MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Fri 26-Sep-14 11:36:52

Guest post: 'HeForShe - will this actually help the feminist cause?'

Emma Watson's HeForShe campaign has received the support of many high-profile men - but how useful is this in furthering the feminist cause? Here, MN blogger Victoria Smith, aka Glosswitch, says men should listen rather than lead.

Victoria Smith


Posted on: Fri 26-Sep-14 11:36:52


Lead photo

'Feminists have thought long and hard about what our movement should mean to men'

The Onion called it first: "Man finally put in charge of struggling feminist movement." For years we've been muddling along, pretending we could start a revolution without the help of Ryan Gosling, but finally we can drop the act. After all, as Emma Watson said during her UN speech, "how can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?" (I've no idea, but obviously we should be asking the men - they've been effecting change for millennia without making us feel welcome, so I'm sure they could tell us how it's done.)

I don't wish to be overly dismissive of the HeForShe campaign, nor of its launch. Emma Watson was courageous to offer up a personal account of her route to feminism; in a culture which objectifies young women to an alarming extent, it's invaluable to hear the "object" answer back. That the response to her speech included threats (real or not) to release nude photos is testament to the degree to which people like her are supposed to be seen and not heard, reading someone else's lines but never speaking for themselves. I'm sure Watson knew this before she chose to break the rules, and she did so all the same. For that reason alone, she's a role model.

That said, I have some – well, rather a few – misgivings about the overall theme of HeForShe. To judge by the tone of both Watson’s speech and the website, you'd think that including men in feminism had never been thought of before. This isn't quite true. Feminists have thought long and hard – perhaps too long and too hard – about what our movement should mean to men. We've had to; as Simone de Beauvoir noted in The Second Sex, women do not constitute a separate group with their own physical space, history and culture. Our lives are intertwined with the lives of men; like it or not, we need to work together. But what should that mean? Does it require persuading men that gender hurts them as much as it hurts us? I'm not so sure. If that were the case, I simply don't believe progress would be so slow. If gender were some abstract force weighing down on men as much as it weighs down on women – and not a hierarchy which enables men to dominate women – we wouldn't still be asking men to do something about it.

If gender were some abstract force weighing down on men as much as it weighs down on women – and not a hierarchy which enables men to dominate women – we wouldn't still be asking men to do something about it.

In 1983 Andrea Dworkin gave a speech to the US National Organisation for Changing Men. In it she sought to define what equality should mean to them:

"Some vague idea about giving up power is useless.[…] Equality is a practice. It is an action. It is a way of life. It is a social practice. It is an economic practice. It is a sexual practice. […] If you love equality, if you believe in it, if it is the way you want to live […] then you have to fight for the institutions that will make it socially real."

Social media timelines clogged with pouting heart-throbs claiming solidarity - using Watson's campaign to brush up their liberal credentials and receive a pat on the back from the media - isn't enough. It's not enough to say "I am a feminist and I stand with women". If anything, it's keeping silent and listening to women because you realise that, in Dworkin’s words, "women are human to precisely the degree and quality that you are", that really makes a difference.

Another feminist who has sought to include men in feminism is bell hooks. In Feminism is for Everybody, published in 2000, she stresses that feminism is anti-sexism:

"A male who has divested of male privilege, who has embraced feminist politics, is a worthy comrade in struggle, in no way a threat to feminism, whereas a female who remains wedded to sexist thinking and behaviour infiltrating feminist movement is a dangerous threat."

Note, however, the 'ifs'; inclusion in the feminist movement does not simply mean a denial of male privilege, a self-serving "yes, I hate patriarchy too!" It's about men recognising that not everything is about them - that we don't need them to legitimise our struggle. It's challenging the perception that women are the other, men are the whole. It's reading what women have written, listening to what women are saying and looking at the world with fresh eyes. It's knowing that your reality is only half of what there is.

Watson claims that gender is a spectrum: "we don't want to talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes but I can see that they are. When they 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."

