Of #HeForShe Feminism and the Autumnal Equinox

During an autumnal equinox the Sun spends about an equal time above and below the horizon at all points of the Earth. September 23 is the date for this year’s equinox. For the rest of 2014, the northern hemisphere will pine the loss of sunlight as the other half of the globe rejoices its gain. For a brief period during equinox, however, we are all equals. At least in this single, solar respect.

In most other departments, that simple, elegant equality does not resolve tidily. Not on any day of the year, in fact. Once you’re on the ground, inside the clutch of our gritty atmosphere, the peaks and valleys of human privilege and disparity stand in stark contrast. Some are always stuck in the cold. That is the stuff of injustice and inequality.

Sticking with this theme, UN Women just launched a “solidarity movement for gender equality” entitled #HeForShe. The announcement a couple days ago featured Emma Watson, of Harry Potter fame and now the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, and a stirring speech about her identity as a feminist. Watson received astounding press coverage for her appearance, scoring hits in nearly every news outlet one may care to think of. Diverse media from Buzzfeed to the Guardian, and plenty of Canadian media too, switched gears to cover Watson’s “game-changing” speech—proving once again that pop culture and mass media can lock gears seamlessly with the machines of major international organizations and crank up a story that the whole internet can get on board with.

There is truly no substitute for a poignant and heartfelt celebrity speech when it comes to garnering mass media attention. Watson promises headline power, plus a much more valuable asset—influence over young minds in a frightening battle ground which Jessica Valenti described in a Guardian article earlier this year: “Punching Gloria Steinem: inside the bizarre world of anti-feminist women“. Valenti talks about the war raging between feminists and the “latest crop of female anti-feminists” and their Washington-based organizations that seek repeal of the Violence Against Women Act and pay equity reforms. In a culture ruled by virality, pithy memes like #IDontNeedFeminism threaten to have more firepower than sober observations—such as those of the former chief judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Patricia M. Wald—that gender inequality in cultures like the legal profession owes less to overt discrimination, and more to “subtle differences in how much more difficult it can be for women to locate and manipulate the levers of personal influence inside and outside the firm, with supervisors, senior partners, and clients.” [Patricia M. Wald, “Myths about Women’s Careers in Law”, (2013-2014) 2 U. Balt. J. Int’l L. 5].

Headlines for Watson were gushing—although some could not help but undermine. The Telegraph unblinkingly observed that “Emma Watson hits a high note with gender equality speech — and her wardrobe choices.” That was a particularly tone-deaf one. Safe to say, no journalists felt compelled to comment on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s personal grooming or attire.

The #HeForShe campaign, meanwhile, appears to be aimed at getting men more involved in feminism. It advertises the aim of rallying “one half of humanity in support of the other of humanity, for the entirety of humanity.”

While I’m far from an authority on gender equality and feminism topics, I feel that this call for allies might be more complicated than it first appears. In part, it’s awkward to think of feminism as a cause looking for a saviour. And if it ever is looking for a saviour, it’s not looking for a 39-year old white male like myself.

Consider the Kony 2012 video and the Invisible Children campaign. Teju Cole wrote a thought-provoking piece in The Atlantic, warning that “if we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement.” His comments touch on the concept of the “white saviour”, the over-exuberant ally:

“[…] there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”

Cole’s article was a follow up to a series of tweets he posted, one of them being:

As a feminist, I’ve always been more comfortable on the sidelines, encouraging female voices that sound clear and sharp and true, and that resonate with my own moral feelings on gender equality issues, but not wanting to head in and run the plays. I have not always known if that tentativeness was heroic or not. But a hero is probably the wrong archetype to enlist. If the #HeForShe campaign is about being an ally to women, then it is important—and I’m just speaking on instinct here—that some due diligence is observed in the manner described by Cole. I hope that men of #HeForShe contemplate something a little more nuanced than that “big emotional experience” if being an ally is the aim.

Admittedly, the UN millennium goal for gender equality does not extend to gender equality in First World law firm partnerships, but in the greater arena it’s all connected. The “due diligence” that conscientious in-group members owe those in the out-group requires a more subtle exploration of their own role, and not an expectation of emotional gratification for being a hero. Perhaps humility is the word.

To conclude, here’s one more excerpt from Judge Wald reflecting on the legal profession:

“‘[M]ost of today’s discrimination stems not from attempts to harm anyone but from selective helping.’ We’re each part of several groups defined by race, gender, religion, family, alma mater and so on, and when we go out of our way to help an in-group member, we don’t see that as a bad thing. We’re being ‘good people.’ But such selective privileging reinforces the status quo.”



  1. Great article, Nate! Very creative opener – loved it.

  2. I watched Emma Watson’s speech and concluded that the message is more nuanced than the tagline #HeForShe reflects. If it were just about finding a saviour – and asking men to be that saviour because they have mothers, wives and children they might want to protect – then I’d find it hard to get on board.

    But the message I heard was about reaching out for fundamental equality, by actively working to create it, together. Not by wishing or hoping or politely encouraging others, not by one half (women) trying to do it on their own, and not by the other half (men) doing it for the women. But by having everyone step off the sidelines and be willing to do whatever is required to run the plays.

    I’m a feminist. What I find interesting is that I always get some urge to qualify that in some way to prove that I don’t hate men (“I’m a feminist but… some of my best friends are men”). I do think that part of the message here was that, regardless of the label – or maybe despite the label and its negative connotations – it is about equality. Not hate. That’s a message I subscribe to.

    Putting it back in the ‘law’ context (and recognizing that we’re a pretty lucky group overall), I hope this is a signal that there can be progress at a more accelerated pace than I’ve seen in my 20+ years in the profession.

    Watson’s questions at the end were: “If not me, who? If not now, when?” Her ‘ask’ is to all of us to act now.

    Nate, I appreciate your thoughtful post, and see some hope that there are many of us who do want to work together. To pick up your metaphor… is it possible to find eternal equinox?

  3. Thank you for the comment!
    Don’t worry, I’m a feminist and some of my best friends are men too.
    I like to remind these men that they are feminists too.
    Surely the feminist movement has not always been inviting to men. What kind of movement would that be if it had though!?
    A common in-group response to criticism is of course defensiveness. But what’s on the other side of that? For most equality minded people, it can be the greatest gift to let go of that defensiveness.
    I am compelled to share this quote from Chally Kacelnik which was floating around the internet unattributed for a while. It really gets to the heart of something that inspires me:
    “The thing is, it’s patriarchy that says men are stupid and monolithic and unchanging and incapable. It’s patriarchy that says men have animalistic instincts and just can’t stop themselves from harassing and assaulting. It’s patriarchy that says men can only be attracted by certain qualities, can only have particular kinds of responses, can only experience the world in narrow ways. Feminism holds that men are capable of more – are more than that.”