IWD: Welcome to the 4th wave of feminism

6 March 2018

In a now infamous interview President Trump said "No, I wouldn't say I'm a feminist. That would be, maybe, going too far. I'm for women. I'm for men. I'm for everyone. I think people have to go out ... and they have to win. And women are doing great, and I'm happy about that."

This outraged me but also made me think – what is feminism?

The Oxford Dictionary definition is “the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”. So it’s about equality, not about being for one sex or the other. In this blog I want to explore the history of feminism and what it means to me to be a feminist in 2018.

While the #metoo and #TimesUp movements have no doubt caused a shift in the national debate over the last year, I fear it’s easy for some to dismiss these movements as Hollywood glamorised campaigns which are currently en vogue. To be completely honest, although I support the sentiment behind them 100%, I am getting a bit weary of these campaigns myself now. This is because I fear they have become sensationalist and on occasion seemed to imply that only feminists have the right to be appalled by the stories of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment that have come to light, despite this behaviour being recognised as abhorrent by society and hence criminalised. I also think that those of us who work with women every day and who know intelligent, high achieving, brilliant, warm women sometimes forget the relevance of feminism and how very recent this visibility is.

We have been reminded on the centenary anniversary that some women first got the vote in 1918. I think it’s easy to forget, however, that I would not have been permitted to do my job less than 100 years ago (see the great blog by Laura A woman is not a “person” within the meaning of the Solicitors Act 1843. A review of Bebb v The Law Society [1914] 1 Ch. 286) and that it was recognised that women should be paid the same wage for doing the same work as recently as 1971. These are just two examples of how recent some of the things we take for granted are.

It is widely accepted that the feminist movement historically in the UK can be distilled into three ‘waves’. The suffragist and suffragette movement towards the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century which was focused on women being granted the right to vote, the second wave rooted in the civil rights movement and focussed on sexual liberation in the 1960s/70s and the third wave in the 1980s/90s which sought to shift the perception of gender, expose female (and male) stereotypes and be more inclusive of all women. It is also widely accepted that we are now firmly in the throes of the 4th wave of feminism.

A brief diversion to make the distinction between suffragist and suffragette. The suffragists were women who campaigned for women’s suffrage, that is, the right to vote in political elections. They were led by Millicent Fawcett and believed they could achieve their aims peacefully, by petitioning and lobbying. The suffragettes stemmed from the suffragist movement and were led by Emmeline Pankhurst. They believed that the vote should be extended to all women, not just the middle class, and that more militant tactics were needed to achieve their aims. These two campaigns worked together and it is both of them which are credited with winning women’s right to vote.

As the suffragist vs suffragette movements so clearly demonstrate, feminism has had many different forms and many different priorities historically, so what does it mean today? 

To me it means a number of things. It means recognising that our societies are rooted in patriarchy (this is fact, I don’t think there can be any doubt about this) and asking ourselves what this means for women now. I am not advocating a fundamental departure from society as we know it, I am advocating trying to think differently and occasionally asking whether we are doing something (or indeed not doing something) just because it is tradition, or because ‘that’s just the way it is’, rather than because it is the best way. I suppose I am asking that we think about equality actively (and not just about gender equality), even if sometimes it makes us uncomfortable or we don’t feel that we have the right language for it. I am advocating open conversation, between everyone and not just women (see Maeve's blog on male feminists ‘Male feminists’ – controversial, contradictory or comrades in the fight for gender equality?).

The aim of feminism is equality of the sexes, it is not a dirty word and everyone who believes we should work towards gender parity is a feminist. We should be relaxed about using the word and celebrate how far we have come. My own mum, who went to university in the early 1970s and studied chemistry (I know, cool right?!) was taken to one side at the conclusion of her degree and told that she might consider teaching as a profession that might suit her, as a woman. I don’t think this would happen today, but we do need to recognise that there is a lot still to be achieved. The gender pay gap still exists (the deadline for businesses to report specific figures about their gender pay gap is looming), women are still under-represented in politics and on boards, professions which are traditionally female are often undervalued, and I could go on. Recognising and discussing these things should not be a drag or embarrassing, it should just be a problem that we need to solve.

Feminism for me is about choice. It’s about being able to be a working mum without feeling any guilt (see Kate’s blog IWD: For the guilty working mother), or a stay at home mum (or indeed dad) without feeling guilt; about being free to make your own choices; about being heard and your voice counting as much as men’s voices; about being able to dress in a way that pleases you. For me, it is also about having control over your own body, but that is the subject of another blog. More than anything, feminism needs to be inclusive and respectful. Inclusive of all women, regardless of colour, sexual orientation or income and supportive of other women – everyone’s choices are different. I was slightly horrified by the criticism that Jennifer Lawrence received for wearing a revealing dress for a chilly photo shoot earlier this year. Her retort “…Over-reacting about everything someone says or does, creating controversy over silly innocuous things such as what I choose to wear or not wear, is not moving us forward. It's creating silly distractions from real issues. Get a grip people. Everything you see me wear is my choice…” I think was quite fitting. Let’s not be distracted by what someone chooses to wear, let’s remember the point and all work together. Let’s also forgive others and ourselves for ideological mistakes we may have made and be prepared to debate openly and have our minds changed. I can’t think of a better day to do this than International Women’s Day.

So let’s embrace the 4th wave of feminism and help shape it.


IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.

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