Oct. 1 2014 09:34 AM

Being a feminist never seemed all that complicated to me

Emma Watson in 2013
Photo by Georges Biard

Of all the important words spoken by actor Emma Watson in her speech on feminism to the United Nations on Sept. 20, the line that jumped out at me was this: “I decided that I was a feminist, and this seemed uncomplicated to me.”

Watson was talking about how, when the reality of gender inequality finally solidified in her mind, it seemed simple enough. But when she began exploring the issue more deeply as a UN goodwill ambassador, she realized that it wasn’t that easy for the world at large.

For as long as I’ve been acquainted with the word “feminism,” I’ve considered myself a feminist. Like for Watson, this was never complicated for me. “For the record, feminism by definition is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities,” she said in her speech. “It is the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”

That’s how I’ve always defined it, and anyone who believes that all people should be treated with equal respect is a feminist.

As someone who pays relatively close attention to society as it grapples with its evolving issues, gender equality is never far from my mind, but I haven’t spent a whole lot of time thinking about the word “feminism” itself. If you’d asked me last week, I’d have probably told you that the idea that feminism is controversial was a tired, played-out concept. I don’t mean that I thought gender inequality was fixed; I mean that I’d have assumed that, by now, equating feminism with men-hating and hairy armpits had become an idea relegated to the right-wing fringe.

I guess I was wrong. “[M]y recent research has shown me that ‘feminism’ has become an unpopular word,” Watson said. “Women are choosing not to identify as feminists. Apparently, I’m among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating and anti-men. Unattractive, even.”

That view has been supported by plenty of folks who’ve reacted to Watson’s speech. Famously, musician Taylor Swift was until recently among celebrity women who decline to call themselves feminists; apparently, the issue, writes the Washington Post’s Jessica Contrera, “is deeply complicated by a seemingly large divide between the label of ‘feminism’ and the ideals that feminists say they represent.” Clearly, I don’t pay close-enough attention to what celebrities think. 

Given my thinking that feminism shouldn’t be that complicated, I’ve been flabbergasted by some of the reaction to Watson’s address. The dumbest response came from Andrea Peyser of the New York Post, which shouldn’t surprise me, considering that she once called Christiane Amanpour a “CNN war slut.” Peyser believes that Watson was saying that she wants equal rights for women but doesn’t believe women bear equal “responsibilities.” Watson said no such thing.

Watson got it from the left, too. On MSNBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, actor and xoJane contributor Pia Glenn on Monday essentially parroted parts of a column by xoJane’s Amy McCarthy (without attribution, as I recall), complaining about Watson’s “privilege,” her neglect of non-binary people and her concern for the feelings of men.

Glenn completely missed the point of Watson’s speech, particularly as it relates to men. It wasn’t to say, “Wait a minute—are the men OK? Do the men feel comfortable with what I’m doing right now?” as Glenn mockingly put it. It was to enlist men and, more importantly, boys as soldiers in the battle for equality—the whole point was to promote the “He for She” public-awareness campaign.

I asked three women friends about the word “feminism,” and two brought up gender roles as they relate to family and relationships—that’s what gave them pause when asked if they considered themselves feminists.

That opens a larger can o’ worms—although still not a complicated can—but, for what it’s worth, I don’t think people who find value in maintaining some traditional gender roles in their own families and relationships need to hesitate before identifying as feminists. The point is for women to have an equal opportunity along with men (and non-binary people) to share in the power of decision-making—for themselves, their partnerships, their families, their workplaces, their communities and their government.

As a man who’s been in relationships with women, who’s held power in the workplace and who calls himself a feminist, I’ve always done my best to walk the walk, and I hope I haven’t stumbled too many times. I’m sure I can do better, and I’ll take Watson’s challenge to recommit to the fight.

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