interview and photos by Nikki Fenix

edited by Karin Hesselvik

A "Feminism 101" lesson with fellow pom pom mom and professor Vail Fletcher on how we can move forward in the Fourth Wave, what to do WITH #metoo and THE IMPORTANCE OF getting political.  

Vail Fletcher PhD  is joint professor of Communication and Gender and Women Studies, University of Portland; author and farm owner.  Her research explores the intersections of conflict, culture, and identity.

Vail Fletcher PhD is joint professor of Communication and Gender and Women Studies, University of Portland; author and farm owner.  Her research explores the intersections of conflict, culture, and identity.

What are the 4 waves of feminism? 

The four waves of feminism are not neat and tidy understandings of the women’s rights movement; rather they provide us with a historical sense of where we have been and perhaps help us make sense of where we might be going. That is to say, there are not clear beginnings and ends to each wave of our work to decolonize our minds and bodies.

The First Wave - Suffrage

This is largely about suffrage, really started in many ways with the French Revolution in 1789 and lasted until the 19th amendment – allowing women in the United States to vote and access to property rights – passed in 1920. It is, of course, not exclusively about women in the United States, not by any means. Women on every corner of the globe have been working on their own liberation for hundreds and hundreds of years.

The Second Wave - The Personal Is Political

This took distinctive shape in the 1960’s and 1970’s and its rallying call was the slogan “the personal is political.” The Second Wave was about the body and the workplace. Women wanted more agency around how to use their body and how to use their labor, and here is where we see performance take a strong political hold for women’s rights (think: bra burning). It was at this time that the movement very clearly merged with the Civil Rights movement, the Black Power Movement, Lesbian and Gay rights movement, Student rights, and the anti-Vietnam war sentiment. And general protests against capitalism and imperialism. 

The Third Wave - Tackling Sexual Harrasment + Understanding Intersectionality

Third Wave feminism emerged in the 1980’s and 1990’s and focused heavily on tackling violence against women, including rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. There is also a turn to intersectionality, and an understanding that feminism is plural (feminisms) since it can harnessed in divergent ways in women’s lives. Attention also starts to be paid to transnational activism: sex trafficking, self-mutilation, body surgery, pornofication.  

The Fourth Wave - Where We Are Now

Many argue that we entered the Fourth Wave in or around 2008 and here we remain. The Fourth Wave helps us tackle sexual inequality as manifested in "street harassment, sexual harassment, workplace discrimination...”body-shaming"; media images, "online misogyny”, “assault(s) on public transport”; on intersectionality; on social media technology for communication and online petitioning for organizing; and on the perception, inherited from prior waves, that individual experiences are shared and thus can have political solutions.

Social Activist Tarana Burke who coined the term MeToo over 10 years ago (image source Just Be Inc.)

Social Activist Tarana Burke who coined the term MeToo over 10 years ago (image source Just Be Inc.)

Regarding #metoo (the phrase coined by Tarana Burke), can you talk about how we got here?

Such a simple and complicated question. I think this movement has been building for a long time. Although it feels sudden and swift to many, perhaps especially for men, this tipping point is just that: the eruption of a growing storm. To me, #metoo is the result of society moving from “individual knowledge” (e.g., something I personally have experienced) to “collective knowledge” (something I now know did not just happen to me, but it happens to many others). The collective knowledge is crucial to people feeling empowered to act and speak. We now know we are not alone. I think this is a beautiful and painful moment in our history, but I am also quite nervous because these accounts of sexual harassment and rape and assault are not actually news to us. In 1991, almost 30 years ago, Anita Hill’s televised testimony stated that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her. This was right before he was to be sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice. He was not found guilty and indeed sworn in, despite the evidence. Rebecca Walker responded to this debacle in Ms. Magazine in 1992:



“So I write this as a plea to all women, especially women of my generation: Let Thomas’ confirmation serve to remind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over. Let this dismissal of a woman's experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don't prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives.” 


