I've identified myself as a feminist for my entire adult life, but I've sometimes wondered whether the movement made a tactical error in its choice of name. 'Feminism' suggests a female issue, which the female population is responsible for solving. And yet the majority of the discrimination and abuse against women is carried out by possessors of the Y chromosome, suggesting that much of the problem lies with men, and that the responsibility for change must be shared by them. Indeed, with men still holding power in so many realms around the world, practical change has to involve men. Women can batter at the door demanding change, but often it is men that hold the keys.
The positioning of feminism as a women's movement has tended to create a sense of men and women being on opposing sides, with some critics interpreting feminism as 'man-hating'. This Us vs Them mentality can see men become defensive at what they see as incursions into 'their' territory, with gains for women being viewed as defeats for men.
This perception of opposing sides locked in battle has also made it difficult for men who do support gender equality to take an active role in the movement. Until very recently a man referring to himself as a feminist would have been viewed as suspicious and, frankly, a bit weird.
So I was greatly heartened by the recent United Nations initiative HeForShe. Rather than entrenching the old battle lines, the campaign encourages men to work with women to create meaningful and lasting moves towards gender equality. Because women aren't men's enemy. Women are their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. Supporting gender equality is a means of helping those they love. And men aren't women's enemy either. There are many, many good men, who respect, encourage and empower women. Shifting the focus to 'gender equality' allows and encourages everyone to play a part.
Additionally, HeForShe highlights the fact that gender inequality has costs for men as well, with the pressure to be 'masculine' fuelling a range of mental health problems and channelling men into lifestyle choices at odds with their true desires. A world in which men take time off work to care for their children, get behind a sewing machine and have a good cry when they feel sad sounds great to me! True and lasting gender equality can have benefits for everyone.
To put it simply, the battle-lines have changed. It no longer makes sense to frame the issue as men vs. women. Today the battle is between people who support gender equality (female and male) and those who don't (again, both female and male). HeForShe is both an inspiring and pragmatic step forward in this direction.
The campaign was launched in 2014 with a heart-felt speech by Emma Watson. The head of the initiative, Elizabeth Nyamayaro, gave a TED talk in May 2015 which updates its progress. It's terrific stuff!