Exclusive: Patrick Stewart Calls on Men to End Violence Against Women

The dynamic 72-year-old acclaimed actor and activist has taken on his own personal mission: enlisting men in the movement to end violence against women, which he has called, "the single greatest human rights violation of our generation."
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Many of us remember Sir Patrick Stewart on Star Trek: The Next Generation as the heroic Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise whose mission was to explore the galaxies. In real life, the dynamic 72-year-old acclaimed actor and activist has taken on his own personal mission: enlisting men in the movement to end violence against women, which he has called, "the single greatest human rights violation of our generation." As part of this ambitious effort, Stewart recently served as host for the launch of "Ring the Bell," a global campaign (conceived by the human rights group Breakthrough) calling on one million men to make one million "concrete, actionable promises" to end violence against women and girls.

The launch event on March 8th, which coincided with International Women's Day and the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations headquarters, brought together over 200 special guests from media, business, entertainment, government, religion, and communications, as well as many high-profile men lending their voices to the cause, including Grammy-award winning singer Michael Bolton, who talked emotionally about his work lobbying for the extension of the Violence Against Women Act recently passed by Congress, Dallas Mayor Michael Rawlings, who in January launched an initiative to combat domestic violence in his city, and Don McPherson, a former NFL quarterback who emphasized the importance of re-thinking the messages we send to our boys. Many other male notables have already joined the One million men. One million promises movement, including UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson (you can see videos of celebrity promises here.)

At the launch event, Stewart pounded the podium in front of him nine times to symbolize the shocking statistic that "every nine seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten in the United States" (another alarming statistic: according to the UN, globally at least one in three women and girls is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime.) For Stewart the cause is intensely personal, since as he talks about openly in the following interview, he experienced the horror of domestic violence firsthand when as a small child he witnessed his father repeatedly physically abusing his mother. Stewart said he only recently felt ready to talk publicly about his experience - but now feels it is important that he do so, since, as he said, "domestic violence is protected by silence." Stewart has been a longtime, committed advocate on this issue, working on behalf of the organization Refuge, which provides a range of services to abused women and children in the UK, as well as on behalf of Amnesty International's Violence Against Women Campaign. Stewart passionately believes that violence against women is not a women's issue, but "humanity's issue". With recent stories of extreme acts of violence in the news, such as the horrific gang rape of the student on a bus in Delhi, India (a Swiss tourist was also gang raped there this past weekend) and the high profile case of the rape of a 16 year-old girl by football players in Steubenville, Ohio, the problem of violence against women is very much in public consciousness - now, says Stewart, for real change to happen, men must be a part of the solution.

I spoke with Stewart about his personal insights on this issue, why he thinks violence against women - a global pandemic - has remained one of the most "ignored issues of our time" - and why men too need our help.

Marianne Schnall: What inspired you to get involved with the Ring the Bell campaign?

Patrick Stewart: I have been for quite a few years now a patron of an organization in London, in the U.K. called Refuge. This is a domestic violence organization, which not only provides safe houses for women and their children when their home life becomes too perilous, but it also campaigns with the government, with the police, with social services, to change the law, or to educate people about issues of domestic violence, which had for too long been swept under the carpet, or simply not addressed. It was almost as though violence against women in the home was something that just happened and it was a sort of normal, natural part of domestic life. And I think for far too long it was experienced just as that.

And because of my own childhood experiences, which for many years I never talked about, not even with my brother who was there with me - when I, at last, did speak about it in an interview to one of your colleagues, a good many years ago now, I was then approached by Sandra Horley who was the Director of Refuge and asked if we could meet and we could discuss their campaign. Well, in fact I knew about Refuge, because back in the late 70's, when I first moved to live in London, I became aware then of a house in West London in Chiswick which the sort of gossip of the neighborhood said always seemed to be full of women and children, coming and going. In fact it was the very first safe house in the U.K., created by a woman called Erin Pizzey. And so, my then wife and I used to take around canned food and clothes and bed linens and so forth, because they had nothing there. But what they did have was a lock on the door, which kept the violent partners, husbands, out. And I have now worked with Refuge for a good many years, campaigned with them, spoken on their behalf, raised money - because it's entirely a charity that depends on donations. And I felt that I was finally, at last - though not able to do something for my mother, I was doing something in her name, which would help women in a similar situation to hers.

And so I've become known for some of this work that I do and I have spoken about it quite a lot in interviews and why it is so important to me. And as a result of that, I was invited to co-host the event a week ago. And I think they had read some of the things that I had written and published on the same subject, and so knowing that I was now a sort of part-time New Yorker living in Brooklyn, they invited me to the event. And I'm so glad they did, because it was a spectacularly successful event and very powerful in so many of the statements and testimonies that others gave. The notion that men are the ones who can make the difference, it appears to be quite original - as you're aware, it's always been looked on as a woman's problem, a woman's issue, domestic violence. Well, my own experience as a child, showed me that no it's not, my mother was a victim. It was not something that she could control. The only thing that she could control was by leaving, walking out, and for someone in the kind of society we were growing up in, that was not an option. It's men who have to learn the different behavior and its men - as someone said very, very forcefully on Friday morning - in the same way that it was white men confronting white men in issues of civil rights in the United States, it needs to be men confronting men in the same way, on the issues of domestic violence.

