By Kate Webber
“If not me, then who? If not now, then when?” British actor Emma Watson asked this question in a speech she made in September, 2014 as the United Nations Women Global Goodwill Ambassador. Her words inspired many—perhaps no one more so than Machias Memorial High School junior Abigayle Hopkins.
This year, Abi Hopkins served as one of the two inaugural Maine Humanities Council Student Humanities Ambassadors. “In my first meeting [with MHC], they asked me what was important to me, and I knew that it was feminism,” Abi said. “I am a feminist because I believe that men and women are equal. My gender does not limit me, and your gender does not limit you.”
Abi set out to form “The Feminist Project.” She designed an event that would educate her community on feminism, which, as Watson’s speech points out, both men and women have stepped away from. They associate the word with man-hating, exclusion, and negativity. Watson firmly stated, “this has to stop.” Watson defines feminism simply as the belief in that both sexes are equal. She called on men to join in the cause, pointing out the ways in which they too are hurt by sexism.
On April 27, 2015, over 150 students and community members gathered at the University of Maine at Machias for “The Feminist Project.” Students came in buses from Machias High School, Washington Academy, and the Cobscook Community Learning Center. Abi welcomed them and played Emma Watson’s speech to the United Nations in full.
Three panelists came to share their own experiences with feminism: Shenna Bellows, former candidate for the U.S. Senate; Rick Doyle, an attorney at The Next Step Domestic Violence Project; and Cheyenne Robinson, an activist student at the University of Maine at Machias. Charley Martin-Berry, who leads the Community Caring Collaborative, facilitated the discussion, starting by asking panel members about the speech.
“[Watson] is really reaching out to boys and men,” Rick Doyle said. “I think we’re at a historical juncture where that’s necessary in order to reach the goals which we as feminists intend to reach. We all have to be part of this.”
Shenna Bellows emphasized the importance of personal courage and action. “I think each one of us in this room at this point has seen or will see injustice, or something that needs fixing. Particularly when we’re talking about equality of opportunity for boys and girls, for men and women. Each one of us has that power to be that person, to get involved, to speak up, even if it makes us nervous, even if it makes us uncomfortable.”
“To me, feminism is being able to do what I want to do without being judged,” Cheyenne Robinson explained. “I’m a bisexual woman and I get a lot of stigma from that. And to me, being able get the same pay as anyone else—that’s huge, because women of color get paid a lot less than white women, and women in general get paid less than men. And that needs to change.”
This resonated with Shenna Bellow’s experience in the workforce. She shared the story of two separate times in her career when she realized she was being paid significantly less than her male colleagues for the same work. She told the students how difficult it was to speak to her employers.
When asked about his personal experience with feminism, Rick Doyle discussed the bias that exists in the legal system. “In my twelve years as an attorney working with victims of domestic violence in court, I’ve come to realize that sexism is alive and well.
“As nations, we’ve changed laws, we’ve worked hard to get rid of ancient doctrines, and we’ve done okay,” he continued. “But the oppression of women that we used to sanction socially and in our laws still exists in the minds and in the hearts of abusers. What I think is at the foundation of violence against women is the abuser’s belief that he has the right to have power and control over his girlfriend, fiancé, wife. And that belief is deadly. In Maine, as long as I’ve been a domestic violence attorney and longer, just about half of the homicides every year have been domestic violence homicides.”
Questions asked by the largely student audience ranged from young men paying more for car insurance to transgender activism to what steps a man can take to promote feminism. Many of the students had never been exposed to the concept of feminism. The panelists gave them an opportunity to consider their own privilege, oppression, and the intersection between the two.
Cheyenne Robinson, who is a native of Aroostook County, told the students to open their eyes. “I’ve experienced a lot of discrimination, and I’m twenty-three. It’s really there, so if you’re not seeing it, you’re not looking hard enough.”
At the end of the event, Charlotte Martin-Berry called on the audience, “If you believe in equal rights for women, for everyone, stand up.” Not one person remained seated.