When Donald Trump was elected president last year feminists the world over despaired. Here was a man who thought nothing of demeaning women, especially those with the temerity to stand-up to him, who’d even been caught on tape bragging about using his fame as a cover for engaging in acts that bordered on—if not actually constituted—sexual assault. Not only that, US voters had opted for this deeply unpleasant man over a far more qualified female candidate in Hilary Clinton. For anyone who cared about the cause of women’s empowerment, this was a thoroughly depressing development. All the more so when Trump’s openness to rolling back access to abortion and other hard-won rights was factored in. An unashamedly regressive neo-chauvinism appeared to be on the rise, with decades of progress in its sights.
Fast forward a year, however, and we find a counter reaction of sorts. It’s almost as if, in face of the insult to their dignity that the election of an unreconstructed sexist to the most powerful post in international politics represented, women around the world have put their foot down and said enough is finally enough. For too long a blind eye has been turned to predatory men, especially figures of authority who’ve exploited their status in order to intimidate, harass and molest with impunity. Inappropriate behaviour—inappropriately sexualised and/or misogynistic language, wandering hands, stuff like that—has been brushed off as innocent banter and boys just being boys. At the same time instances of rape and other sexual crimes have been covered-up. And in many cases repeated offences have been something of an open secret, as serial abusers have gone unreported and unpunished for years—and sometimes even decades—on end. You don’t want to rock the boat, isolated young women have been told. It’ll only hurt you.
No more, however: Whether it be sleazy Hollywood executives, perverted politicians, or the kind of run-of-the-mill harassment women routinely face while going about their daily business, no sphere of life appears exempt from scrutiny. No longer will what women are forced to endure day in and day out be allowed to hide in plain view. A reckoning is happening. Heads will roll. Heads are rolling. The chickens have come home to roost as all manner of questionable male behaviour now finds itself under the spotlight. It’s a watershed moment, without question. Indeed in time this will perhaps come to be seen as the point at which fourth-wave feminism, hitherto still somewhat inchoate, began to reach maturity.
That is, where first-wave feminism was focused on political freedoms, full suffrage in particular. Second-wave, on workplace, sexual and reproductive rights. And third-wave on shattering glass ceilings along with the rather more esoteric subjects of identity and language. Fourth-wave feminism looks set to be a political and social paradigm above all defined by a zero-tolerance approach towards the kind of constant crap, big and small, that women have to deal with, merely on account of being born with a vagina. In this respect, if successful in its aims, the current wave may eventually pave the way for the ultimate negation of feminism. For with ever more women in positions of power, public life especially, and with social media providing an easily accessible and hugely influential platform from which to expose sexism in its many guises, it seems humanity is finally arriving at the point at which violence towards and subjugation of one half of the species is no longer tolerated in any way, shape or form.
In the short-term this new world will have its birth pangs. The winds of change will doubtless leave many men (and women?) feeling deeply uncomfortable. And forced to look deep inside themselves, to question their own attitudes and actions as well as those of their family, friends and colleagues, at times the pushback will be most visceral. However in the end it will all be worth it. Assuredly so. Because not until men and women are two sides of the same coin, afforded the same privileges, status and regard, will humanity truly be able to reach its full potential.