What is “feminism”? According to the dictionary, it is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities,” a definition cited in Emma Watson’s inspiring “HeForShe” speech at the UN. Yet even as she spoke it, she noted that it is often not applied in this way in public discussion. If that isn’t he definition, what is? The only sensible argument is that those who support feminism get to decide.
I am a feminist. I support the work that Emma Watson and so many others are doing to guarantee equal rights and opportunities for women all around the world, and I embrace that definition. Yet it remains obvious that there is so much left to be done and so much to consider we can’t let it go at something this simple.
Watson, speaking for HeForShe, was speaking directly to me, as a man, to garner my support for women. I’d like to echo this, but also to refine and elaborate on what it means to me as a man.
The subjugation of women is one of the great constants across all of human culture through all of time. It seems impossible to support feminism, as defined, and remain at all conservative or respectful of history or the cultures that make feminism seem so difficult. That seems to be the primary problem with the movement as it is defined generally – it is inherently radical by nature and by necessity appears to have to cast off everything that came before it.
This brings us to the three (or four) “waves” of feminism in the developed world. The first was the initial campaign for rights, primarily voting, in the 19th Century. The second came in the 1960s with a call for legislation to require equality in the workplace and related areas. The third wave in the 1990s was more broad and sought to make equality more universal through other cultures. There may be a fourth wave, depending who you ask, which is both more radical and more “normative” at the same time.
It is this fourth wave that Watson was speaking to directly – the one that establishes the promise of equality as “the way things are” and embraces men as equal partners in the fight.
To understand what men have to gain by supporting feminism, it’s important to go back into the dark recesses of culture and understand the entire concept of roles established at birth. At the time of the first wave, and even into the second, men were also given expectations and defined roles for which they were trained from birth as well.
At the working class end, this was often more of a primary “breadwinner” who, in the industrial age, was forced to separate himself from the family nearly all day and slave away at a job for which terms like “hapiness” and “fulfillment” were alien concepts. Wealthier men didn’t fare much better, with the eldest inheriting his father’s profession, the second son pledged to the military, and the next the priesthood. No one had a choice in life since training started at birth.
You can see this definition of roles at work as recently as the Kennedy family, but it persisted well into the 1960s. Women’s roles were clearly subjugated and undervalued, but men weren’t exactly being fulfilled by the old order.
To make real change, everything has to be upended – a process that naturally takes many waves or, really, generations to accomplish. As a divorced father I made a point to be there for my children, born in that third wave, rather than assume the traditional breadwinner role. Watson, for her part, acknowledged the needs to change for men very well and should be congratulated for it.
This brings us back to HeForShe, an organization calling on men to support women. An excellent rejoinder is making its way through the net, and it’s very much worth reading. Unfortunately, as well as the case is made for where we definitely want to be there is so much work left to do. Actively supporting women is still essential simply because equality of opportunity – and expectations – is still elusive. Yet it benefits us all in the search for more than just material wealth but genuine hapiness in this bizzy, chaotic world.
Is this really still about women and the need for men to “support” them, or is it more about the need to liberate men from the narrow definitions that have trapped us emotionally? The answer, I believe, is a simple “yes”. It’s about all of that.
I applaud what Watson said because her passionate and thorough speech stated very well what work needs to be done. Engaging men in the cause is absolutely essential. As this moves beyond one speech into the conversation that is necessary to seep these goals into the cultural subconscious we must not forget what men have to gain from genuine equality.
Let’s also not forget how we all got where we are and understand that a more fluid, open society that truly enjoys the fruits of a longer life and an end to soulless hard labor has much more time for all of us to understand what we can do, whether or not that is making family and community cohesive or bringing home the money necessary to keep it all going.
Before we cast off our traditions we need to remember them, understand where they came from, and explain why they can and reasonably should be cast aside in the search for a better life for everyone.
Feminism is a good thing, and I’m proud to support it. But let’s not forget all aspects of the basic human right of “the pursuit of hapiness” and be sure that they are all open for everyone. Men do have a lot to gain through this – as long as we understand why it’s essential.