I think this is idealistic and overly simplistic. It is comforting to see female oppression as a basic misapprehension, some random misjudgement in the allocation of universal stereotypes. If that's all it is, education will sort it out. Men will listen to us and then they will say “you mean to say women don't naturally prefer being treated as inferior? Well, why didn't you say so? Of course we'll change our ways!” Yet that's not what happens. Some men might talk the talk, but that’s as far as it goes. And as Dworkin says, we do not have time: "We women. We don't have forever. Some of us don't have another week or another day to take time for you to discuss whatever it is that will enable you to go out into those streets and do something."

I don't want my sons to be feminists when they grow up. I want them to be men who have the courage and humanity to challenge masculinity, right here, right now. If women need a movement to say "I'm human", they don't need men jumping on board to say "yay, I'm human, too". We know that already and men know it, too.

By Victoria Smith

Twitter: @glosswitch

NeoFaust Fri 26-Sep-14 12:13:51

At some point, to establish a new consensus on what form true gender equality should take, women and men are going to need to speak to and listen to each other.

Naturally, feminism opposes this.

Wait, what?

ouryve Fri 26-Sep-14 12:24:13

Like it or not, feminism is never going to become an unnecessary concept (which is the whole point, surely?) unless men collectively, as well as individually, get on board with the idea that women are their equals.

WhyTheCagedBirdTweets Fri 26-Sep-14 12:34:05

A lot to think about here, but one point -

She's supposed to be seen and not heard? Well, the nude threats form a tiny part of the response. Meanwhile, she's delivered a keynote speech at the UN, received positive worldwide media coverage and been cheered from all corners. That doesn't sound to me as if the reality supports the theory.

BuffyBotRebooted Fri 26-Sep-14 12:40:14

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WhyTheCagedBirdTweets Fri 26-Sep-14 12:48:01

I like that last line Buffybot, I might steal it.grin

sunbathe Fri 26-Sep-14 12:51:44

Yes, I had reservations about the speech when I first read it.

BuffyBotRebooted Fri 26-Sep-14 12:56:49

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Miggsie Fri 26-Sep-14 13:03:48

No social change can happen if the ruling, powerful elite don't acknowledge the centuries of power and privilege they have and are prepared to hand some power over.

Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa because President De Clerk gave the majority the vote and let Mandela out of prison. De Clerk knew that meant his power base was at an end - but he acknowledged his power and privilege was built on a society that treats a huge section of people as inferior and that his power structure was unethical. White people were allowed to say and agree that blacks should not be treated as inferior - so why can't men join in saying "stop treating women badly"? In fact men need to say it more than women do.

My daughter currently can't play tennis because the boys don't want to play her because they might get beaten by her (she is good) and their friends make fun of them for "being beaten by a girl" - apparently this is the worst thing that can happen to you as a 11 year old boy. Girls should automatically lose to boys it appears because boys somehow are naturally superior: that's my local tennis club in a white affluent middle class suburb in 2014.
While boys are derided and socially punished for "being like girls" then the stereotypes continue. And the fathers need to challenge this, so we do need men in on the fight.

BuffyBotRebooted Fri 26-Sep-14 13:12:35

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WhyTheCagedBirdTweets Fri 26-Sep-14 13:33:32

I suspect that many people would suggest that apartheid is not comparable. The argument might be that in SA blacks were fully segregated from whites, force-moved and denied access to the same levels of career, social care etc etc etc. All this from a legal structure and enforced through the use of violence. There are few states that have such comparisons, but even in Islamic States that have approximate legislation, coupled with draconian punishment, men and women are living a sharde, if not equal, life. Where there is systematic violence against women, there is often systematic violence against men too - as we can see on the news every day.

