A much reduced version of this letter was posted to the editor of the New Statesman yesterday, Friday 11 March 2016.
(yes, before anyone asks, and given the contents of this letter, I have checked. The editor of the New Statesman is indeed male).
As a proud feminist and support of the UN #HeForShe campaign, I must take issue with Rosie Fletcher’s blog (The Staggers, 9th March), “It’s great that Emma Watson is standing up for feminism – but #HeForShe is the wrong approach“.
First of all, the author conflates International Women’s Day with Feminism, saying “Feminism is not about men. We should not be putting men at the centre of a day for women.” Certainly the two should be linked, but they are far from being coterminous. International Women’s Day (marked on 8th March) exists “to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.” It is designed to rebalance the scale of attention, to give slightly fairer exposure to the infinite contributions made by half the world’s population, and which are so easily overlooked by societies which have been dominated by men since time immemorial. It is, as the name suggests, about women, and the author is right that men should not be at the centre of a day about women. That defeats the entire purpose of IWD.
However, feminism is much wider than IWD. One friend of mine suggested we replace the word feminism with ‘equalism’, since that is the real aim. Feminism isn’t about women exclusively. It is right that attention focuses on the way women are traditionally cut out of higher jobs, or the fact that one woman in five has experienced sexual violence since turning 16, but that the rape conviction rate is only 5.7%. It is also right that it draws attention to the fact that, while one third of domestic abuse victims in the UK are male, there are only 78 refuge beds for men in the whole country, of which only 33 are dedicated male beds, and the fact that the suicide attempt rate for transgender people under 26 is somewhere around 48%.
An awareness of this is important, because International Women’s Day is not the same as International Feminism Day. Feminism isn’t directly relevant to IWD or to #HeForShe, a campaign set up by UN Women (aka the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women). #HeForShe fits into the feminism ideal, but feminism is much more than that.
More importantly, the author misrepresents #HeForShe, suggesting it exists to make feminism “more palatable”, helping “smuggle gender oppression into conversation like a stripper in a cake” and “massaging their bruised egos”. That is not what #HeForShe is about, and I would not want it to be thus.
The aim of feminism is to halt and counter the accrual of power and control by any one group or perspective at the expense of any other. If one group has power and control, that group will inevitably play a central role in redistributing power. They will either relinquish their unfair advantage willingly, or seek to cling on to it. Personally I prefer the first option, and *THAT* is what #HeForShe is about. In practically every society, male gender roles are dominant, female roles subordinate. This is both damaging to women, and damaging to societies as a whole. There are very strong links, for example, between improved gender parity and development, and yet, at current rates of improvement, it may take a century to close the gender gap.
#HeForShe is attempting to address this in a pragmatic way. One recent study found that 88% of men in corporate America believe women have equal or greater opportunities to advance, though in reality, women are 15% less likely to get promoted at any given level. Whatever the reason, a majority of men do not believe there is a problem. Gender inequality is seen as a thing of the past, at least among men in the developed world. #HeForShe exists to encourage men to note these imbalances and to take action. As the powerful partner, men need to be involved in rebalancing the scale. #HeForShe isn’t about making feminism palatable to men. It isn’t about sparing men from being insulted by the fact that they are responsible for centuries of female subordination. It is about making men aware that the problems are far from fixed, and that they have a crucial role to play in fixing them.
This perception damages feminism and this author only reinforces the point. Gender equality suggests entails involvement – by claiming feminism for women, equality is undermined. I am a man. I am a proud feminist. I know that I have a duty to work for a more equal world, I can’t just stand by and support other people who do so. I am #HeForShe.