Will Feminism Be Reborn? A Sign of Hope

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. 

Photo: cinemafestival/Shutterstock.com 

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.