TUESDAY, DECEMBER 6, 2005
COPENHAGEN On the surface, women have never been stronger and more powerful.
In the United States, the idea of a female commander in chief no longer
seems so far-fetched. In some Nordic countries, almost half the members
of Parliament are female. And shows like "Sex and the City" have conquered
viewers worldwide with their take on equality and sex. And yet the legacy
of the feminist revolution, which enabled the rise of strong women and
sensitive men, is under scrutiny these days.
Studies from the United States and Scandinavia, where gender equality has progressed the furthest, show that many women find it hard to fuse their high-flying careers with raising a family, and, consequently, they back down from having a professional life - some even before they've started one. In Sweden, for years the poster country for equality between the sexes, a new feminist party gained enormous momentum last year by objecting to the increase in violence against women and the gap between women's and men's salaries. This autumn, however, the feminist initiative fell into disarray after the movement embarked on a radical direction, rendering negative feelings that some have dubbed an antifeminist backlash.
A similar backlash has now hit neighboring Denmark, too. Denmark is one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, where paternal leave is becoming increasingly popular and 75 percent of women have jobs. Yet in a new book, 12 prominent and influential women - artists, intellectuals and politicians - from the golden age of feminism in the '60s and '70s wonder whether gender-equality has gone too far. The women interviewed in "What Life Has Taught Me," by Ninka-Bernadette Mauritson warn against "totalitarian feminism," which they think might wreck harmony between the sexes: Men need to be men and women, women, they now say. Some of the women regret their earlier militant insistence that men should be soft and sensitive and want back the prefeminist "real man."
A good life is a life with a man who is unabashedly a man, according to this group of feminists born around 1945.
Their generation spent their 20s burning bras, dumping high heels and crashing buses while paying only 80 percent of the fare - since women were paid less then. Now they say they want men with broad-shouldered attitudes, men who can admire them and whom they can look up to - even from the high heels that are back in vogue. Take the singer Trille Nielsen, for example. She achieved superstar status in the '70s by singing "Hey Sister" with a hoarse voice. Today she says: "I've reached the point where I'm no longer afraid of or irritated with men who are proud of their masculinity."
A Danish former first lady and member of Parliament, Lone Dybkjaer, dispatches her husband, the former socialist Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, to their empty, chilly summer cottage with a toolbox. There he can be a handy he-man with only birds and rustic floors to distract him. "He has a whole world of construction projects and tools," the former first lady says with an amused smile. Earlier feminists defined freedom as dividing up all housework, which served to engage men in child care and housework and pushed women toward becoming tough professionals. But Dybkjaer concludes that "there is a freedom in having these spaces on our own. I have read men saying that they feel driven into a corner; they feel they don't have any room at home. It's not like that at our house. Poul takes up quite some space." She thinks the wise woman lets her man play macho - and that only then can she be a real woman.
Anne Braad, a well-known cleric in Copenhagen, thinks that she feminized her husband into obscurity and may have made him a caricature of himself. "He was womanly, approaching the motherly. There he was, shaking up the pillows in the living room, looking after the children and calling me when he wasn't at home to make sure I had put Band-Aids on the kids." Roles were completely switched in Braad's marriage. "And that was a huge mistake," she says today.
Braad blames her divorce on this exchange of roles. She now suspects that she threw her husband right into the arms of a much younger woman, where his battered manhood could be restored.
Other earlier feminists interviewed in the book also assert that gender equality can be stifling. "It is good to have a man you can look up too," the actress and writer Anne Marie Helger says. And Etta Cameron, a singer, claims: "All men that we meet teach us something. If you're wise, you accept that knowledge."
A famous feminist slogan from the '70s said, "The private is political." It still is, some of the feminists declare. Braad sees the equality debate today as about women wanting even more power: "Men are hardly allowed to present their points of view or raise their voices without feminists crying out."
Having listened to one woman after the other deplore differences lost in the name of freedom - it's freeing to reach Lillian Knudsen, former head of the women's union in Denmark. She has herself greatly improved women's working conditions and pays more attention to what is gained than what is lost. Equal pay and equal power in public and private spheres are still distant dreams, even up here in the north. Yet in the World Economic Forum's new gender gap index launched in May, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Finland ranked one through five among several nations in female economic participation and opportunity, political empowerment, educational attainment and access to health care. Knudsen says she adopted "manly behavior" to reach the top and suspects that she had no choice.
Her generation of women had to establish networks from those old schools, like men - to lobby, push and conduct cloakroom politics over drinks late at night - like the opposite sex, Knudsen says.
And Maria Marcus, a writer and television-journalist notorious in the '70s for a tell-all book about her masochism, says that the not-yet-subtle notions of the equality movement ravaged old ways while it infused women with new life chances: "We started raising question marks because the starting point was discontent with the roles and structure."
Another strong voice that epitomizes the feminist movement here is the writer Suzanne Brogger. In 1974 the feminist madonna, famous for her huge hats, untamability and candid statements, published the book "Free Us from Love," which bulldozed the notions of marriage and family and was translated into 20 languages. And then she ended up in - marriage. Does Brogger want to declare the death of the soft man these days?
"The thrill is gone when it comes to mating, that's true; the electricity level is on low. But the dream of the 'strong man's' comeback is mere fantasy," she asserts.
Feminists knew from the start that the women's revolt would threaten male supremacy and upset the erotic scene, even ruin it, Brogger says. "That was the price. You don't change 2,500 years of female oppression in a summer holiday or a generation or two. We are still longing for the fully developed human potential in both men and women in all spheres of life, private and public." And in the meantime? "Women might want - not a sentimental macho," Brogger says, "but a bright man with a sense of humor who can make us laugh."
Louise S. Nissen is a Danish journalist and former U.S. correspondent.