As Buffybot suggests, it may be a position that muddies the water rather than assists.

museumum Fri 26-Sep-14 14:52:44

Well I like it. I am not a radical feminist and I often feel put down in feminist discussions but damn it I AM a feminist. I think the patriarchy hurts men as well as women and I think feminism should be about EVERYBODY being able to live without being pigeonholed or prejudged based on their gender.
I do not want to have to perform femininity and I don't want my son to have to perform masculinity to be accepted in society.
My kind of feminism as I said is not radical, it is open to men. I spend a lot of time with men due to my hobbies and interests, and I understand that many feminists prefer women only spaces but I don't and I dont think that's wrong.

museumum Fri 26-Sep-14 15:00:08

And while it's all very well to say feminism has been trying to engage men before, clearly the message hasn't got through as so many young women and men think feminism "hates men" or isnt the same as equality.
People like Emma Watson are chosen not because they are the worlds greatest feminist thinkers saying something Earth shatteringly new and revolutionary but because they have the power to reach new audiences.
I have found feminist "critiques" of her speech or the campaign really depressing to be honest. It's almost as if young women might as well not bother as they'll never be saying anything that hasn't bern said before sad

BuffyBotRebooted Fri 26-Sep-14 15:03:16

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BuffyBotRebooted Fri 26-Sep-14 15:06:30

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museumum Fri 26-Sep-14 15:15:30

buffy I'm a scientist and have mainly encountered radical feminists who say that it's not enough for women to do science on a par with men, they feel that science is a male construct and radical feminism should fundamentally challenge the scientific process. They also say that if more women did science it would be different. I don't agree, I think male and female brains are just the same. This leads me to reject radical feminism.

PetulaGordino Fri 26-Sep-14 15:33:49


most radical feminists i have ever met have said that male and female brains are the same

BuffyBotRebooted Fri 26-Sep-14 15:40:59

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BuffyBotRebooted Fri 26-Sep-14 15:42:36

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museumum Fri 26-Sep-14 16:25:07

Interesting. I've heard it more than once. That science is innately a patriarchal construct and that science by women would be fundamentally different.
Tbh it put me off feminism for a long time. Till I decided "fuck it, I'll be my own kind of feminist" smile

Anyway, the thing about bringing in other groups isn't surprising is it? Nor is it unique to men/women. Any fight for equality for any group suffers from the "it's not my fight it's their fight" thought process. People sympathise but few actually fight somebody else's fight, indeed some think it patronising if someone presumes to fight somebody else's fight. I really don't think of it as women twisting themselves in knots at all.

PetulaGordino Fri 26-Sep-14 16:31:12

i think you could argue that if a traditionally male-dominated area had been female-dominated things might have progressed differently, not because men and women are innately different necessarily but because it would likely go hand-in-hand with a completely different societal structure with different priorities

BuffyBotRebooted Fri 26-Sep-14 16:32:50

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PetulaGordino Fri 26-Sep-14 16:37:59

as a non-scientist but someone who works with scientific output i would say that's definitely true in some disciplines

(the funding, publishing, editorship part, not the mass spectrometer part grin)

vesuvia Fri 26-Sep-14 16:46:14

museumum wrote - "They also say that if more women did science it would be different. I don't agree, I think male and female brains are just the same. This leads me to reject radical feminism."

I think most, perhaps even all, radical feminists think male and female brains are the same. Supporters of all the "lady brain" evolutionary psychology pseudo-"science" are much more likely to non-radical feminists, non-feminists or anti-feminists.

I believe that radical feminist criticism of the way that science is currently conducted under patriarchy is probably focused on how gender roles and socialisation put women at a disadvantage compared to men when trying to even have the opportunity to have a scientific career in which they can then apply the scientific method. I think radical feminism proposes a different social approach. I don't think radical feminism is trying to change science as in e.g. destroy the scientific method of evidence, hypotheses, prediction and testing. I think if more women did science it would be different for social reasons not scientific reasons.

HaroldsBishop Fri 26-Sep-14 16:51:08

Behavioural genetics isn't "pseudoscience"....

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