The harmful baggage attached to the term “feminism” over the years came into the spotlight again on Sunday, as the acclaimed young actor Emma Watson spoke at the United Nations’ launch of the HeForShe campaign.
HeForShe calls on men to take action in opposition to violence and discrimination against women. Men and women must join together, Watson said, to end the global problem of sexual inequality.
For the 24-year-old Watson, defending feminism is a new venture. She expressed initial surprise at the dismissive use of the word “feminist” and at the uphill battle for female equality that has not yet been fully won anywhere in the world:
“I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.
“Why is the word such an uncomfortable one? I am from Britain and think it is right that as a woman 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 decision-making of my country. 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.”
It was refreshing to hear a young woman refuse to apologize for believing in herself and to make “feminist” a significant aspect of that belief.
What lies at the core of disdain for women who stand up for their human rights? Can it be ignorance and the fear of losing power? If not, then why is retaliation so common?
When men and women accept the status quo, disdain continues and enables further violence against women. Clearly the choice is to stand up in opposition to such poverty of mind and spirit.
The intelligence, warmth and sincerity with which the speech was delivered deserve the acclaim that has followed. Other quarters have reacted with hostility. Why should such self-revelation in this day and age require risk? Why did a young woman, who might have expected to benefit immensely from tireless work by fiercely determined women over centuries, recollect that at age 8 she noticed gender inequality; that at age 14 she felt sexualized by the media; that she watched as her 15-year-old female friends dropped out of sports to avoid being taunted, and at age 18 realized that her male friends could not express their emotions?
What will it take to eliminate such experiences for girls, to make their own achievements and those of women around the world -- whether at home, at work or in the community -- the subject of admiration rather than the target of ridicule?
When and where will men and women in unison refuse the subjugation of half the population just so a privileged minority can feel superior?
If there were a word to replace “feminism” without diminishing the history it represents, surely a significant number of people would already be using it. But much would be sacrificed merely to soothe those for whom women’s equality is frightening. They do not deserve a reward. Instead, feminism needs to be reinvented continually by women like Emma Watson, brave young women, proud to be women, who speak up and free the word from the false, pejorative, man-hating connotations it has never deserved.
Emma Watson has eloquently reminded us that equal does not mean the same. But different does not mean better or worse.