Let’s talk about feminism

Emma Watson in Conversation with Gloria Steinem for Our Shared Shelf

Emma Watson in Conversation with Gloria Steinem for Our Shared Shelf

By Claudia Bonifay

When a close friend of mine mentioned on a group chat that Emma Watson had just launched a book club, I was immediately thrilled. Ever since her speech at the UN for the launch of ‘He for She’ had moved me to tears, I had been following the campaign. This book club had the promise of bringing together my new found fascination for Watson’s work on feminism, my love for reading, and my inappropriate adult obsession for Harry Potter. What could possibly go wrong? Within minutes I had visited the book club page, called ‘Our Shared Shelf’, and downloaded the first book on my reading tablet. I was ready to be part of the movement.

Since January, Watson has been uploading a new thread announcing the book she will be reading on the first day of every month. Initially, it was explained that members had three weeks to read the book, and it would then be discussed throughout the remaining week of the month. However, that rule was quickly disregarded by the overwhelming ever-growing following of the club, as eager members were creating dozens of different discussion threads every day. With such a wide variety of questions and topics, the forum had to acquire more than a handful of moderators to keep it all in check. Anybody can start a discussion thread, whether about the books, related themes, or really anything that the feminist topic inspires. You can also join in on threads others have already started. From pornography, to the representation of women in the media or the complexity of religious belief as a rape victim, the forums have plenty to offer. There are even discussion threads in different languages, such as Spanish and French.

‘My Life on the Road’ by Gloria Steinem was the first book on the list. Steinem is one of the most prominent feminist activists of the 20th, and even of the 21st century so far. The book is all about her life as a feminist activist, her love for the road and is full of highly satisfying juicy anecdotes. This first pick was a perfect introduction to feminism because it unveils the inner works of her life as an activist, effectively bringing a human touch to historical events and feminist theory. It was incredible to learn from her experience about the different ways the feminist movement had evolved throughout the decades. Most importantly, it taught me that her work had such a large-scale impact because she truly cared about listening, learning and building deep relationships with others.

The book club does not just link people together behind the screen. Dozens of members have quickly taken the initiative to organise meet-ups and reading groups in their respective cities. And last month I saw the club come to life as Gloria Steinem took the stage to be interviewed by Emma Watson at the ‘how to: Academy’ in London as part of her UK tour. At first, I was sceptical about the idea. I was afraid I would be stuck queuing up along with a crowd excited about coming face to face with a celebrity. I am glad I was proven wrong when I realised that everyone was incredibly open-minded and diverse, crossing generations and races. I was also glad to see men sympathetic to the cause disseminated amongst the audience.

Despite the event having been organised in the context of the release of Steinem’s book, other topics were addressed such as the place feminism should take in international conversations on development. Watson expressed her frustration with regards to gender issues being constantly pushed down further on the agenda, rather than being considered a priority and an issue that encompasses all others. Instead, development or conflict concerns should also be examined with a gender lens, as they will always be either caused or aggravated by the exclusion of women and girls and widespread violence against them. In fact, every issue deemed more important than gender equality cannot possibly be solved without gender equality. A perfect example of this is how we currently think of international security. Watson mentioned a figure she came across in the book ‘Sex and World Peace’ that shocked the audience just as much as herself – ‘(…) more lives are lost through violence against women from sex-selective abortion, female infanticide, suicide, egregious maternal mortality, and other sex-linked causes than were lost during all the wars and civil strife of the twentieth century,’ thereby effectively resulting in women no longer constituting half of the world’s population. The devaluation of female life is an international security threat but is often regarded as a separate issue. Steinem followed up by stating that the best indicator of the likelihood of violence occurring in a country or even of that country’s willingness to use military violence against another is not poverty, access to resources, religion or degree of democracy, but the level of violence against females. She explains that this is not because female life is more valuable than any other but rather because it normalises domination.

‘Our Shared Shelf’ really is an incredible way to discover books written by women about feminism, even if not always in obvious ways. It challenges me to think of the presence of those themes where I would not look for them. This is also what the ‘He for She’ campaign aims to achieve: to challenge our notion that feminism is a women-only club. As Watson always says, men need to be part of the conversation for equality to be achieved. I have already started to notice the impact this campaign has had on how comfortable most of my male friends now are with the word feminism and how ready they are to identify with the movement, as feminists.

I was recently asked who my literary female hero was when I was growing up. Whilst I could name a few fictional characters following a few minutes of careful thought – Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy did not deceive as an adventuress and taught me that loving and caring does not contradict strength and courage, actually quite on the contrary – I realised that I had a very hard time naming other heroines who were not sidekicks to protagonist male characters. The ones I liked won the inspirational prize by default because the list of competitors was unfortunately incredibly limited. There has definitely been developments since my time as a child, and I particularly like Viola Eade from Patrick Ness’ ‘Chaos Walking’ series, but I think there is a lot of progress to be made with the support of a book club that aims to deepen exposure to a variety of female authors and characters, dedicated to women, girls, men and boys alike. Gloria Steinem said at the talk that ‘clicking send is not activism,’ but I have to disagree with her. Online platforms such as ‘Our Shared Shelf’ are the future of activism because they have the potential to create communities where ideas can be shared, events announced, questions raised and opinions debated in a much larger space than was previously possible.

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