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A Radical Voice: An email interview with Anne Bitsch

Gender studies
Grassroots media in Europe
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In this e-mail interview Danish-Norwegian feminist activist and writer Anne Bitsch (30), generously shares some reflections on her feminist past and present.

Jenny Gunnarsson Payne: How, when and why did you become a feminist?

Anne Bitsch: For me, becoming a feminist has definitely been a process – though a gradual process of recent date. During high school, I started to become politically active within Amnesty International, because of their commitment to fight the death penalty. At that time my feminist consciousness was rather limited and did not go any further than obvious ideas about equal treatment. We rarely discussed gender in my political environment in Denmark. At home feminism was always secondary to class politics and to be sure, more in word than in deed. Housework was often a source of conflicts and gender roles were impressively traditional, this in spite of the otherwise political radicalism of my upbringing.

At the end of the 1990s, I moved to Norway and that was at the time a new feminist wave (third wave post-structuralist feminism) started to blossom. In 1999, Linda Skugge, Belinda Olsson and other Swedish feminists wrote the anthology Fittstim, which made a big impression on me and many other feminists in my generation. Fittstim was eventually followed by the Norwegian feminist anthology Råtekst. These books slowly boosted my interest in feminism and I started to reflect upon my own experiences from my childhood and youth. I understood that being a girl implied other and different experiences of life and available opportunities compared to boys. However, at that time I found neither feminism, nor questions of gender and sexual politics interesting enough to dedicate much time to go into it. My political passion was not related to “interest politics”, and definitely not politics in developed countries. Rather I felt more and more compassionate about international development issues, socio-economic rights and North-South relations, very much in line with the big debates about globalization and poverty at the dawn of the new millennium.

Slowly, but surely an interest in feminism started to evolve when I studied leadership at the KaosPilot University in Denmark from 2000-2004. The learning environment at KaosPilots was extremely competitive. I met many like-minded, resourceful and creative people with serious leadership ambitions. However, in the competition for space and other academic resources, many people used subtle coercive techniques – master suppression techniques, as they are known in the literature – in order to achieve their goals.

Suffice to say, this came as a surprise to me, especially since this was taking place in an institution of higher learning. I had always been vocal and strong, rarely met any kind of stereotyping when assuming leadership responsibilities, and always received positive feedback for my initiative. However, for the first time in my life, I felt that gender was an issue. I had a vague sense that that “something” was intimately related to gender, but I did not want to be perceived as “weak”, a victim or a radical feminist extremist. Needless to say, at that stage, my feminism was rather hidden, private and unorganized. I did not belong to an environment, I never wrote any feminist articles and my interest in feminist literature and philosophy was non-existent.

I decided to take a year’s leave from the KaosPilots to work at a legal aid clinic for women. I was introduced to committed human rights advocates, but also confronted with the daunting reality of women exposed to violence and economic hardship. Through these formative experiences, an academic and practical interest in what structures drive men and women’s quest for freedom was born.

After the completion of my education at KaosPilots, I attended classes at the Women’s and Gender Studies program at the University of Oslo. Informed by my past experiences, I took a particular interest in studies of men and masculinity. I enjoyed, and was inspired by, the readings of Simone de Beauvoir--the French existentialist philosopher. Specifically, her thoughts on how men and women’s freedom depend on each other.

In my current position at Forum for Women and Development (FOKUS), I have combined my passion for gender policy studies and international development issues. Among other things, I have had the opportunity to travel to Afghanistan to help establish a country program on women’s economic rights and political participation. I have also been in charge of developing our organization’s policy on women’s rights and local participation in coherence with international human rights treaties, conventions and UN resolutions.

JGP: How have your feminist views and priorities changed over time?

AB: Following my experiences at the KaosPilot University, my take on questions related to gender can best be described as a version of “feminism of difference”, underscoring that differences in power relations between men and women can be explained with the fact that soft and traditional feminine values are given less prestige and status within society. My flirtation with this feminist fraction was of relatively short duration. During my studies at the university, I soon became aware that gender relations are more delicate, both analytically and practically, than this position allows an understanding for. Instead, I started to believe that in order to be genuinely free, women should enjoy the same possibilities as men regardless of what gender scripts they subscribe to, either traditional feminine or transcendental masculine. It will not alone suffice to give a higher status to “feminine virtues” or poorly paid jobs in the public sector, I thought.

