What’s this #HeForShe thing?

by Stephen Cobb on November 15, 2017

Technically speaking, #HeForShe is a hashtag, a social media tool defined as: “a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) and used to identify messages on a specific topic (Wikipedia).

About two years ago I started adding the #HeForShe hashtag to things like the “Welcome to CobbsBlog” page and my Twitter profiles (@zcobb and @thestephencobb). The #HeForShe hashtag originated with, and is the name of, the UN Women’s solidarity movement for gender equality.

The idea behind HeForShe is that it: “invites men and boys to build on the work of the women’s movement as equal partners, crafting and implementing a shared vision of gender equality that will benefit all of humanity.”

Tagging things #HeForShe is a way for me to share the fact that I have accepted that invitation. Why? Because I truly believe that gender equality does benefit all of humanity. I also believe that gender equality will not be achieved unless more men – most men, all men – commit to it, and make it a priority, in practical terms and not just as a vague aspiration.

Getting schooled on #HeForShe

I came to know about #HeForShe because I was studying at the University of Leicester when, back in May of 2015, it joined the UN Women’s HeForShe solidarity movement as an IMPACT 10x10x10 champion, one of 10 universities around the world participating in the program with the goal of taking “bold, game-changing action to achieve gender equality within and beyond their institutions.”

“Announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January of 2015, HeForShe’s IMPACT 10x10x10 programme engages 30 key leaders across three sectors—the public sector, private sector and academia. All 30 IMPACT champions have made common commitments and have also developed tailored commitments, formally reviewed by an expert team at UN Women and approved personally by the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.”

But the fact that my school had embraced HeForShe was not why I chose to do so. I honestly feel that gender equality has always been something that I believe in, from well before my first stint at university (University of Leeds, 1971-74). I can’t say that I was born a feminist – the scientific jury is out on whether that is even possible – but I knew that I was a feminist-sympathizer as soon as I heard the word used in a sentence. That would have been around 1965, shortly after I became a teenager and read The Feminine Mystique.

Here’s what happened: about that time my mum enrolled in college under a government program to reduce the shortage of teachers created by the baby boom. Her decision – which my dad supported practically, emotionally, and philosophically – resulted in a real world experience of gender equality in action. Among other things it demonstrated that:

  1. Women can have a productive career outside the home.
  2. This is not a threat to men.
  3. Men and boys can do housework quite well.

On top of that, mum’s time as a mature student created a steady flow of interesting books into our house, notably the afore-mentioned 1964 classic, The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. This has since been “widely credited with sparking the beginning of second-wave feminism.” As I read – entirely of my own volition – Friedan’s analysis of women frustrated with society’s narrow and deeply limiting definition of what a woman should be – wife, mother, cook, cleaner – it rang true with my own observations.

That’s right, I had – for whatever reason – been observing women from an early age (maybe I was born to be social scientist). As a child I was surrounded by women, at home, at church, and at the shops. I listened to them talking. I read women’s letters to the advice columns in ladies’ magazines (which were definitely not feminist back then).

Rather fortuitously, my childhood in Coventry, England, was enriched by frequent visits from numerous aunts and great aunts, all of whom had all survived at least one world war. My mum’s mother had actually lived through aerial attacks in both World War One and World War Two. All of them had lived through large-scale bombing campaigns, including the one in 1940 that killed over 500 people in Coventry in one night and destroyed two-thirds of the city’s buildings (Wikipedia). My grandma and several of her sisters worked in munitions factories which were targeted in these campaigns.

Often when I was small these women, most of them housewives with grown children, would sit and talk about those times gone by, and I would quietly listen at their feet. That is how I came by precious historical vignettes like this: my Great Aunt Tot standing in the middle of the street shaking her fist and swearing at a German Messerschmitt 109 as it made a daylight strafing run on the factory at the end of the road.

So maybe it is not surprising that I grew up thinking of women as strong, independent individuals; all the while growing increasingly angry that society would not treat them equally. Yes, there has been some progress, but nowhere near enough. Hopefully #HeForShe can help us move things forward.

Of allies, male feminists, and good men

I hope to find time to write more about HeForShe but in the meantime I will try to use the hashtag wherever appropriate in order to raise awareness of gender inequality and the need for men to work to eliminate it.

What I will try to avoid is referring to myself as an ally of women, or a male feminist, or a good man. Those are designations to which I aspire, but it is not part to claim them.

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