Kyle Martin from USA, who has been living in Estonia for six years, wrote to us about the conversations he has had about feminism here.
“We have no need for feminism in Estonia, our language doesn’t have things like policewoman or policeman,” a man told me during a master’s level philosophy seminar discussion in Tartu. And in conversation with a bright bachelor’s student, I mentioned that line, and voiced my sadness for the lack of common agreement and push for broad feminist understanding in Estonia; and she responded: “I don’t understand why we need feminism, we should be looking for equality, not to tear men down.” This surprised me, and pointed to a more fundamental problem at work here.
As someone raised in the States, a basic awareness of feminism has disseminated through the whole of the culture, it’s woven into the fabric of daily life, in small ways. This is not to say the nation is full of radical activism, which we all know is extremely far from the truth, but rather the impact of radical feminism in the past has impacted the fabric of the society in such a way as to make permanent its presence. Even if one doesn’t have explicit knowledge of the radical feminists who fought and organized over the years, there is an indelible mark of their involvement in significant everyday laws and policies. Laws like Title VII in the Civil Rights Act protecting against employment discrimination, or Title IX laws regarding educational access have become household shorthand for basic protections.
However, this history didn’t make permanent or essential the widespread adoption of feminist policy and radicalism. Its century of longevity in the public eye and minute, wearying, drip-fed progress has revealed a (new, additional) opposing edge to the sword. Reactionary opposition to feminism, in the States, can (among other rhetorical means), point to a kind of anachronism in the continued push for feminist policy. Arguing that feminism has achieved its goal, that it’s a relic of the past; now that women are clearly liberated from the regressive misogyny of pre-Industrial family and social organization, there is no use nor need for it to exist today.
This is not true, of course, as social organization is only one small facet of the feminist aim and goal, and even this is only just notably impacted— not fully overcome. But when you have a society, such as ours, with neoliberal ideology as its driving force and core, the impulse to reductively assess everything and anyone’s position from solely the viewpoint of capital and property —at the exclusion of every other aspect of society— someone determined to do so can be convinced that feminism has reached the end of its effectiveness. That the ultimate position of privilege one can have is to be able to stand among the ranks of the most powerful men.
But this is not liberation, this is convenience; this is the willful ignorance of the distinct challenges faced by the few women who “made it,” and of the intersectional web of burdens faced by those most vulnerable or disadvantaged which condemn them to a lifetime of subsistence struggle.
Okay, that’s fine. But what does that have to do with Estonia?
Estonia has done a truly incredible job of transitioning out of the centralized economy of the Soviet Union, and reproducing domestically the most significant aspects of neoliberalism established in Europe and the US during that time. In doing so, and in assessing progress along the same reduction I outlined previously, it has made astonishing progress in “catching up” to the hegemonies it has been welcomed into.
This fact plays to the benefit of anti-feminist reactionaries; they can point to the presence of women in the workforce or the government, or the generous (relative to the US, anyway) maternity and women’s health policies, and gesture at some sort of false through-line of liberated women unbroken in Estonia’s culture and society that’s been ongoing for as long as women were working and the genderless language existed.
But this only works in the context of judging society in Estonia along the parameters and histories unique to the neoliberal nations from which Estonia is importing its governing ideology. It is a shortcut to excuse oneself from the more lengthy and strenuous demands of a shift in culture, relative to a shift in government or policy. If women are already just as or more “equal” in Estonia than they are in the “West,” why should their feminism be a concern?
Because feminism is not one single unified practice or ideology. It does not have a guidebook or checklist of demands and achievements that reflect a kind of universal standard; it is a unique dialectical experience for each culture, each nation. It provides insight into how people, from the individual to the body politic, to understand and diagnose the unique ways in which their society has created a meaningful and damaging semantic division between men and women, and differential preference to patriarchal orientation. And in doing so, to confront and dismantle these structures and relational powers, to the betterment and progress of the whole of a nation.
This all comes to mean that Estonia’s feminism, or any nation’s feminism, falls apart when held up to the material circumstance of another. The US, and Western Europe’s imperial powers, have dominated and shaped feminist discourse in such as way as to appear to export a standard or model of progress, but this is not true, and it is unfortunate. The US’ history, and the history of England or France or Germany, is not the history of Estonia. The struggles that their women fought are not the same as the ones women are fighting here (with the exception of the ones inherent in the neoliberalism that’s been adopted, each nation still has yet to overcome).
I don’t presume to diagnose the national character of Estonia’s need for feminism, but I can provide assurance that any victories or advantages over the fraught cultural struggles of the “West” are just thin obstacles working against regression, not an end of themselves. It is our responsibility to take advantage of these small benefits which allow women to be marginally more present, and address systemic cultural needs to the benefit of everyone within it, both men and women. The work has already started— and feminism, Estonia’s own feminism, is fundamental to the development of absolute equity within each constituent part of our society.