Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Fourth Wave of Feminism


Sally Armstrong opened an afternoon trifecta of empowering women’s authors and speakers with a glimpse into her newest book Power Shift: The Longest Revolution. Armstrong's readings from the book, which is based on her 2019 CBC Massey Lectures, left the audience gasping, nodding, and at a loss for words at times. The renowned Canadian journalist, documentary filmmaker, and human rights activist sometimes called ‘La Talibanista’ or “the war correspondent for the world's women” filled the room with wholeheartedness, unapologetic fierceness, and faith in the gradual progress of feminism. 


Armstrong’s commitment to authenticity in writing and reporting resonated in every word and anecdote she generously shared with her audience. She once had to hire a man, “a bearded turbaned Danny DeVito,” to accompany her to go to Afghanistan, otherwise she would have been refused an entry visa. While in Sarajevo reporting on the impact of the war on children in the Balkans, Armstrong came across a horrifying story about gang rapes of 20 000 women as old as eighty and girls as young as eight, and handed it off to an international news agency. To her shock and disappointment, Newsweek published a mere four-line write-up. As it turns out, nobody wanted a women-only story. Armstrong went back and wrote it anyway, and just one year ago the grandchildren of one of the victims she had interviewed, Eva Penavic, reached out to her to say they persist in the search for justice for their grandmother even though the perpetrators are now too old and ill to be tried. Armstrong’s response: “the perpetrators are guilty.” 


Armstrong is a woman of bold claims, including “women invented agriculture,” “the earth is shifting under the status of women,” and “women were not illiterate.” In 2012, a British anthropologist discovered that blue stains on the teeth of a German nun’s skeleton dating to sometime between 997 and 1162 A.D. were in fact from lapis lazuli, a deep-blue metamorphic rock used by ancient scribes. Further examination showed that many of the books stored in monasteries and supposedly written exclusively by monks were, in fact, written by nuns. 


Recognizing that women’s history has been flawed from the start and left women out on the sidelines, Armstrong vows to overturn the unfair status quo. After the suffrage, the 1960s, and Hill-Thomas sexual harassment case in the 90s, we are now on the threshold of the fourth wave of feminism ushered in in 2012 by social media, the narrative of inclusion and intersectionality, and hashtag feminism. The hope for a more equal future rests in social movements that start within and are rooted in personal will. “Goodness comes from people looking out for each other. Our voice is the most powerful tool. We have to be willing to say, ‘that’s not OK.’”


Moreover, Armstrong asserts,“inequality is costing a fortune. Violence against women costs us $1.3 trillion a year.” A fellow male journalist, an editor at Newsweek, once accused her of “always going on and on about the women.” Well, I think we should be admiring and praising her for it. I hope she never stops.