Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Leah McLaren: Feminism rightly reframing women’s issues as human issues

Last weekend, I hosted a table at a UN Women's breakfast in London to promote the launch of the 2017 HeForShe campaign in honour of International Women's Day. My husband was working, so I fobbed off the older two boys on friends and took the baby with me. The organizer was wonderfully gracious about it, declaring "it's absolutely in the spirit of the event." But as soon as I arrived I regretted it. The breakfast was in a fancy hotel ballroom with elegant round tables set with bone china and pots of chia oats decorated with edible flowers. Table hosts were meant to facilitate a discussion and then speak for two minutes in summary. When the baby woke up from his nap and commenced grizzling, I realized to my horror I'd accidentally worn a dress. This meant instead of unbuttoning my top to breastfeed I had to pull the whole thing up, drape a napkin over my midsection and sit there semi-exposed in my tights from the waist down while giving the blighter his snack. Such are the humiliations we women endure in the pursuit of gender equality and work-life balance.

HeForShe, you will have heard by now, is the UN's campaign to promote gender equality by engaging men and boys in the global fight for women's rights. It launched with a bang three years ago when Emma Watson (Hermione of Harry Potter fame) gave a glorious speech in a smoking white pantsuit at the UN headquarters. At the time, Watson's oration went viral, getting millions of views on YouTube and bringing the house down with her insistence that it was "time that we all see gender on a spectrum, instead of two opposing sets of ideals." The reaction was partly due to the fact that no one could believe how all-grown-up Harry Potter's friend was (like Miley Cyrus but without the bad music or twerking) and partly a sense that a fourth wave of feminism was about to crash over us, tsunami-style, with Watson surfing the whitecap.

And so it has come to pass, a new and more inclusive kind of feminism, a movement as easily and variously embodied by Beyonce and Caitlyn Jenner as it is by Angela Merkel and Theresa May. The main and best point about HeForShe is that many key problems that have long been ghettoized as "women's issues," such as affordable childcare, reproductive freedom, sexual violence, the pay gap and body image, to name just a few, are in fact human issues, in that they affect everyone at all levels of society even if women do bear the brunt.

Story continues below advertisement

Margaret Wente: Who's a feminist? It's complicated …

Just like men, women are multitudes. It is no longer acceptable for politicians to drive around in pink buses appealing specifically to "female voters" on the campaign trail as if we all thought with one mind.

A welcome addition to the conversation is Stephen Marche's new book, The Unmade Bed, which looks at the issues of work-life balance and gender equality from a male perspective. Marche hedges his argument, and cleverly so, with wry footnotes from his wife, Toronto Life editor Sarah Fulford. Like HeForShe, Marche makes the point that women's issues are everyone's issues and that most couples don't sit around agonizing about identity and gender politics when deciding who'll make dinner or take the kids to soccer. The problems of families, just like the problems of countries, are largely economic, Marche rightly points out. Gender discrimination still exists on a large scale, of course, but few women drop out of the work force because we want conform to tradition. We drop out (or at least most of us do) because we feed babies with our bodies for months on end and then in a haze of exhaustion find out that sending them to daycare is going to cost 80 per cent of the salary for a job we hated anyway.

If Marche's fresh insights are an example of how gender-inclusive campaigns such as HeForShe might well be shifting things in the right direction, then Piers Morgan is the flip side of the cultural equation.

Earlier this week England's lantern-jawed troll wrote a column in the Mail Online in which he called Emma Watson a "feminist fraud" for doing a semi-nude photo shoot for Vanity Fair. Dredging up an old interview quote from Watson's teens in which she expressed discomfort at the spectre of feminist pop stars who then put themselves on sexual display, Morgan used his platform as he so often does, to attempt to cut down and humiliate a woman in a position of influence. (See also Twitter spats with Rihanna and J.K. Rowling for details.)

Speaking of women of influence, back at the UN Women's breakfast, things went from messy to worse. As the feminist seas parted and Christiane Amanpour (a.k.a. the Meryl Streep of journalism) got up to speak, my infant son suddenly pulled his face away and began to shriek, causing half the room to turn and stare at my exposed and leaking boob. As I sat there half-naked and dying, it occurred to me that the situation I was experiencing highlighted the problem with introducing males into discussions of women's rights. One way or another, they manage to dominate the conversation. Even at five months old.

Report an error
About the Author

Leah McLaren is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She’s published two novels, The Continuity Girl (2007) and A Better Man (2015) both with HarperCollins Canada and Hachette in the USA. The first was a Canadian bestseller, though the second is actually much better. More


The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at