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‘HeForShe’ and the problem with modern feminism

'HeForShe' and the problem with modern feminism

Actress Emma Watson, best known to date for playing Hermione in the “Harry Potter” films, was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations, and on Monday delivered a widely-discussed speech to roll out the new “HeForShe” initiative.  Its website describes HeForShe as “a solidarity movement for gender equality that brings together one half of humanity in support of the other of humanity, for the entirety of humanity.”

I think I might have written that a bit differently, but the basic idea is straightforward enough: enlist men in a crusade for women’s rights.  “We want to try to galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for change, and we don’t just want to talk about it,” explained Watson.  “We want to try and make sure that it’s tangible.”

The passage in Watson’s speech that captured the most attention was when she tackled the negative connotations associated with the word “feminist,” which she sought to define:

I was appointed as Goodwill Ambassador for U.N. Women six months ago and the more I’ve spoken about feminism, the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop.

For the record, feminism, by definition, is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes. I started questioning gender-based assumptions a long time ago.

When I was 8, I was confused about being called ‘bossy’ because I wanted to direct the plays that we would put on for our parents. But the boys were not. When at 14, I started to be sexualised by certain elements of the media, when at 15, my girlfriends started dropping out of their beloved sports teams, because they didn’t want to appear ‘muscle-y,’ when at 18, my male friends were unable to express their feelings, I decided that I was a feminist. And this seems uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word.

Women are choosing not to identify as feminists. Apparently, I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, ‘too aggressive,’ isolating and anti-men, unattractive, even. Why has the word become such an uncomfortable one?

Unfortunately, she never attempted to answer that question.  She went through a litany of equality goals that she thought feminism should be associated with, but she didn’t offer any theories as to why many women – some of them quite prominent, and outspoken in their support for equality between the sexes – reject the label of “feminist.”  She didn’t offer an explanation for why “fighting for women’s rights” would become “synonymous with man-hating.”  That’s the worst cliffhanger since “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I,” Emma!

Some coverage of the speech assumed Watson was firing a shot across the bow of hard-core power feminists and extremists, warning them away from rhetoric that could be interpreted as “man-hating.”  The stated goal of the initiative she represents is to bring men around the world on board with the quest for women’s equality.  Denouncing rhetoric that would be off-putting to men, and refocusing feminism on the simple goals most people of both sexes support, would seem like smart strategy.  This impression is reinforced by Watson’s obvious appeal to young men – they picked her because they’re trying to bring guys on board and prove this isn’t all about misanthropic fire-breathing feminism, right?

But in the context of her full speech, I think she’s saying something very nearly the opposite.  She seems to believe those who dismiss feminism as man-hating are wrong, so self-evidently wrong that she doesn’t bother conjuring up any good reasons they might feel that way.  Instead, both during the passage quoted above and the rest of the speech, she talks about how women with strong opinions, assertive personalities, and a desire for equality are unfairly dismissed as unappealing and anti-male.

If I might offer a suggestion: part of the reason feminism is unpopular in the Western world – and it is, because only a modest minority of men or women identify with the label – is because it has allied itself with coercive left-wing politics.  Feminists find themselves using increasing amounts of cultural and legal pressure to secure marginal improvements in societies where equality has been achieved as a matter of law, and more than they’re willing to admit as a matter of practice.  (Of course they’re not the same thing.  You will never pass a law that absolutely prevents anyone in society from making unfair inferences based on sex, race, or a host of other characteristics.  It seems like much of the contemporary Left is on a quest to fashion such impossible laws, and build a government mighty enough to enforce them.)

Toward this end, Western feminists have developed a habit of equating their marginal efforts with the absolutely monstrous discrimination and abuse women face in other parts of the world.  They also put dubious political initiatives on the same moral plane as rank sexism, and even physical mistreatment.  That was the whole point behind the Democrats’ “War on Women” campaign, which should be deeply insulting to anyone who holds the beliefs Emma Watson expressed in her speech.  Modest policy disagreements with feminists and their political allies are equated with misogyny; only hatred for women, and the hidden desire to beat them down into obedient servants, could explain dissent from the Democrat political agenda.  Dissenting women were told they had been brainwashed by the patriarchy… or maybe they weren’t even real women at all.

