Emma Watson hit the nail on the head with her HeForShe speech to the United Nations in 2014 when she said that, from her research, one of the problems people have with feminism isn’t the concept but the word ‘feminist’. Apparently I’m not alone in thinking that it sounds a bit yucky, too much like racist or misogynist or sexist. I remember the first time a girl friend told me she was a feminist; it sounded like she was owning up to something awful or embarrassing or that she hated men. “But I love men!”, I thought to myself. “Does this mean I can’t be a feminist?” (I was very young, please forgive me.) Weirdly, when a male friend told me years later that he was a feminist, I thought “How cool is that? A feminist man!”
“For the record, feminism, by definition, is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities”
Emma Watson, HeForShe speech, 2014
I hope that there are very few people left in the world who believe that men deserve to have rights and opportunities that aren’t afforded to women just by virtue of the fact that they are male. Yet I know lots of people who prefer to say “I believe in gender equality” to “I’m a feminist”. It just sounds less shouty, less aggressive, more acceptable. The HeForShe campaign about which Emma was speaking invites more men to get on board with feminism as, let’s face it, it’s not just up to women to fight for women’s rights any more than it’s solely up to LGBT, BAME or other socially marginalised people to fight for their own rights. I like to think that, had the ball been on the other foot and men had been disadvantaged from birth because of their gender, we women would be proud to call ourselves masculist and fight for equality.
It’s a wonderful thing when men, especially those who are in the public eye, stand up and say “I’m a feminist”. When Andy Murray did it, he turned into a global icon just like that. I find it interesting, having had a scroll through the internet for other celebrity men who identify as feminists, that many of them, Andy Murray included, cite the strong women in their lives, often their mothers, as the reason they became feminists in the first place. Boys who are brought up by strong women seems more likely to become champions for gender equality themselves. As a mother of two boys, I consequently feel an enormous responsibility to get this bit right. Yikes.
In January this year I received a hand-written letter from my 10-year-old son. Each new year the pupils at his school are set the task of writing letters to their parents/guardians thanking them for all they’ve done to make Christmas special. It’s a clever assignment: they think they’re just writing a nice letter to their parents; we know it’s designed to encourage them a) to recall their favourite moments b) to find interesting ways in which to describe them and c) to practise their best hand-writing! I opened the envelope, read his beautiful letter, had a little weep and folded it back into its envelope for safe-keeping. Only at this point did I notice something unusual about the address: he’d written Mrs and Mr L’Estrange instead of the more conventional Mr and Mrs. When I saw him later that day, I mentioned this and his response was
“I did it on purpose because you’re always telling us to challenge the status quo and so I thought why should it always be Mr and Mrs? Why not Mrs and Mr?”
It was a moment I’ll never forget and that envelope will be pinned to the noticeboard in my study forever more as a little encouragement to myself every time I worry that I’m not getting the “mummy thing” right.
Two weeks today it will be International Women’s Day and I and some wonderful female colleagues will be releasing a charity single called ‘Twenty-first-century Woman’ to help raise money for girls’ education globally. I’ve got between now and then to drum up some support with the help of social media. With this in mind, I hereby challenge all of my male friends, colleagues and family members and any other men who may be reading this blog to post a photo of themselves on facebook, twitter or instagram with the following hashtags:
That middle word is a tricky one – I get it, really I do. But it’s the only one we’ve got and so I’m afraid we’re stuck with it. Alexander (pictured) has set the ball rolling. Who else is in?
Pre-order ‘Twenty-first-century Woman’ and help it climb the charts.
All proceeds from downloads will go to charities supporting girls’ education globally.