Former Harry Potter star Emma Watson gave a passionate and well argued speech at the UN yesterday, where she has been UN Women Goodwill Ambassador since graduation. The speech was to launch HeForShe, a feminist campaign that is avowedly inclusive of men.
“Men,” she said as part of her 12-minute address, “I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.”
Caitlin Moran, one of the most influential of the new feminists (I’m sure there should be a catchy term coined for this, but new feminist will do), said much the same in her funny and essential book, How To Be A Woman:
“And do not think you shouldn’t be standing on that chair, shouting ‘I AM A FEMINIST!’ if you are a boy. A male feminist is one of the most glorious end-products of evolution. A male feminist should ABSOLUTELY be on the chair – so we ladies may all toast you, in champagne, before coveting your body wildly.”
I would like to respond to Watson’s initiative, as a man.
When I was at uni, my partner was a feminist, while I had been educated at an all-male public school and viewed women not so much as inequals, as aliens from another planet. Through her I discovered Greer and Dworkin, and Mary Daly who argued for the wholesale rebranding of words: “history”, for instance, should become “herstory”. We poked gentle fun at this, coining words such as “peroffspring” instead of “person”, but there was a strong point there. As Orwell knew, words frame concepts. Where there is no word for “freedom”, it is hard to conceive the idea of freedom. Where there is only a “chairman” of the board, or a “fireman”, it is hard to conceive of women being appointed to those roles. The change has now run deep. With the exception of Fireman Sam – kids’ cartoons still lag woefully behind in sex equality – the profession has been widely rebranded as “firefighters”; “chairman” is now “chairperson”.
There was in this strain of feminism, at that period of time, an undercurrent of man-hatred. “All men are rapists,” was a popular slogan. Gee, thanks. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” was another. Mary Daly herself ran into legal difficulty at Boston University by refusing to teach male students. Perhaps it’s natural, when you have been oppressed, to hate your oppressors. But since then Nelson Mandela, for one, has shown that there is another way to react to oppression. By embracing your former oppressors, and making them part of the change.
The majority of young women do not identify themselves as “feminists”: only 29 per cent of American women do so; 42 per cent of Brits. Yet “feminist” simply means, “I believe in equal rights, respect and pay for women”. That’s it. That’s all. That so many still interpret it to mean “Hate men and refuse to shave armpits” is a legacy of those righteously angry gender-warriors of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
And because feminism simply means “I believe in equal rights, respect and pay for women”, a man can be a feminist too. The first club my eldest son joined at Cambridge was the Feminist Society. There was no sense, now, that he should be excluded for his gender.
Emma Watson is right to say that men can and should be part of the change. Right, too, to point out that men are also trapped by gender stereotypes; that suicide is the biggest single killer of men up to the age of 45; that being part of the change, for men, is not just philanthropic and ethically sound, but self-interested as well.
“Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive,” says Watson. “Both men and women should feel free to be strong. It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals.”
So what can men, practically, do?
The first change is from within. Are you inclusive or dominating in a conversation? If in a relationship, do you do an equal share of household chores? If you have children, do you share the nappy-changing and sleepless nights and, when they’re older, the tough conversations, as well as the play?
The second is something simple I have been thinking about for a while, something I know I need to work on myself. It’s a ripple effect. I’ve brought my boys up to respect girls and treat them as equals. Now they’re older, I feel I should move on to other men.
In the distant past, when men cracked sexist jokes, I would laugh along with them. Unsure of my own masculinity (I’ve never been much of a “bloke”) I wanted to feel part of the pack. I feel ashamed of that now. These days, I maintain a stony silence, a tacit disapproval.
That’s not enough. As Emma Watson quoted in her speech, “All that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men and women [tellingly, Watson had to add “and women” to the original quote, which did not consider them worthy of inclusion] to do nothing.”
Recently, at the poker table – one of the last pretty much all-male preserves – someone looked leeringly at the masseuse giving a shoulder-rub to a player. (It’s a common thing, in poker, when people sit for up to 24 hours at a stretch.) Without even addressing her, only the other men at the table, he announced, “I love that the massage girls here are all so gorgeous. This one can rub me down any time.”
I piped up, looking him in the eye, “I love that the massage girls here are all consummate professionals who have trained for years to acquire diplomas in different branches of physiotherapy.” (Which is true. I’ve asked.)
That felt good. I’d like to do more of it.