Instead I embarked on a “feminism of equity” with a liberal trajectory at the same time as I was deeply committed to my radical background where the fight against capitalism was seen in relation to women’s subordinate position within the economy in general and inter-personal relations in particular. I strongly believed, and believe, that lack of economical independence and the male breadwinner model in modern society was among the main causes of unequal gender relations and women’s access to political and economical power. To a certain extent, this is still my opinion though I have become more moderate on that account – the existence of patriarchies and geographical variations among them, have persisted across many different societies and political models, regardless of what type of economical systems are in place.

JGP: What kind of feminism do you stand for today? What is feminism to you?

AB: Today, my feminist project is less material in a strict Marxist sense and more inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s existentialism and the early feminist and liberal philosophers. This does not mean that I have completely abandoned the lessons of radical theory or structuralism – I firmly believe that the current economical model known as neo-liberalism constitutes one of the main impediments for achieving a just society for men and women, both in developed and developing countries. The reason for my affinity with liberalism and existentialism is partly because I find the notions of freedom and the call for justice appalling and moving.

Lately, I have been thinking much about these things – that feminism as a project, a theory and a movement for change should not be colonized by simple real politics, but rather to inspire individuals to liberate themselves and spur a debate about the gendered structure of human existence. Abstract as this may sound, it is in fact very concrete: If change is to come about, people must take back control over their own lives and not turn into passive receivers, at the mercy of neither the state nor the market. This is not to say that the state does not have a role as a facilitator of gender equality. On the contrary, in a world marked by financial crisis, increased poverty in many developing countries, environmental change, political unrest and increased religious fundamentalism, achieved freedoms will indeed be challenged. The need for vibrant and stable states cooperating in order to curb these political and economical trends is necessary. However, relying on the interventionist state as the main strategy will probably not bring about change in ordinary peoples’ lives. I hope that feminists in the future will renew, rebuild and revitalize the classical thoughts of freedom, equal rights and transcendence. Maybe this can mobilize people for taking control over their own destiny and engage in work for greater social justice?

Today, I consider Amnesty International to be one of the worlds’ most important actors with regards to women’s rights. The organization acts as a watchdog on behalf of individuals and they hold governments accountable when they fail to protect and promote rights enshrined in international human rights treaties and conventions. To do so effectively implies that one has to embark on a power perspective and a holistic analysis, rather than simple explanations of discrimination and subordination of women. For example, with regards to violence against women, this is not only an attack on the freedom and integrity for individual women, but also a barrier to women’s enjoyment of other rights, such as the right to education, health, political and economic participation.

JGP: How important do you think Internet is for feminist politics (yours and others), and why?

AB: Internet can be one of many arenas where feminists can express their concerns and mobilize for gender equality. Previously this year (2009), the importance of Internet as a tool for mobilization and sharing of information was demonstrated quite clearly when ordinary people used Twitter to report about political violence during the Iranian elections. In authoritarian dictatorships, Internet may show out to be one of the main sources to access information about women’s lives and hardships – if not from the women directly, then through increased and easy access to science and research. However, the importance of organizing through lobby work, party politics, participation in trade unions and grass root mobilization will not be less needed – on the contrary I hope that the current individualization of feminist politics will at some stage spur a counter reaction where people increasingly meet in person and groups to discuss challenges and solutions. Lately, many young feminists in Norway – in spite of common belief – are quite eager when it comes to participation in debates, conferences and cultural events. So, despite rumours about the demise of feminism and the rise of a glamour model nation, I feel pretty optimistic about the prospects for feminist politics, both channelled through the Internet and otherwise.

JGP: Would you like to add anything?

AB: Marissa Paternoster. Screaming Females. Say no more.


Anne Bitsch, born in 1978, lives in Oslo, Norway, where she is currently working as a programme adviser for Forum for Women and Development (FOKUS). She is engaged as the theme coordinator in the Norwegian Amnesty International campaign ‘Stopp vold mot kvinner’ (‘Stop violence against women’) as well as writing on a free lance basis for various media, including Aftenposten, the weekly news magazine Ny Tid and the Norwegian feminist magazine Fett. Since recently, she is also writing a monthly column for Dagsavisen called “Radikale røster” (“Radical voices”). Annes key areas of interest are international human rights and development issues and reserach on masculinity and Norwegian gender politics.

For further information abouther written work, visit the website:

Links to some of Anne Bitsch’s projects:

Note: This interview is a edited and shortened version of a longer e-mail interview made for research purposes by Jenny Gunnarsson Payne, Department of Ethnology, History of Religions and Gender Studies, Stockholm University. The interview was conducted on the 18th of October 2009. This version is published with the consent of Anne Bitsch.

Anne Bitsch
Jenny Gunnarsson Payne
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