates about what justice for women means and how to achieve it have become ever more difficult to unpick.
"The concept of choice—so central to modern feminism—deserves to be critiqued. We need to understand how these choices were shaped"
For many feminists, the endgame is choice. Women should be free to do whatever they want, without judgment and without facing additional obstacles to men—whether that is climbing to the top of a company, caring for a family at home or posing topless in a magazine. Their aim is not to challenge liberal-capitalist values but to fight for an equal share of the opportunities and wealth they offer them.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Sandberg’s Lean In, a self-help book in which she offers women advice on how to reach the top of the corporate ladder—beating men at their own game.

For the black second-wave feminist thinker known as bell hooks (as a political statement, she prefers not to use capital letters in her name) this is “faux feminism.” Her powerful critique of Lean In notes that Sandberg relies on the tropes of traditional femininity to package her message, and says her white, corporate “feminism” fails to imagine a different kind of world or to build on collective action. Getting more women in the boardroom does little to help the single mother employed to clean the office at night. It is important to remember that the career advantages now enjoyed by more educated women have been made possible by the outsourcing of domestic labour to poorer, often immigrant women. Feminism, for too long, has been dominated by an elite class of women, meaning it has accounted for a relatively narrow range of experiences.

Other liberal feminists have looked at freedom in terms of appearance and sexuality—popularising feminism again by steering it away from its hairy-legged image of the 1970s. In Hot Feminist (2015), journalist Polly Vernon criticised second-wave feminists who believed that “a woman who concerned herself with being pretty was a woman who aspired to please men, rather than herself.” By contrast, she describes herself as a feminist “who cares greatly about the way she looks and greatly about the rights of women,” boasting of wearing leather trousers to work because “their overtly sexy vibe freaks out her male colleagues, rendering them vulnerable.” In this world, anyone can be a feminist—as long as you can afford it.

Anticipating Vernon’s argument in their 2010 book Reclaiming the F-Word, Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune argue that “sexy feminism” fails to challenge the status quo, and reflects the pressure on women to conform to traditional norms of femininity. “Should we go along with this by insisting that feminists can be sexy too,” they ask, “or should we challenge women to refrain from seeing their worth primarily in their sexiness?” In a world in which women are defined by their sexual value, the more radical step is to move away from that framework, rather than try to flip it to your advantage.

Sandberg and Vernon both focus in different ways on individual self-empowerment. This fails to address the underlying structural issues and power imbalances, instead working to promote women within the confines of a man’s world.

More radical voices within the fourth wave—such as Laurie Penny, the author of Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults, and Jessa Crispin, author of Why I am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, both published this year—would agree. For them, though it might help to boost its popularity, feminism should not be comfortable, and it certainly shouldn’t be pretty. These feminists want something closer to a revolution that upends a value system that valorises aggressive male individualism.

“I cannot associate myself with a feminism that focuses dementedly on ‘self-empowerment,’ whose goals include not the full destruction of corporate culture but merely a higher percentage of female CEOs and military officers; a feminism that requires no thought, no discomfort, and no real change,” writes Crispin.

The concept of choice—so central to much modern feminism—deserves to be critiqued. As sociologists have long recognised, the decisions we make as individuals are inseparable from the social, cultural and historical expectations we are raised with.

Take the gender pay gap. It is true that women are over-represented in lower-paying jobs. If women are choosing this work, the argument goes, they are free to do so—it is not a matter of sexism or patriarchy, as long as there is equality of opportunity.

But we must also interrogate why women choose lower-paying jobs. There is a mountain of evidence highlighting how girls are discouraged from pursuing the more lucrative hard science subjects from childhood by endless subtle cues. That includes unconscious bias on the part of teachers and parents. A 2015 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States found that girls outperformed boys in maths at primary school level when their work was marked anonymously, but that the result switched when teachers knew the identity of the children. Over time, those biases cause girls to lose confidence in their abilities.

It also includes the toys they are given and the interests these encourage; as well as the cartoon characters and role models they see in books and on television. For girls, all the messages they receive from a young age suggest that certain paths are not for them.

The faith we put in choice looks shakier when we understand how those choices are shaped. But it is also not as simple as women opting for undervalued work; it is also that such work is undervalued because women do it. Feminists have complained that forms of work deemed “feminine”—such as teaching, care work and domestic work—are underpaid, even compared to jobs involving similar skills in male-dominated fields. A good example is caretakers and cleaners: the skills involved are broadly similar—but caretakers are predominantly male, and earn an average of 22 per cent more than cleaners, according to figures from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics. Researchers have even found that pay within a sector drops when more women enter it. As Tom Schuller points out in this year’s The Paula Principle, the very way we imagine working life has the effect of holding women back. If we imagined a workplace that was less top-down and more horizontal—more flexible, more collaborative—women and men alike would benefit.

Feminism is fighting on many fronts. Like many other political arenas, the internet has both widened and fractured it. Gone are the days when feminist debate was confined to ivory towers—or to those who could afford to publish their ideas. Nowadays, you are more likely to find bloggers and columnists battling it out on Twitter. Such breadth has made it harder to define a coherent feminism for the 21st century—but it has also made space for a greater diversity of voices and perspectives. The strength of debate only serves to underline how alive—and necessary—the movement is.

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