It just always reveals to me how many misconceptions and what a misunderstanding there is about what feminism is. Feminism is about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom, it’s about liberation, it’s about equality. I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it. It’s very confusing.
Today we are launching a campaign called “HeForShe.” I am reaching out to you because we need your help. We want to end gender inequality — and to do this we need everyone to be involved. This is the first campaign of its kind at the UN: we want to try and galvanize as many men and boys as possible to be advocates for change. And we don’t just want to talk about it. We want to make sure it is tangible.
I was appointed as Goodwill Ambassador for Women six months ago and the more I have spoken about feminism, the more I have realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating. If there is one thing I know for certain, it is that this has to stop. For the record, feminism by definition is: “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.”
I started questioning gender-based assumptions a long time ago. When I was eight, I was confused at being called “bossy,” because I wanted to direct the plays that we would put on for our parents — but the boys were not.
I decided that I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Women are choosing not to identify as feminists. Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, and anti-men, unattractive even. Why has the word become such an uncomfortable one? I am from Britain and think it is right that I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and the decisions that will affect my life. I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men. But sadly I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights. No country in the world can yet say that they have achieved gender equality. These rights I consider to be human rights but I am one of the lucky ones. My life is a sheer privilege because my parents didn’t love me less because I was born a daughter. My school did not limit me because I was a girl. My mentors didn’t assume that I would go less far because I might give birth to a child one day. These influencers were the gender equality ambassadors that made who I am today. They may not know it, but they are the inadvertent feminists who are changing the world today. We need more of those. And if you still hate the word — it is not the word that is important. It's the idea and the ambition behind it. Because not all women have received the same rights that I have. In fact, statistically, very few have been.
In 1997, Hillary Clinton made a famous speech in Beijing about women’s rights. Sadly many of the things she wanted to change are still true today. But what stood out for me the most was that less than 30 per cent of the audience were male. How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation? Men — I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue too.
We don’t often talk about men being imprisoned by gender stereotypes, but I can see that that they are, and that when they are free, things will change for women as a natural consequence. If men don’t have to be aggressive in order to be accepted, women won’t feel compelled to be submissive. If men don’t have to control, women won’t have to be controlled. Both men and women should feel free to be sensitive. Both men and women should feel free to be strong… It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum instead of two sets of opposing ideals. If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by who we are — we can all be freer and this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom. I want men to take up this mantle. So that 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.
You might be thinking who is this Harry Potter girl? And what is she doing speaking at the UN. And it’s a really good question. I've been asking myself the same thing. All I know is that I care about this problem. And I want to make it better. And having seen what I’ve seen — and given the chance — I feel it is my responsibility to say something. Statesman Edmund Burke said: “All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.” In my nervousness for this speech and in my moments of doubt I’ve told myself firmly — if not me, who, if not now, when. If you have similar doubts when opportunities are presented to you I hope that those words might be helpful.
If you believe in equality, you might be one of those inadvertent feminists that I spoke of earlier. And for this I applaud you. We are struggling for a uniting word but the good news is that we have a uniting movement. It is called HeForShe. I am inviting you to step forward, to be seen, and to ask yourself if not me, who, if not now when.
How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?