Explaining feminism to a skeptical Dane

Hannah Jewell 1 February 2014

The most common response from male friends to my first column — “A Fourth Feminist Wave?” — was a very clever and witty inquiry as to the progress of my adorable little wave. Good one, guys!

The second most common reaction was a look of fearful bewilderment. It is a scary thing, after all, to realize that there is a self-proclaimed feminist in one’s midst, who may or may not be, you know, super “militant” about it.

And then there was the very nice Danish classmate of mine who asked to talk further about the topic, and suggested that certain situations, such as the implementation of quotas for women in boardrooms, proved that oftentimes women receive unfair advantages in modern society. He told me (very nicely) that he didn’t agree with the term “feminism”, and thought that one should strive for “equality” instead.

Oh dear! Our conversation had hit a stumbling block in the shape of a fundamental misunderstanding of feminism and/or the experience of womanhood. I decided to address his concerns, even though I usually end up quietly miserable at the end of such arguments.

Speaking to this Danish fellow seemed to present a unique challenge. Denmark is a country with the kind of pro-woman policies and non-demeaning representations of women on mainstream television that I, as an American, could only dream of. Or download illegally online.

Oh Danish man: I thought if I could explain the need for feminism to you, hailing from such a nice, lefty country as Denmark, then I could explain it to anyone. And since my argument the other day was cut off by my wanting to eat my sandwich, I have continued it here in writing.

Regarding the preference of “equality” to “feminism”: I have never thought of feminism as a project to replace the existing patriarchy with a highly repressive matriarchal political/economic/social/religious system in which men are cajoled into subservience by violent women who have come to believe over thousands of years in the righteousness of their dominance. All of that sounds like far too much effort. Rather, I consider feminism to be the means by which that elusive end goal of “equality” is achieved.

For example, the point of a quota system for increasing female participation in board rooms is not to unfairly advantage women over men, but to remove some of the unfair advantage that men already have in the old boys’ clubs of big business boardrooms. Such quotas are already a reality in Norway (and only Norway), which is aiming for 40% female boards, while in Britain some have suggested a voluntary target of 25%, to be reached over many years. The current figure here is about 17%, according to a report on the FTSE 100 last year.

Meanwhile, women continue receive unequal wages at all levels of employment, whether they are paid in dollars, pounds, or Krones.  (The EU’s “eurostat” website has good information on this, if you’d rather learn this sad fact from a bar graph.)

In our discussion, the Kindly Dane did in fact describe this pay gap as a “disgrace”. But here’s the thing: The phenomenon of unequal pay does not come about in a vacuum, but is the result of a world of unspoken prejudices and assumptions about women that devalue their work, keep them from board rooms, and subject them to experiences of “everyday” sexism.

At this point, I could hardly believe the amount of time and energy I had put into trying to explain the need for feminism to a random classmate, even days after our conversation had ended. But when respectful, well-intentioned, Kindly Danes (or equivalents) haven’t spotted the sexism all around them, it’s somehow even more distressing than the sexist bellowings of an irredeemable misogynist.