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Emma Watson gives feminism new life

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
  • Emma Watson gives a rousing speech at the United Nations about gender inequality
  • Gayle Lemmon: Watson is the latest star to illuminate the rebranding of feminism
  • She says that to date we have seen a lot of promise and much less progress
  • Lemmon: The hard part is to take action and make changes to create a fairer world

Editor's note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She wrote "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," a book that tells the story of an Afghan girl whose business created jobs and hope during the Taliban years. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Emma Watson lent her name and her glittery profile to the cause of feminism at the United Nations, and in the process got places that rarely cover this eight-letter "f" word to pay attention.

"How can we effect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?" Watson said in a speech about gender equality that received a standing ovation and has gone viral. "Men -- I would like to take this opportunity to extend your formal invitation. Gender equality is your issue, too," she said.

Rarely do "E! Online" and U.N. Women tweet the same speech. But this wasn't just any speech. It focused on the role of men and questioned the demonization of the term "feminism."

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

"Why has the word become such an uncomfortable one? I think it is right I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decisions that will affect my life. I think it is right that socially, I am afforded the same respect as men," Watson said.

"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 influences are the gender equality ambassadors that made me who I am today. They may not know it but they are the inadvertent feminists needed in the world today. We need more of those."

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Watson gave the speech in light of the U.N. launch of the HeForShe campaign, which aims to engage men to stop violence against women.

We live in a world in which 100 million girls globally are expected to be married off before age 18 in the next 10 years, a world in which even in the United States a girl can find herself plucked against her will from a New York classroom and forced by relatives to marry against her will in a country she has never known, a world in which 31 million girls of elementary school age remain out of school, a world in which two-thirds of the world's 774 million illiterate citizens are female.

Indeed, Watson's star is only the latest to illuminate the rebranding of feminism. As Jessica Bennett wrote on, Beyonce put the word "FEMINIST" in a blaze of full-stage glory at the MTV Video Music Awards, "making Sunday the sixth-highest day for volume of conversation about feminism since Twitter began tracking this year (the top three were days during #YesAllWomen)."

Beyonce also penned a piece last year arguing that "men have to demand that their wives, daughters, mothers and sisters earn more—commensurate with their qualifications and not their gender. Equality will be achieved when men and women are granted equal pay and equal respect."

The question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into visible, on-the-ground gains in the lives of ordinary women and men. The retaking of the "feminist" label by cultural luminaries lending their platform to the issue is laudable, but to date we have seen a lot of promise and much less progress.

One example: On the media front women are embarrassingly absent from editorial pages still content to feature women's voices a fraction of the time. Women "are less likely than men to be sources or appear in authoritative roles in news stories, are depicted less frequently than males and less prominently, such as appearing further down in the columns, with fewer quotes or only paraphrased." (A recent Washington Post review of a Civil War book noted that the author's prose seemed "to have been borrowed from the pages of a women's magazine." Rarely have I spotted such a reference to GQ or Esquire.)

In entertainment, research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media found in a survey of recently released films that there are "2.24 male characters for every female character. Only 30.9% of the speaking characters are female." On the economic front, "after a gradual rise in the 1980s and 1990s, the women's-to-men's earnings ratio peaked at 81% in 2005 and 2006."

So, the talk about access to opportunity for everyone is terrific. But now comes the hard part: the action to make the change and in the process create a world that is fairer for everyone. One that does justice to the ambition of girls in any and every corner of the world, and to our own hopes for a more stable, secure and prosperous future.

It will take a village. One boosted by a lot of high-wattage celebrities helping to light the way.

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