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America Made Me a Feminist

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 sexuality 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 former supermodel, is the author of the novel "A Model Summer."


 Santa Monica

Thank you for this truly spot on piece. I admired your beauty as a child but the words you've written here are far more impressive. Having spent years in scandanvia, I wholeheartedly agree that there is nothing more impressive than the Nordic woman - confident, proud and comfortable with who she is - they are a sight to behold and I envied them. They don't ask for a seat at the table - they expect it. They demand what's rightfully theirs professionally and personally. And the men respect them and treat them simply as their equal, unquestionably. How novel. I hope to raise my daughters to be and think like a Swedish woman and demand American society adapt accordingly.


 New York

Excellent writing. Powerful and confident.

I am a French woman living in the US and can relate to a lot of your feelings in the US. I always thought that the secrecy on sexuality is just very sad. As is the latent competition between women.

Luckily things in France have changed greatly. My nieces and their compagnons behavior as equal partners. The new Macron administration, with an equal number of women and men, will help continue this trend.

I am a proud feminist.


 Portland, Or

Wonderful - thank you for a different view. As a 67 year old American woman who has embraced feminism since the age of 17, I celebrate our progress of the last 50 years while lamenting how far we still have to go. It is refreshing and illuminating to learn how it feels for women in different countries. Maybe I should spend my golden years in France or Sweden!


 Los Angeles

Soooo accurate analysis of Swedish and French (and American) cultural attitudes toward women! I'm an American and lived in Sweden and was married to a Swede, and have lived in France and had a serious relationship with a Frenchman, and I agree 100% with everything you say. Sweden was heaven for me as a woman (the Swede and I divorced but are still good friends). The Frenchman was a nightmare largely because of how he perceived me as a woman (so bad I haven't dated since and that was five years ago, and we are not friends, needless to say). And America is where my career is and it's a constant struggle to be taken seriously!

As an American woman I have always considered myself feminist though because I was a kid in the 70s during the women's movement and it made a deep impression on me. There was a reaction against that in the 80s and 90s, but hopefully we'll see a comeback on a deeper more embedded level like it exists in Sweden. Voices like yours can help give people a perspective. Bravo and thank you!



Objectively, American women are treated worse than Swedish women on many measures. Americans die in childbirth at alarming rates. American women have very limited political representation, and female lawmakers are often publicly berated and demeaned. In Sweden, half the parliament is made up of Women. American women are paid significantly less than men even though they are better educated than their male counterparts. In America, there is no childcare system, and no paid family leave. Since there is also no heathcare system, having a baby is the single largest cause of poverty. The best opportunities in academia, science, math, business, politics, the media and the military are for all intents and purposes earmarked by men for men. A woman's boss, or her husband's boss, can decide what birth control is available to her. In many US states, inheritance laws are deplorable, leaving widows at the mercy of their husband's relatives. American women are not recognized by their Constitution, and the all-male Supreme Court established requirements that made sex discrimination extremely difficult to prove legally, particularly relative to racial discrimination. Though 1/3rd of the court today is female, the court operates under "precedent." Many hospitals will not treat pregnant women in life-threatening situations because they might require an abortion to survive. Turning away dying women is perfectly legal in America.



I am a Nigerian woman and currently living in the U.S. I am also married to an American who lived in Africa until we moved to California. Your article is so spot on and I truly relate to it. I grew up in Nigeria, in a family where my father was a role model to me as a young girl. I had alway thought I could do anything as a woman. Among my female colleagues her in America I sometimes feel they see me as a dangerous woman, perhaps i am assertive, too out spoken and too well what I want in life.

I also, quickly realized that as a woman my ambitions are in conflict among some women in my community. This includes women who purport to be feminists whom I would think would be the most supportive in my endeavors. They are not. Through patronizing attitude, competition and even envy. I often feel some of these women intentionally marginalize me.

As an African, one of the things that surprised me most was the intrusion of government into women's bodies and personal affairs. This one has been very hard for me to reconcile.

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