Paulina Porizkova on Feminism in America
Women’s rights and roles differ significantly around the world. The cultural diversity of the U.S. population means that women may share everyday struggles; however, their experiences are vastly different. This is why the umbrella of "women’s rights" is so broad, complex and, at times, divisive. One fact does remain. In the U.S., women’s rights seem to be in a constant in a state of flux and dictated by whoever is in power. To quote feminist legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw, “the power of men to decide what the world is going to look like, what counts and what doesn’t, hasn’t really been terribly disrupted in a generation.”
In 2017 Paulina Porizkova contributed an insightful opinion piece to the NYT that discussed her experiences as a woman - an immigrant, a working woman, a wife and a mother - who has lived in countries with very different deeply-rooted societal norms. She draws attention to the uncertain and contradictory idea of what it is to be a feminist (especially today) as well as, perhaps most poignantly, she emphasizes the need for women to proactively reclaim the term "feminist" and see it as a role that can facilitate positive change.
America Made Me a Feminist, by Paulina Porizkova.
I used to think the word “feminist” reeked of insecurity. A woman who needed to state that she was equal to a man might as well be shouting that she was smart or brave. If you were, you wouldn’t need to say it. I thought this because back then, I was a Swedish woman.
I was 9 when I first stepped into a Swedish school. Freshly arrived from Czechoslovakia, I was bullied by a boy for being an immigrant. My one friend, a tiny little girl, punched him in the face. I was impressed. In my former country, a bullied girl would tattle or cry. I looked around to see what my new classmates thought of my friend’s feat, but no one seemed to have noticed. It didn’t take long to understand that in Sweden, my power was suddenly equal to a boy’s.
In Czechoslovakia, women came home from a long day of work to cook, clean and serve their husbands. In return, those women were cajoled, ignored and occasionally abused, much like domestic animals. But they were mentally unstable domestic animals, like milk cows that could go berserk you if you didn’t know exactly how to handle them.
In Sweden, the housekeeping tasks were equally divided. Soon my own father was cleaning and cooking as well. Why? He had divorced my mother and married a Swedish woman.
As high school approached, the boys wanted to kiss us and touch us, and the girls became a group of benevolent queens dispensing favors. The more the boys wanted us, the more powerful we became. When a girl chose to bestow her favors, the lucky boy was envied and celebrated. Slut shaming? What’s a slut?
Condoms were provided by the school nurse without question. Sex education taught us the dangers of venereal diseases and unwanted pregnancy, but it also focused on fun stuff like masturbation. For a girl to own her sexuality meant she owned her body, she owned herself. Women could do anything men did, but they could also — when they chose to — bear children. And that made us more powerful than men. The word “feminist” felt antiquated; there was no longer a use for it.
When I moved to Paris at 15 to work as a model, the first thing that struck me was how differently the men behaved. They opened doors for me, they wanted to pay for my dinner. They seemed to think I was too delicate, or too stupid, to take care of myself.
Instead of feeling celebrated, I felt patronized. I claimed my power the way I had learned in Sweden: by being sexually assertive. But Frenchmen don’t work this way. In discos, I’d set my eye on an attractive stranger, and then dance my way over to let him know he was a chosen one. More often than not, he fled. And when he didn’t run, he asked how much I charged.
In France, women did have power, but a secret one, like a hidden stiletto knife. It was all about manipulation: the sexy vixen luring the man to do her bidding. It wasn’t until I reached the United States, at 18, and fell in love with an American man that I truly had to rearrange my cultural notions.
It turned out most of America didn’t think of sex as a healthy habit or a bargaining tool. Instead, it was something secret. If I mentioned masturbation, ears went red. Orgasms? Men made smutty remarks, while women went silent. There was a fine line between the private and the shameful. A former gynecologist spoke of the weather when doing a pelvic exam, as if I were a Victorian maiden who’d rather not know where all my bits were.
In America, a woman’s body seemed to belong to everybody but herself. Her sexuality belonged to her husband, her opinion of herself belonged to her social circles, and her uterus belonged to the government. She was supposed to be a mother and a lover and a career woman (at a fraction of the pay) while remaining perpetually youthful and slim. In America, important men were desirable. Important women had to be desirable. That got to me.
In the Czech Republic, the nicknames for women, whether sweet or bitter, fall into the animal category: little bug, kitten, old cow, swine. In Sweden, women are rulers of the universe. In France, women are dangerous objects to treasure and fear. For better or worse, in those countries, a woman knows her place.
But the American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it. In adapting myself to my new country, my Swedish ‘woman power’ began to wilt. I joined the women around me who were struggling to do it all, and failing miserably. I now have no choice but to pull the word “feminist” out of the dusty drawer and polish it up.
My name is Paulina Porizkova, and I am a feminist.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on June 11, 2017, on Page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: America Made Me a Feminist.
Introduction by Linda Mateljan