Is encouraging men to lead a movement of women the right way to bring about equality?
As soon as Emma Watson’s speech to the UN announcing the HeForShe campaign hit social media early this week, nearly every one of my friends, family members, and acquaintances had to make sure I saw the video.
Knowing that I am a feminist and an activist for the equality of all people around the world, people automatically assumed that I would be as gaga over Watson’s words and the campaign itself as the rest of the social media world seems to be.
Unfortunately, these friends don’t understand my feminist stance quite as well as they thought.
Despite my love of Emma Watson’s passionate feminist stance and her talent as an actor, her words and endorsement of this campaign were a huge disappointment to me.
To be fair, I can see some value in the campaign. I agree that men are also negatively affected by the gender roles that various societies assign them. And I agree that men have an important role to play in the struggle for gender equality. However, the issues and concerns that the HeForShe campaign presents, as far as I’m concerned, greatly outweigh these benefits.
Let’s start with the name “HeForShe”…I mean really? We’re going to try launching a campaign for gender equality that relies on the primary oppressor (in the sense that men have the most benefit to gain from gender inequalities, which is not to say that they don’t negatively affect men as well) giving up that place of privilege? I am supposed to be encouraged by this platform?
I can’t help but imagine what an outbreak of laughter such a plan would have caused during the civil rights struggles here in the United States, aka “WhitesForBlacks” ending blatant oppression and embracing diet racism.
Or in the LGBTQ2I struggles for equality: HeterosexualsForHomosexuals.
Of course there were white allies to the black movement for civil rights, just as there are heterosexual allies to the homosexual cause for equality, but these struggles are not the struggle of the oppressors.
Do those who privilege from the current structuring of society have a role to play in ending oppression? Absolutely. But as allies, not as the primary force of a movement. Those who are oppressed must take the lead role in bringing about their liberation in the ways in which they see fit.
In her speech, Watson stated that, “when [men] are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive, women won’t be compelled to be submissive. If men don’t need to control, women won’t have to be controlled.” Statements such as this one terrify me.
This statement fits quite nicely with my immediate unease upon hearing the name of the campaign, namely asking the oppressor to denounce their place of privilege for the betterment of the whole. While this is a lovely thing to encourage, history suggests that it doesn’t actually work.
In addition, this statement does not encourage men to help put an end to the oppression of women. It tells men that they are oppressed by the gender roles that have been placed on them, which is true, but then it encourages them to put an end to those roles and thus free themselves. The liberation of the female only happens as an after-effect, a byproduct of men taking a stand for themselves.
This focus on man as liberator of himself and women also supports the stereotype of the “white knight” that women are supposed to hold out for in order to be saved.
You think gender equality is a problem now? Just wait and see what happens when we teach people that men have to liberate women because women have been unable to liberate themselves.
But what I dislike most about this campaign is the complete disregard for the intersections of the lives of women and girls all over the world. While this type of a model may “work” in European, Scandinavian, and certain North American contexts, where women do have certain rights and protections, it completely disregards the lives of women and girls of color, those from various cultures that model society on different gendered roles, those who are poor, homeless, or uneducated.
Historically, feminism has often been an oppressive force against women who do not fit the white, middle class, United States/European, educated, heterosexual norms. By ignoring the diversity among the experiences of being a woman worldwide, this campaign simply continues that oppression.
Where are the voices of the women in poor countries who must sell themselves and their sexuality to men in rich countries simply to feed their own families? Sure, we can encourage men to help end gender oppression, but how do we teach them to extend that help to all women, worldwide, and not simply the sisters, wives, girlfriends, and mothers at home?
Where are the voices of the women who are not only oppressed by culturally pre-assigned gender roles, but also the oppression that is connected to race, sexuality, or economic class? How do we work for the end of oppressions of all kinds rather than simply the comfort of a few?
Gender inequality is absolutely a human issue that requires the effort of all people in order to be overcome. We all have a role to play, but encouraging men to lead a movement of women is not the way to bring about equality.
There is no universal experience of womanhood and as long as our campaigns continue to ignore that reality we will never be able to create large scale change.
So, in answer to all of those friends, family members, and acquaintances, yes I’ve seen the video, but no, HeForShe doesn’t work for this feminist.
K. M. Deaver is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Feminist Theology and Ethics in Chicago. Her areas of interest include sexual ethics, and helping to end the oppression and exploitation of women and girls around the world.