MS: On that topic, it's very true that we tend to focus on the victims of violence, who of course need our help and support, but we rarely focus on the men who commit the violence, what causes them to commit this behavior, so the cycle just keeps continuing. You spoke very movingly at the event about insight you gained into your own father. What thoughts do you have about what is needed to help men, to address what makes men commit violent acts in the first place?

PS: A lot of this, I think, is learned behavior. It comes about from their experience of their home life as a child. I have no doubt - and I'm blessed as somebody - I think it was Michael Bolton who said at the meeting, Patrick chose the right profession, to deal with these matters internally, because as an actor you have to process all of the different aspects of yourself and translate them into something creative. It had also been, for a long, long time, a sort of acceptable aspect of male/female relationships, whether married or not. Women get beaten up. Women get slapped.

Now, last night my partner and I went to see a stupendous semi-staged performance of Andre Previn's opera, based on A Streetcar Named Desire with the glorious Reneé Fleming at Carnegie Hall. And I haven't seen Streetcar for some years, although actually I was at Reneé's world premiere performance of it, back in San Francisco in the 90's. I had forgotten that there are scenes of violence in that. I had always somehow remembered that they were implied or referred to, but no, Stanley Kowalski hits his pregnant wife, knocks her over, threatens her, and every time that he is challenged, his immediate response is to raise his hand. And I had forgotten all of that! This play was written, what, in the 50's, I guess? And as far as I'm aware, nobody in the play says, 'Hey, don't do that!' Instead, what happens is that no one steps in, and the wife, having been knocked to the ground, then seems to get sort of turned on and excited and passionate and very sexy with Stanley. Well, were it not that I was sitting next to the composer, Sir Andre Previn, I wanted to yell out, and say this isn't right - stop right there! But I only cite this as an example of behavior that was criminal, illegal and yet, was somehow tolerated, because beating up women, dominating them - I mean, there's a moment when Kowalski says in the play, 'I am king around here!' he says. Well, he was a pretty stupid man, this Stanley Kowalski, but the implication there is that I can do whatever I want and get away with it. Well, organizations like Refuge and what the million men event is about is letting men know that they cannot.

And furthermore, Mike Rawlings, the Mayor of Dallas, who was there, as you are aware, he spoke so powerfully...Now this is a Texan man, Mayor of what I think what many might regard as perhaps the most sort of masculine-seen state in the nation - he stood at the podium and said, 'Men who hit women are not men'. It's not masculine. It's not male. It's not virile for men to knock women around. And that's a new concept, which turns on its head the behavior of the Stanley Kowalskis of this world.

MS: There's a lot of talk about how gender roles and stereotypes impact girls, but there hasn't been as much discussion in terms of how gender stereotypes and pressures also damage boys. Earlier this week I interviewed a colleague of mine, Carol Gilligan, who wrote a well known book called In a Different Voice in which she shared her research at Harvard that indicated for boys this conditioning starts early, around the age of 4 or 5, for example, the first time a boy skins his knee and cries and he's told that's unmanly. And, of course, boys today are inundated with violent video games and movies and toys that teach him that being tough and responding with violence, is not only acceptable, but as you're saying, is kind of manly and cool. I know there is a lot of talk right now about men, but do you think we also need to take a closer look at the messages we're sending to boys?

PS: Absolutely. Most certainly, and this was addressed last Friday. We talk to our children in ways they will understand about morality, about honesty. We tell them that it's not good to lie and it's not good to be deceitful. But I think we rarely have spoken to them about the proper elements of the relationship between a male and a female, a young boy and a young girl. And I look back to my childhood and from quite an early age, my recollection is that the girls that I knew were either desirable, sexual objects or were potential victims - you know, people you could persecute, and it was okay to do that. And so I think in the same way that in our schools things like sex education have now become standard and normal and entirely acceptable, if lessons can be learned about how to be in the world, how to be in society and treat everyone with the same measure of respect.

It is education - well, two things - it comes down to education and example - life examples. Now, I watched my father hit my mother and it pained me to see my mother frightened and bleeding, horribly. But at the same time, my father whom I admired, a remarkable man, charismatic, successful, brilliant leader of men - I wanted to love him and I wanted him to love me. And so the impact of the role model is perfectly clear there, and I know that when I reached manhood, that there were occasions when I knew my feelings were beginning to overwhelm me, and the urge to raise a hand was very, very strong. For many years, as an actor, I faked anger, rage, any of those qualities that lead to violence. I faked it quite well, but it was fakery all the same. You might say well, all acting's fakery - actually it's not. I go along with the guy who said 'Acting is telling beautiful lies.' And the reason I faked it was that I was afraid that if I let the real feelings out, something would happen. Until a very wise and caring director showed me that on the contrary, if you can let these things out in the work that you do and the creativity, the only thing that happens is that the work becomes more truthful and potentially meaningful.

