UN speech brings feminism to the forefront

Julia Perkins

“Harry Potter” actress and United Nations Women’s Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson took to the podium last month to officially launch the UN’s new feminism campaign HeforShe.

Watson’s speech on feminism took over our news feeds, as people shared the video of her speech and posted about the campaign on social media. In the speech, Watson extends a formal invitation to men to join the fight for gender equality. She says both men and women suffer from gender inequality.

“I want men to take up this mantle,” Watson said. “So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice, but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too—reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves.”

More than 169,000 men across the world have joined the HeforShe campaign, including celebrities like fellow “Potter” actor Matthew Lewis, “Glee” actor Chris Colfer, Prince Harry and “Avengers” actor Tom Hiddleston.

Brenna Sheehan, co-president of Women in Support of Humanity (W.I.S.H.) at Quinnipiac said she loved Watson’s speech.

“I thought she was so well-spoken, so conscientious and just so articulate, really an incredible, incredible speech,” Sheehan said. “And I really fully believe what she said. I think it’s not fair that men have gender roles and stereotypes too and how it then affects female gender roles and stereotypes and how they’re so poignant still today. It’s just horrifying that it’s still [like this].”

Assistant Professor of Sociology Lauren Sardi, who has a certificate in Women’s Studies and researches gender and sexuality, said Watson’s speech got people talking. But Watson did not say anything revolutionary, Sardi said.

“I think [Watson’s] been saying the stuff that second and third wave feminists have been trying to get across for decades,” Sardi said. “But I think just because younger folks tend to really admire her that was something that people were maybe finally ready to hear for the first time.”

Sardi said feminism is about equality for men and women, but there is a negative perception of feminism in society. The media has perpetuated a false stereotype that feminists are bra-burning man-haters, she said. This causes many young women to not identify as feminists.

“[College women] don’t want to claim a label like that because they’re perceived as being man-haters or lesbians as if [being a lesbian] were a bad thing to be,” Sardi said. “And I think we need to move away from this very false dangerous mislabel of feminism as being man-haters. That’s absolutely not what it’s about.”

Sheehan said she does not understand why someone would not identify as a feminist.

“To put it bluntly, feminism is really about equality,” she said. “So I don’t know who wouldn’t believe in equality in this day of age.”

Sophomore Brent Peiffer said he believes in gender equality, but he has never identified as a feminist.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “It’s not one of those things where it’s like I don’t want to or why would I do that, it’s just not one of those things where I’m like ‘oh, I’m a feminist.’”

Similarly, freshman Jackson Powers said he thinks it is a good idea that the HeforShe campaign encourages men and women to fight for equality. But Powers said he has never called himself a feminist.

“I never have taken the time to really think about it and create an opinion on the matter,” he said.

Sardi said most students are feminists; they just may not understand what the word means.

“If you are about equality for men and women then that in it of itself means you’re a feminist, whether or not you want to claim that label or not,” she said.

Two weeks ago W.I.S.H. set up a table in front of the Carl Hansen Student Center and encouraged students to write why they need feminism on a whiteboard. Sheehan said the event was to promote that feminism is about equality for all.

“We also want to encourage men to be a feminist or be involved in feminism,” she said.

Sheehan said the club is mainly female students, but they do have a few male members.

“It’s getting better,” she said. “But in past years it’s been a little bit more difficult [to get male students involved.] They’ve been a little more shy.”

Inequality hurts those who are privileged too, Sardi said, so men should care about feminism. For example, men pay taxes to help women who are victims of domestic abuse.

“If that weren’t something that were happening you’d have more money in your pocket, honestly in a very real way,” Sardi said. “[Saying] things like you don’t really care if you make more money than a woman does doing the same work, well that woman could be your wife or your sister or your daughter.”

Yet, Sardi said there has been a feminist backlash as women gain higher positions in their careers and society.

“It’s not a coincidence that as women have been gaining more rights, the objectification of women has also increased,” she said. “It’s kind of like, we’re going to put you back in your place, physically and metaphorically.”

Watson is not the first celebrity to start a conversation about feminism, Sardi said. In August, Beyoncé sang behind a large sign with the word “feminist” at MTV’s Video Music Awards. Time Magazine columnist Jessica Bennett called this the “holy grail” of feminism endorsements.

Media outlets have covered women’s rights issues more intensely, especially as sexual assault on college campuses has become a greater issue. Just days before Watson’s speech, President Barack Obama launched the “It’s on Us” campaign. The initiative encourages Americans to do more to stop sexual assault and works with colleges to develop better ways to respond to sexual assault, according to the White House website.

“All of this together is getting people, I think, more involved [in the feminism movement] and I think that’s what’s making a difference,” Sardi said.

Sardi said she hopes the HeforShe campaign changes the way people look at feminism, but she is not sure if it will.

“I really feel like we are at this moment now where [feminism is] suddenly becoming a thing to talk about,” she said. “I just hope we don’t lose the momentum in general. I don’t know [whether] we need a [HeforShe] campaign to do that, but I think it’s very much a grassroots effort to be honest.”