WOW, right? This exact thing just happened again in the 2016 Presidential election. And we still elected a known sexual predator to the highest position in our country. So, simply put: we got here from hundreds of years of patriarchal rule and it will likely take us much longer still to gain parity and undue our oppression. The hardest part for me will be decolonizing my own way of thinking. That is the most effective forms of oppression: just tell someone what they are for so long that they believe it passionately enough that they hold themselves down. Every time I shave my armpits or think about whether I am pretty, I know I am doing the work of my own oppression.


There are many layers to sexual harassment + abuse in our society.  How do we navigate this new paradigm?

I don’t know if it is important or particularly useful to think of sexual misconduct in a layered way. In some ways, I think it should become more black and white. For me, to make an argument for more dichotomy is an odd choice since I spend so much time trying to move away from oversimplified ways of thinking. But because men hold so much more power in our culture, they have the ability to abuse and harass us without there being much intent. The intentions, however, are nearly irrelevant: outcomes are how we must judge and/or measure our progress. 



What's the best way to address this with our men: our partners, our friends, and our sons? 


The low hanging fruit: I think our families and communities would benefit from dialogue and listening, and we would certainly benefit from seeing sexual harassment as absolutely pervasive and ubiquitous. You would struggle to find a woman who has not suffered some form of patriarchal oppression (even if she cannot personally name it).

Second, women must be believed. Women must be believed. Women must be believed.

Third, I agree with bell hooks’ claim that if we are to end our oppression we must address male pain. This is so crucial. If we want to understand how and why men abuse women, and other men, we must look at our families first. This is where so much of the damage is done. What are the ways we treat little boys differently than little girls? Why do we nurture empathy and care in our girls and competition and fighting in our boys? There is some data that suggests that the cycle begins before birth, in the womb, when we talk about sex and gender. And little boys are weaned on average earlier than little girls. And then, in every single age frame (0-4, 5-8, 9-13, etc), boys and men die at a higher rate. Sure, we can talk about nature, but if we really want to change the oppression of women, we must first talk about the oppression of men. I feel we can only free ourselves if we free our boys and men.

And because I am an eco-feminist, I don’t think we can preserve our natural world until we free men either. Climate change and the sixth mass extinction cannot be stopped until we address violence in our human societies. No better example exists beyond our failed prisons and judiciary system. We have a lot of work ahead.

How do we move forward, change the current patterns and struggle for ourselves and for our children?

I am glad you used the word ‘struggle’ first, since that is really what I feel we must do: we must struggle. I don’t have a lot of answers, but there are a couple things I think might help: We must get political. I think the single greatest change we can make in our lives and our communities is to run for political office.

Nine out of every 10 volunteers are women. Volunteering is essential work, perhaps the greatest gift of human generosity, but women must also get into positions of political power. We cannot volunteer our time if it means we are not running for office. We cannot volunteer our time if it means we have a large wage gap. We cannot give away our labor if it means we do not get 12 months of paid maternity leave. We cannot donate our labor to attend to the massive care gaps created by poor leadership if it means our children will not have healthcare. We cannot volunteer our time when our police is being militarized in front of our eyes. We cannot give our labor to causes while men tweet about nuclear war. If we really want better education for our children, we can volunteer at their schools but we must also be in the positions that make systematic changes about better funding for schools.


Finally, we need to take care of ourselves. Self-care won’t change the world, per se, but it will help us be better at creating change when the moment arises. #naps #baths #loveyourbody #getavibrator


If you want to keep reading + learning, check out the following authors/resources and suggested reading from Dr. Fletcher (Feminist Book Club anyone??):

1. Mostly anything by bell hooks, but especially “Understanding Patriarchy” (4-page primer)

2. Gloria Anzaldúa  (Chicana Studies, Feminist Theory, Queer Studies)

3. Donna Haraway (Technology Studies, Cyborg Manifesto, Human-Animal)

4. Angela Davis (African American Studies, Feminist Studies, Prison-Industrial Complex)

5. Jon Krakauer’s “Missoula is an excellent, easy read about rape culture on college campuses