Friday, April 8, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Emma Watson's United Nations 'feminist' speech

Sometimes, when considering famous speeches by women to put here on Famous Speech Friday, I act quickly. Other times, I wait--more by instinct than any other factor. So it was with Emma Thompson's speech launching the He for She campaign at the United Nations. The speech was decidedly feminist, and went viral worldwide. But I waited.

And I'm glad I did, because it wasn't until months later that we learned that Watson was advised not to use the word 'feminism' in the speech. In an interview, she said:
I was encouraged not to use the word 'feminism' because people felt that it was alienating and separating and the whole idea of the speech was to include as many people as possible. But I thought long and hard and ultimately felt that it was just the right thing to do. If women are terrified to use the word, how on earth are men supposed to start using it?
So that was the point of view from which the speech evolved. Watson targeted not only male allies, but women she calls "inadvertent feminists." You can hear it ringing again in the conclusion:
In my nervousness for this speech and in my moments of doubt, I told myself firmly, “If not me, who? If not now, when?” If you have similar doubts when opportunities are presented to you, I hope those words will be helpful. Because the reality is that if we do nothing, it will take seventy-five years, or for me to be nearly 100, before women can expect to be paid the same as men for the same work. 15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children. And at current rates, it won't be until 2086 before all rural African girls can have a secondary education. 
If you believe in equality, you might be one of those inadvertent feminists that I spoke of earlier, and for this, I applaud you. We are struggling for a uniting word, but the good news is, we have a uniting movement. It is called HeForShe. I invite you to step forward, to be seen and to ask yourself, “If not me, who? If not now, when?”
This speech, widely covered and quoted, had even more impact. Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai said that the speech caused her to reconsider feminism:
This word, feminism, it has been a very tricky word. When I heard it the first time, I heard some negative responses and some positive ones. I hesitated in saying am I a feminist or not and then after hearing your speech, when you said 'if not now, when? If not me, who?' I decided that there's no way and there's nothing wrong by calling yourself a feminist, so I am a feminist. And feminism is another word for equality.
Watson recently started a feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, and announced she would take a year off from acting to focus on gender studies. Sometimes, the speech's impact on the speaker is even more profound than its impact on the audience. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Put yourself into it: Watson, a worldwide celebrity, puts her ordinary self into the speech, from referencing her own thought process and privilege, to couching the change in terms of when she'll be nearly 100 years old. Personalizing your speech makes the connection between you and the audience closer, and real. 
  • Talk about the speech process: Had Watson not spoken up about the advice to sand all the rough edges out of her speech, we would have lost another real example of how women's words can be taken from them in one way or another. If it happens to her, it can happen to you. She's a great example of proceeding with her message, anyway--one I hope you will follow. Persist, eloquent women, and know that your own instincts about what you want to say should generally carry the day.
  • Examine a word: A speech may be the ultimate place for us to publicly consider the words we choose and the words we use, and here, Watson does that for 'feminist,' looking at its opponents, deniers, and advocates. I'm so glad she tackled this one, at this time.
You can read the full text of her speech here, and watch the video here or below. Share this one, particularly since it nearly didn't come out this way.

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