The issue with Emma Watson’s feminist plea

The much talked-about feminist speech by Emma Watson did not make me as enthusiastic as it did most of my female friends. In the middle of my busy routine and loud household, I have struggled to understand exactly why, until I started taking it seriously and writing down all my doubts.

This whole week, contradicting thoughts have been fluttering in my mind. On Monday they occupied me on my way to facilitate a workshop on learning at the neuronal level. They came back on Tuesday while I was preparing a session on the nature versus nurture debate. They stayed with me on Wednesday while I was managing the finances of my company. The confusing thoughts were constantly present during my “family hours” at the playground and in our bathroom, in the school yard and on the couch. Why was I uncomfortable with this world-acclaimed speech? Three issues slowly emerged from my general uneasiness, but I had to let them go one after the other. Nevertheless, reflecting on them helped me work out what my fundamental problem with that speech was, so here they come:

Issue no. 1: Idealism disguised as wisdom.

Did I find the speaker too young and inexperienced to lecture the world about womanhood? I also had very clear ideas about myself when I was 24. I was a person, a scientist, a humanist, a music amateur, a traveller, and many other things. I also happened to be a woman, but that was not essential, right? Men and women are equal and, although this principle is not applied in far too many circumstances, I - like Emma Watson - was lucky enough to have found myself in a non-discriminating world. If I had had a chance to speak at the UN then, I might have said very similar things.

Upon reflection, this was not the reason I felt something wrong with the speech. It might well be true that what I have learned since deciding to found a family starkly contrasts with the black-or-white approach of the proud feminist. But if it is not the young people that remind us of our starting points, who will? It is actually good that a young woman speaks up for her gender and for the whole of society. It is good to be reminded what we thought when we were young, so that we can think of it again and see what we now judge as worth keeping and what needs a little update.

Issue no. 2: The money obsession.

Was I irritated because Emma Watson's ideal that men and women receive equal pay for equal jobs simply will never apply to my private family situation? I am not interested in doing the same (well remunerated) job as my husband. He is not interested in doing the same (less well remunerated) job as I do. Still, I don't feel I contribute less to our family or to society compared to him. I don't feel my life is less interesting, challenging, varied, or exciting than his. I don't feel I am worth less.

Of course when a woman and a man do they same job, they should be paid the same. Nevertheless, the emphasis that feminism puts on this point always makes me uneasy. Money is tangible, money can be counted, wages can be engineered and regulated. We might get the impression that we can start tackling the "female issue" from here. This will not be effective, though, until we have found a way to integrate maternity leave into our society (and no, not paternity leave. It is not the same thing. Even if a woman chooses not to breastfeed, she still carries a baby in her body for nine months, which affects her energy, thinking, working memory, emotions, and looks).

In summary, the money issue is indeed one that I find more complex than it is often depicted by feminists, but I do agree 100% with the basic principle. So again, this part of Emma Watson's speech was not the one with which I was fundamentally unhappy.

Issue no. 3: “Making choices about one own body” sounds nicer than abortion but it is not.

Was it that the phrase about "[making] choices about my own body" was incompatible with the story my friend recently told me about abortion? My friend is a midwife and she was very upset. A woman had come into the hospital wanting an abortion because she “could not stand the nausea anymore." My friend and her team were obligated by law to provide this woman with the "service" she requested, yet they all felt deeply unsettled by the whole story. How could an entire life (and the potential lives sprouting of that one) be set against nine months of nausea? (I am pregnant at the moment. I am TOTALLY aware of the discomfort that comes with it, don't get me wrong!) For sure, nobody else but the woman in question should be entitled to answer to this question. But in doing so, she is not just choosing about her own body. She is choosing about her potential children's lives too. She is choosing about her future mental health and well being. This makes the matter more complicated, but it cannot be ignored just for the sake of simplicity.

Notwithstanding, I think the gist of the feminists' position is that nobody is more entitled than a mother to make this difficult decision, and with that I completely agree. For instance, it certainly would have been a disaster if my friend’s patient had kept the child just because her husband had forced her to. In short, the abortion issue was not the one that fundamentally disturbed me, but I was still uncomfortable with the whole matter. I listened to the speech again, and there it was: "my mentors did not assume I might go less far because I might give birth to a child one day." This was the sentence that made me cringe, the sentence that still represents so much of what we call feminism and I cannot subscribe to.

The real problem: We are setting the bar too low. It is not that we are "going less far" if we have a splendid (or not so splendid, for most of us) career on top of having a splendid (or good-enough, for most of us) family. We are going so much further! Giving birth to another human being is the most precious thing a person can ever do. Each human life is worthy and has the potential to be wonderful, but I think anybody would agree that we as a society badly need women to give birth to babies. Without that we would be pretty stuck. Imagine a world were all women chose not to give birth. What kind of society does not encourage, honour and show extreme gratefulness to the people that make its own existence possible? Why are we women happy that our society thinks we "go as far as men" if we get paid the same amount to do the same job?

We are the ones who can do the one thing that not both sexes can do. We are the ones who can carry a child, give birth and feed him/her in the most adapted, tailor-made way. All of this with much thrill and satisfaction, with much effort and dedication. All of this for our own sake, for the sake of the persons we birth, for the sake of our male partners, for the sake of our families, for the sake of our society, and for the sake of our species.

“Maternity is an important part of most women's life."

“There is something sacred about motherhood."

“How to tackle the problem: Ask the real questions.”

Asking men to let us be the same as them is not good enough for women, and it is not good enough for society. Instead, we need to step back and look for ways to make space for motherhood in our society. The real questions we need to ask men and women should be of the following four kinds:

1. Setting expectations.

How do we prepare girls for the privilege and responsibility to give birth to our children? How do we help them reconcile all the things they want and can do, and all the things they want and can be. For instance, how do we bring together the potential of being a mother with the potential of being an astronaut?

2. Halting the denial.

How can we stop ourselves from raising girls who aim to be equal to men in the “success race,” before they are hit by postpartum depression when they realise they need to make space for a new cumbersome passenger in their race car? How can we stop the obsession with not missing our careers, which then ruins the time we consecrate to our little ones? How do we stop the worry of not being a good mother that eventually chips away at our confidence and energy in the workplace?

3. Embracing motherhood.

How do we put into the equation that the quality of care children receive in the first years of their lives has an enormous impact on their later success and well being? How do we fit in the fact that, in the majority of cases, the person who is best placed to provide that precious that kind of responsive care is the mother of the child? How do we make space for the fact that a woman can fulfill herself in parenting in a different way then a man, because she can do so much more for her child and because this is set up to give her the kind of hormonal reward that a man will just never experience?

4. Allowing for diversity.

How do we create women who can be different and can do different things than men but are still treated as equal? How do we do all of this without reinforcing stereotypes of both genders, but instead allowing each individual the freedom to express themselves on the spectrum of gender?

In less than a decade, I have gone from knowing exactly who I was and what place femininity had in my life to taking a week to identify the main questions that are swarming in my overcrowded brain. Although they might be less catchy than Emma Watson's feminist plea, they have the advantage of being rooted in a daily routine of reconciliation between theory and practice, between aspirations and resources, between body, heart and brain. Rendez-vous in seven years. I will let you know then what life with three sons have done to the feminist ideas of my twenties ;-)

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