As I drove my son back to college last week, where he’ll take a summer chemistry course, he said something that struck me: “I believe it’s very important for everyone to be a feminist.”
He didn’t say it for effect, to shock or provoke conversation. It was just one of those thoughts that surface on a road trip, a kind of sorting out of life by a son before his father.
He explained that he had never truly been aware of the extent of his own male privilege until recently, and that after watching the #YesAllWomen campaign unfold and doing quite a bit of reading, he had begun to chafe at the subconscious — and sometimes overt — gender inequity that pervades our society and the world.
It wasn’t fair, he insisted. Not to the millions of women he didn’t know and had never met, nor to his girlfriend, friends who are girls or his own sister.
I couldn’t have been more proud of his most principled stance.
Yes, we should all be feminists, but too often we believe that the plight of the oppressed is solely the business of the oppressed, and that the society in which that oppression is born and grows and the role of the oppressors and beneficiaries are all somehow subordinate.
Fighting female objectification and discrimination and violence against women isn’t simply the job of women; it must also be the pursuit of men.
Only when men learn to recognize misogyny will we be able to rid the world of it. Not all men are part of the problem, but, yes, all men must be part of the solution.
The statistics on violence and discrimination against women are just staggering. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women has reported that:
■ According to a 2013 global review of available data, 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced intimate-partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. However, some national violence studies show that up to 70 percent of women have at some point experienced violence from an intimate partner.
■ In Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States, violence by intimate partners accounts for between 40 percent and 70 percent of all murders of women.
■ More than 64 million girls worldwide are child brides; 46 percent of women ages 20 to 24 in South Asia and 41 percent in West and Central Africa report that they married before the age of 18.
■ Approximately 140 million girls and women in the world have suffered female genital mutilation/cutting.
■ In the United States, 83 percent of girls 12 to 16 have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public schools.
■ Women are already two to four times more likely than men to become infected with H.I.V. during intercourse. Rape increases the risks because of limited condom use and physical injuries.
■ In the United States, 11.8 percent of new H.I.V. infections in the previous year among women 20 or older were attributed to intimate-partner violence.
And that is only a sampling of the points made by the U.N. about the devastating scale of the problem. It doesn’t even take into account more subtle, but still corrosive, issues like job and pay discrimination, imbalances in parental roles and responsibilities, sexual double standards and the imbalance of political power.
Many of these issues are particularly acute right here in the United States. As CNN reported last year:
“The U.S. has a larger gender gap than 22 other countries including Germany, Ireland, Nicaragua and Cuba, according to a World Economic Forum report … [that] rates 136 countries on gender equality, and factors in four categories: economic opportunity, educational attainment, health and political empowerment.”
Men around the world, in general, do not have to worry as much, if at all, about being the subjects of such physical and psychological violence. They have the luxury of not being forced to fully engage and confront the scale and scope of the problem — and that is the very definition of privilege.
But we can fix that.
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Empathy is not particularly elusive. It only requires an earnest quest to understand and act on that understanding. The problems women face in this world require the engagement of all the world’s people.
“It’s very important for everyone to be a feminist.”