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 wasnt that easy for the world at large.
For as long as Ive been acquainted with the word feminism, Ive 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.
Thats how Ive 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 havent spent a whole lot of time thinking about the word feminism itself. If youd asked me last week, Id have probably told you that the idea that feminism is controversial was a tired, played-out concept. I dont mean that I thought gender inequality was fixed; I mean that Id 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, Im 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 whove reacted to Watsons speech. Famously, musician Taylor Swift was until recently among celebrity women who decline to call themselves feminists; apparently, the issue, writes the Washington Posts 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 dont pay close-enough attention to what celebrities think.
Given my thinking that feminism shouldnt be that complicated, Ive been flabbergasted by some of the reaction to Watsons address. The dumbest response came from Andrea Peyser of the New York Post, which shouldnt 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 doesnt believe women bear equal responsibilities. Watson said no such thing.
Watson got it from the left, too. On MSNBCs The Last Word with Lawrence ODonnell, actor and xoJane contributor Pia Glenn on Monday essentially parroted parts of a column by xoJanes Amy McCarthy (without attribution, as I recall), complaining about Watsons privilege, her neglect of non-binary people and her concern for the feelings of men.
Glenn completely missed the point of Watsons speech, particularly as it relates to men. It wasnt to say, Wait a minute—are the men OK? Do the men feel comfortable with what Im 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—thats 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 its worth, I dont 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 whos been in relationships with women, whos held power in the workplace and who calls himself a feminist, Ive always done my best to walk the walk, and I hope I havent stumbled too many times. Im sure I can do better, and Ill take Watsons challenge to recommit to the fight.