The Blog

Emma Watson, Gloria Steinem, and My 10-year-old Daughter

It feels like a historic moment, 24 February 2016. Actor Emma Watson, at 25 a rising-star feminist, is set to interview the revolutionary Gloria Steinem, 85-year-old activist, campaigner, legend. Outspoken-celebrity Britain meets era-defining America. One has seen the light; the other has lit the way.

It feels like a historic moment, 24 February 2016. Actor Emma Watson, at 25 a rising-star feminist, is set to interview the revolutionary Gloria Steinem, 85-year-old activist, campaigner, legend. Outspoken-celebrity Britain meets era-defining America. One has seen the light; the other has lit the way.

Here at the Emmanuel Centre in London's Westminster, with a sell-out crowd of 1,000 plus another 250 in a video overflow hall, it seems as if there is one man for every 30 women and that every other woman is holding a copy of Steinem's recent autobiography My Life On The Road. Though 90,000 copies have been sold in the US, here it is more like 7,600 - in January sales of the book shot up from 3,000 virtually overnight after Watson selected it to kickstart her new feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf.

Sinuously elegant, with a great warm confident smile, Gloria Steinem takes to the stage wearing a trademark low-slung belt which references her affinity with Native Americans, and a long-sleeved top pulled down over her fingers teenager-style. Then in strides Emma Watson, show-stopping in high heels, tight black trousers, a crisp white cropped shirt.

It's significant, meaningful, this confluence of two champions of the feminist cause. Steinem has embodied the women's movement since the 1960s, has made a political mark on the world and a personal impact on people's lives. Now here she is standing strong with a trailblazing actor who has the courage to wear her heart, sincerity and curiosity on her sleeve, to use her fame as a platform. Fronting the HeForShe campaign Watson is sparking a conversation around gender issues for a whole new generation. Her declaration that she will take a year off acting and read a book a week to learn about equality is, Steinem tells her, "precious and unusual... People come to know you onscreen and they trust you. It is so great and important that you are taking that trust and putting it to work by giving out activism information."

In turn Watson says: "The challenge at times seems insurmountable. We are climbing Everest and: can we see the peak? And you've been doing this almost your whole life. You're so engaged and mad as hell and totally in it, but you have this amazing patience and kind of aerial view of it."

No wonder this event has been billed as an "epic feminist bonding session" (Marie Claire), the "feminist chat of our dreams" (HuffingtonPost) and, as termed their collaboration: "life lessons from the jedis of feminism".

For 90 minutes Steinem and Watson talk sexuality, sports, friendship, patriarchy, pornography versus erotica, violence against women, body image, self-worth, dehumanised and caring male role models, the pressures of self-improvement, Harry Potter, abortion, representation of women in politics, nervousness about public speaking.

Watson is captivating - increasingly animated into candid anecdotes, she comes across as clear, composed, authentic (her word), thoughtful. "It was a big revelation to realise that it was very profitable for me to feel really bad about myself as a woman," she reflects. "Once I'd come to understand this idea I was able to shut down a lot of self-critiquing."

Steinem is compelling - easygoing, good-humoured, zen (Watson's word for her), and assured, she speaks in incantatory, eloquent sentences. She remarks: "I always say to audiences of men: cooperation beats domination - trust me", then laughs.

Both can't help but command respect for their quiet fervour, and for the vulnerability and strength in their giving of themselves.

"I love crying. Crying is great," says Watson. Gloria concurs: "Why is there shame around crying? People who watch a horrific event and don't cry ought to explain why."

When Steinem says: "We can't control what happens, but we can use what happens", Watson agrees: "You come to embrace these things. I now accept that I was like Hermione. It's made me who I am."

Later Watson wonders: "Would you say that a Gloria mantra would be: never, never, never, never give up?" Steinem replies: "Yes. And dance a little."

• • • • • • •

The press coverage is minimal the day after their superwomen exchange. There's just the odd article fixated on Watson's ombré hair colour and a few making the obvious soundbite out of Watson's reflection "I hated my strong eyebrows at age 9". It's the classic delight in female self-loathing and insecurities - and lost in the shuffle is Watson's payoff line about her empowering mother ("She desperately tried to tell me that my strong eyebrows gave my face character").

Some websites get the irony - "Emma Watson discusses feminism. Everyone gets excited about her hair," points out the Telegraph; "C'mon. Surely this is a parody," declared an article on Indy100; and the Refinery29 article "Why We Don't Care About Emma Watson's Eyebrows" goes on to exclaim: "What more does this woman have to do to be taken seriously? What have her highlights got to do with anything she was attempting to achieve yesterday?"

A few days later comes the delayed-reaction avalanche. Because in replying to a question from the audience, Watson had casually, as if among friends, mentioned - a website about women's sexual pleasure recommended by a friend - the media zeroes in on it. More "reductionist commentary", to quote Steinem, in action.

• • • • • • •

The day before their milestone talk I spend a calm half-hour with Steinem at Oneworld, her publishing house in Bloomsbury, doing a Q&A for the Guardian. Though I'm slightly overawed to meet the "mother of feminism", a tireless radical maverick who has done so much to right social injustice, I immediately feel I've known her always. It's something about the soft-spoken, measured way she talks; her being gracious, interested, at ease; the way she sometimes ends a sentence with a conciliatory "OK?" or "right?"; the laugh, maple-syrup rich and smooth, that prefaces some of her answers.

Growing up as a teenager in 1960s San Francisco, I tell her, I'd subscribed to Ms Magazine. She wants to know my story; suddenly she's asking me questions. She makes a great listener. Time is running out, and I wonder if we can talk about a few more things. "Up to you," Steinem says, "it's up to you."

I put to her a question from my 10-year-old daughter Dare: "Since when did you become a feminist, and how did you know you were one?"

Steinem does her gentle laugh, pauses: "It took an alarmingly long time because it wasn't present in the culture when I was growing up. I thought I might be able to escape a female fate as an individual, but I didn't understand it was possible to change the fate itself. That only became clear to me, thanks to other women, in the late 60s, when I was in my mid-30s. So your daughter's going to do much more than I did, because she's smart and independent younger."

Steinem signs my copy of her book: "To Dare - who is our future!"

As I'm out the door, she says: "See you somewhere in the world again, I hope."

The next night, after the talk with Emma Watson, Steinem sits signing books for a huge long queue of people. A 50-year-old American declares: "I'm starstruck!"; a young woman comments: "My mother made me read this book"; there's even a father with a baby dressed in pink strapped to his chest.

I introduce my 10-year-old girl to Gloria Steinem. They say hi and smile at each other across the table.