There is an interstellar distance between a society in which an assertive woman might be called “bossy,” and one in which women are not allowed to vote, or go to school.  There is no continuum between those things at all.  And yet, there was a bit of such equivalence even in Emma Watson’s remarks:

I am from Britain and I think it is right that I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body, I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and the decisions that affect my life. I think it is right that socially, I am afforded the same respect as men.

But sadly, I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights. No country in the world can yet say that they have achieved gender equality. These rights, I consider to be human rights but I am one of the lucky ones, my life is a sheer privilege because my parents didn’t love me less because I was born a daughter. My school did not limit me because I was a girl. My mentors didn’t assume that I would go less far because I might give birth to a child one day. These influencers are the gender equality ambassadors that made me who I am today.

And more, toward the end:

In my nervousness for this speech and my moments of doubt, I’ve told myself firmly, ‘If not me, who? If not now, when?’ If you have similar doubts when opportunities are presented to you, I hope that those words will be helpful because the reality is, if we do nothing, it will take 75 years or for me, to be nearly 100, before women can expect to be paid the same as men for the same work — 15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children and at current rates, it won’t be until 2086 before all rural African girls can have a secondary education.

We might also discuss the way American feminists are marginalizing themselves by embracing abortion extremism, even as the culture turns slowly but steadily in a more pro-life direction, but let’s table that discussion for another day.  The point of the moment is that the highly tendentious point about women “expecting to be paid the same as men for the same work” in advanced Western societies does not orbit in the same solar system as child brides and rural African girls denied secondary education, to say nothing of the horrors Watson did not mention, such as sexual slavery and female genital mutilation.  A global movement that lumps all of those issues together is diluting itself too much.  Urgent problems in difficult-to-reach societies get the same amount of attention as marginal issues in comfortable Western democracies.  Over time, they’ll get less, because dealing with the tough stuff is frustrating and disappointing.

As to the business of equal pay, the heart of the matter is that women in America do get “paid the same as men for the same work.”  The political movement based on the contrary assertion is a sham – unlike, say, the plight of those African girls who need a secondary education, or the girls in the Middle East who get murdered for going to school.  The pay discrepancy in apples-to-apples salary comparisons is miniscule.  It’s been a running embarrassment for the War on Women campaign that the most blatant examples of unequal pay for the same work can be found in the offices of politicians.  Otherwise, women get paid differently for doing work that is not the same, and it’s largely a matter of their choices.

Which brings us to a basic question the Western world is politically uncomfortable with asking: are men and women the same?  Obviously not.  Shouldn’t our acceptance of that truth influence our expectations for “equality?”  Certainly we don’t want women to be denigrated or made to feel inferior.  But that’s not the same thing as noting that they tend to prefer jobs with less risk, lighter physical demands, and shorter hours than men.  It’s also common sense to consider the role of childbirth in these metrics of career equality and social justice.  Bearing children is simply a longer and more difficult commitment for women, by several orders of magnitude.  A wise society takes account of that in numerous ways, including the cultural pressures deployed to encourage men to remain with the mothers of their children and make their distinct, but valuable, contributions to the family.

Watson mentioned those male contributions to the family, in the loveliest passage of her speech:

Men, I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too. Because to date, I’ve seen my father’s role as a parent being valued less by society despite my needing his presence, as a child, as much as my mother’s. I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help, for fear it would make them less of a man. In fact, in the U.K., suicide is the biggest killer of men, between 20 to 49, eclipsing road accidents, cancer and coronary heart disease. I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success. Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either.

We don’t want to talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are. When they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive, women won’t be compelled to be submissive. If men don’t need to control, women won’t have to be controlled.

Is that really the sum total of the masculine and feminine identities: aggression and submission, control and being controlled?  The wisdom of the ages tells us there’s a lot more to it than that: so many ways men and women need each other, and make each other better.  The differences between the sexes provide a bounty of riches, whose value we should appreciate while determining what “equality” means.  There are, however, places in the world so dismally far from equality for women that HeForShe should have its work cut out for it, for many years to come, without ever coming near the bitter little divisions that might make men – and the women who love them, both individually and at large – suspicious of the cause.


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