I originally wrote this piece for my university magazine having been to an inspiring talk as part of the He For She #GetFree tour and subsequent follow-up meetings as part of the University of Nottingham’s new gender equality campaign. Here is an edited version of that article.
The idea that feminism is solely a women’s issue is naive and outdated. It’s time for all men to get on board.
Back in October, I attended a talk given as part of the #GetFree tour from the UN Women’s HeForShe campaign. In a series of inspiring talks, the speakers outlined the importance of pushing further gender equality. Woman’s Hour presenter and Women’s Editor of the Telegraph Emma Barnett was the key-note speaker. She was careful to avoid using the word ‘feminism,’ explaining that in her experience, too many people are turned off by the word. Feminism should not be a dirty word. In a 2013 YouGov poll, 81% of respondents agreed that men and women should have equal rights. However, in the same poll, only 19% were willing to define as feminists. David Cameron has trouble calling himself a feminist, and even Meryl Streep, who plays Emmeline Pankhurst in Suffragette, refused to use the f-word.
But let’s not get bogged down in terminology. In a way, it doesn’t matter what we label ourselves, as long as we are advocating the same thing (but in my mind feminism equates to gender equality and we shouldn’t be ashamed to use it). The aim of the HeForShe campaign is to show that feminism isn’t a woman’s issue, or a man’s issue. It is a people’s issue. All the speakers at the event were keen to stress how this is a collective movement. Elizabeth Nyamayaro, the head of the HeForShe campaign, explained why change has to come from both men and women: “We cannot achieve an equal world with half the team sitting on the bench.” So far, most of the progress in gender equality has been down to women. They have got this far practically on their own. It’s now time for the rest of us to get on board.
One important fact that we need to remember when it comes to feminism is that men are not the target. The target is the patriarchy; the skewing of society in men’s favour. Placing the blame for this solely on men would be wrong. In her speech, Emma Barnett outlined some ways in which the patriarchy affects women – and included examples of women being guilty of propagating this as well as men. She told of how her mother expected her to do the cooking and housework rather than her husband, despite both partners having full-time jobs. Barnett calls this the ‘imitation game’ and explains that it is very difficult for women to break out of. Older mothers, who have usually grown up in a culture with more deeply-ingrained ideas of gender-specific roles, expect their daughters to live in a similar way to them. With a natural desire to impress your parents, it may be hard for a daughter to defy their mother by not accepting these roles as gender-defined.
Equally as importantly, we must remember that it is not just women who benefit from feminism. We, as men, are also under pressure to conform to gender stereotypes. We are constantly told that we need to be more manly or to man up. Men’s magazines can be just as guilty of falsely defining the masculine ideal as they are of defining the feminine ideal. Women’s magazines are just as bad. It is thanks to movements such as feminism, as well as the LGBT movement, that we are changing what it means to be a man to be more inclusive and more accurate. Yet with suicide still the biggest killer of men between the ages of 18 and 50 and over three quarters of suicides by men, the idea of what it is to be a man still troubles us. A lot of this is down to the fact that feeling vulnerable or showing emotion are seen as female traits, only displayed by weak men. We’ve not yet finished positively changing the identity of men, but we must remember that through gender equality, everyone benefits. Not just women; everyone.
In fact, it is not even just men and women who benefit from this movement. Greater equality has helped us to understand that gender cannot just be described in binary terms. One criticism of the HeForShe campaign is that its name focuses solely on self-defining men and women (although Elizabeth Nyamayaro did address this in her speech, making sure to define gender as a spectrum). There has been opposition saying that it will be men who champion the cause. As most within the feminism movement are still women, it is clear that we need more men to get behind this. Being a people’s movement, we are all automatically included in it. As Nyamaro says, “no one is equal until we are all equal.”
Taking action will be the most difficult part. Nottingham SU Officer Rob Jennings also spoke at the Get Free event, and when he confessed that it is easier to be part of the problem than it is to become part of the solution, he hit on the biggest obstacle facing the campaign. Some people may say that there are not enough male feminists because we are met with pitchforks by the female feminists every time we try to get on board. Actually, the biggest obstacle preventing men from getting on board is other men. We need to have the courage to challenge other men when we don’t like what they have said.
At the same time, we must allow people to make mistakes and be patient with them as they learn more about the issues surrounding the campaign. As Rob Jennings said, “when Emma Watson extended her invitation to men and boys around the world… she didn’t ask that they know how to speak correctly on the topic, nor that they know the history of the feminist movement. All she asked was that they were willing to be a part of its future.”