Post, Suffragents

As Ashton Kutcher Takes on Gender Inequity, Some Well-Meant Advice

July 9, 2017

July 10, 2017

Oh, for goodness sake. Forgive Ashton Kutcher his off-key framing of questions meant to animate a discussion of gender equity that took place on his Facebook page today July 10. Give him credit for being among the highly visible few willing to step up as men on a perceived women’s issue.

The facts are well known. Women have 83 percent of the earning power of men and are at a clear disadvantage in tech, which is what appears to have brought Kutcher to the inequity table. It’s disheartening to admit, but halfway through the 17th year of the 21st century, it remains unusual for a man with Kutcher’s draw and visibility to want to bring attention to this sort of thing.

Credit, too, to Kutcher for his handling of the social media backlash that greeted his announcement over the preceding weekend. A sampling from Twitter:

He did not get defensive. He thanked everyone who gave feedback, good or bad, and said he welcomed the opportunity to learn. “Hope we can find space to be wrong in the pursuit of getting it right,” was his rejoinder.

I have a few thoughts for Ashton Kutcher, having spent the last several years researching the singular, seminal historical example of men’s advocacy for a perceived women’s issue, the Men’s League for Woman Suffrage. The League functioned steadily from 1909 to 1919 in the determinative last decade of that 70-year struggle for the women’s vote. The League’s efforts turn out to have been a critical factor in the victory. The evidence, including acknowledgment from the women themselves, has led me to believe strongly that if there is to be social or political change in arenas that most directly have impact on women, authentic engagement from men is sine qua non.

I’m certainly not the first to think or say this. Only last month, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, expressed thoughts on the subject in her speech at the Cannes Lions conference. The issues of inequality start in basic legal frameworks, she said, noting, as she has on other occasions, that 140 countries still have clauses that discriminate against women in their national constitutions. Her key sentence, as quoted by the New York Post:

“Men have to endorse the project as much as women.”

Endorsement by men, yes. Yes, please. But if the example set by the Men’s League is any guide—and I believe it should be—the greatest benefit to the victorious suffrage campaign of a century ago was not the odd celebrity endorsement or call to a virtual meeting.

(A brief aside because I cannot help myself: Yes, there were virtual meetings before the Internet, as Max Eastman slyly reveals in his “Early History of the Men’s League,” published in the Woman Voter of October 1912. This is his description of the League’s founding meeting in November of 1909:

The press was not admitted. [italics, his.] It was told about the meeting afterward. And how many of those dignitaries elected to office were actually present to participate in their own election, it never knew. Nor shall I here divulge any of these diplomatic secrets. Suffice it to say that some fifty of the biggest and best men of new York appear to have met at the City Club and organized themselves into a league for woman suffrage, the newspapers of New York City and State were full of their pictures, interviews with them, statements that they meant business and that many thousands of dollars were behind the movement. Well, they were—a glance at the names would prove that—and if they have stayed behind, it has not been the fault of the executive committee.)

The greatest benefit from the League to the women’s suffrage movement came from the hands-on actions of its male membership. Throughout the decade, these men marched, spoke, wrote, published, lobbied, and hosted events and spectacles, whenever they were called upon to do so. What mattered most was the methodical support they gave to the suffrage movement, specifically in their roles as prominent, powerful, influential figures, as men, representing a full range of professions. Within three years, the first 150 of them with their A-list names on the League’s charter, drew in thousands more in chapters across 35 states. National and an international umbrella Men’s Leagues developed, too. Most significant, as I see it, is that the League had its own executive and administrative structure and staffing. This was key to its success as a suffrage movement ally. And just as importantly, the League always acted in concert with the women leadership of the movement. The women took the strategic and tactical lead. That was just as important to its effectiveness. It’s also true that those women often happened to be their wives, lovers, mothers, or sisters, but not always.

Think of the social media annoyance Ashton Kutcher could have saved himself if he’d requested a read-out from a tuner with experience in the soprano register before he posted a list that started off with not one but three questions about dating and flirting in the workplace:

Nonetheless, given the sorry state of how people choose to communicate on social media, the backlash likely would have come anyway on some other count, along with the praise he also received for being a man who is making an effort.

Plenty has been written about gender inequity in general, about discrimination against women in tech, in particular, and, also in the other Kutcher sphere, about the financial denigration of Hollywood’s women actors. Emma Stone underscored the latter most recently with her acknowledgment that her male co-stars have agreed to pay cuts to equalize their compensation in the same film. Are there other men who’ve taken similar corrective action? Stone did not name her supporters, though how great it would be for them to go public. What’s Kutcher’s position on that? Has he done the same?

A few notable men-oriented pro-women efforts are in place, though none, I think, reaches the level of the Men’s League. The UK-based Athena Swan is a good one, led by CEO David Reubain and a team with a substantial testosterone quotient. This decade-old effort originally focused on expanding opportunity for women in the STEM fields—Kutcher take note, if you’re serious—but has since extended its franchise to other academic arenas and a wider range of outsider groups. Its founders are women: Professor Dame Julia Higgins, Caroline Fox and Nancy Lane.

For nearly three years, the United Nations’ HeforShe campaign has been garnering support from universities, corporations, and national governments in support of “workplace equality, freedom of identity, ending campus violence, and equal pay.” It’s an impressive global effort that lists many men in these important institutions as its champions.

There do not, however, appear to be any men in HeforShe’s engine cab, despite its clever moniker. UN Women, “the global champion of women and girls,” is HeforShe’s locus within the UN’s vast taxonomy. Curiously, when the HeforShe campaign announced itself, the celebrity spokesperson it chose as the face of the campaign was Emma Watson. Max Eastman’s advice, I feel sure, would have been to get men into the structural leadership of the originating organization itself. It was as unfortunate a reality 100 years ago as it is now, that like listens to like, that men still tend to respond best to men.  James Lees Laidlaw, the president of the National Men’s League for Woman Suffrage, made this clear in his mission statement for the organization, reproduced here as a broadside:

Broadside PDF

A corrective in 2016 was the attention Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attracted when he spoke at HeforShe’s second anniversary celebration. In March of this year, he became one of the organization’s four inaugural “thematic champions.” Watson’s presence on HeforShe’s website is now on the campaign’s “Our Mission” page, along with the other two highly accomplished organization leaders, UN Women’s Phumzile Miambo-Ngcuka and the HeforShe’s director, Elizabeth Nyamayaro—both women.  The HeforShe homepage, at this writing, has become an arresting, faceless, black, red, white, and magenta encounter that urges people to sign up and be “counted” as adherents of the campaign.

It seems like you want to be counted, Ashton Kutcher. If so, a salute! How much further will you go?