So I know that those feelings that I had didn't just come from anywhere. And perhaps - I don't know much about this, but the potential for it being genetic I would think is there also, and given that I grew up in a quite poor, blue collar environment, working class environment, where behavior of this kind was so commonplace, as to be considered normal. And those are the patterns of behavior that an event such as last Friday's is trying to change, to change society's perception of - but most importantly, men's perception of the world around them and how to be in it.

MS: You've often said that violence against women is one of the most ignored issues of our time. Why do you think it is that it has been so ignored? Do you think it is related to the overall status of women? Why do you think this issue, which has been called a global pandemic, hasn't gotten the attention and been adequately addressed the way it needs to be?

PS: Well, let me just say, by the way, something I made a point of mentioning on Friday, and I think that the organizers were very happy that I did - I think for a lot of people, the idea of wife beating, has always been looked upon as being a lower class activity, something conducted in poor houses in back streets or rural areas of ignorance and poverty. And of course, I only have to talk to the people at Refuge in London, who know that that is simply not true. Violence against women occurs at every level of society, from yes, of course, the very poorest, to the highest categories of society, the rich, the famous and all professions - it is endemic in society. As I experienced, when something happened in my home, I knew that all around everyone knew about it, because we lived jammed on top of one another, and you couldn't turn over in bed without all your neighbors knowing what had happened. And that, of course, was one of the shaming aspects of this for me, as a child. But where conditions are different, people live much more privately and these things seem to go on nevertheless, so it is across all society and levels of education, and so forth.

I think you have to put it in the context of the bigger picture of women in society. Watching a program with my partner, who is younger than me, the other day, I suddenly saw her counting on her fingers, and she said, good Lord, in the U.K. women didn't have the vote well into the 1920's. The same women that had driven ambulances in the great war, in the first world war, actually were disenfranchised. They couldn't vote. And sometimes we need little reminders of things like this, that just a few years before I was born, my mother didn't have the vote. And I cite this simply, as an illustration of a societal attitude towards women, in which they had been seen as chattels, as goods, as possessions, just like the Stanley Kowalski scene, 'I'm king around here!' They had few rights and they were owned, essentially. And put into that kind of context, it follows naturally that as not having a vote is a kind of abuse, or not having any legal rights within a marriage, of equality and ownership, some of the same goes for personal safety. And what a woman might be expected to experience as a part of it, simply if she wants to be around a man, she's going to get beaten up most likely. These are centuries-old conditionings of the male/female experience, and that is what Friday's event is attempting, I think very effectively, to try to turn around.

MS: What does the One million men. One million promises campaign hope to accomplish? And what would you most want to say to all the men of the world?

PS: [laughs] That's a big ask! I think I would certainly reiterate what Michael Bolton said on Friday, that men need to look at their masculinity and ask them what it is composed of. And in the same way that in human rights and civil rights, at last, ingrained prejudices - oh, I mean, I'm not trying to say they're all gone - far, far from it, we know that. But prejudices that were learned, can be changed. And that it can happen with all men in areas there are other problems, because you get long established societal relationships, as well as religious aspects, in which women are considered to be second class. There, you've got a real problem of how to change the behavior then, because it is all linked to faith, belief and history. But in the same way that many people had to learn that a person of color deserves exactly the same rights that a white person deserved, and that they were human beings and in every way the same people - this transformation has to be brought about in the way that men regard women. And it spreads over into other areas besides violence. I think it is endemic in fundamental acts - I know, because there have been times when I've had these feelings and attitudes, and it required in me, a process of reeducation and self-discipline and self-control and looking at the world with fresh eyes.

MS: It does seem like there have been many more men openly speaking out on this issue, evidenced by men joining the protests and outcry over the rape in Delhi as well as the conversations about what happened in Steubenville. Are you feeling hopeful that this is something that you see progress on and that we're moving in the right direction?

PS: Well, of course - if you lose hope, you give up everything. And in my lifetime I have seen changes in the world that 50 years ago I believed I would never live to see. A relative peace in Northern Ireland, I mean, closest to the home where I was brought up. The Berlin Wall - the end of the Soviet Empire. Apartheid - formally, at least - ending in South Africa. These are huge transformations in the world, brought about by people having faith that things could be changed.

And so yes, I have the strongest belief - not just hope - belief, that we are now undergoing in this area of women's rights and violence towards women, we are on the threshold of a transformation. And it's going to take a long time, but if events like Friday's happen and people speak in the way Mike Rawlings did, Michael Bolton - public figures who are prepared - and this is, I think, the rather powerful thing, of what happened on Friday - who make these promises. Men make a pubic pledge to do everything they can to put an end to violence against women. And to do it also, by example. So I'm tremendously hopeful.

And here's one other thing. It's just the thing I finally want to say, because I said it on Friday. A year ago, to my absolute amazement, thanks to the BBC, I learned things about my father that I didn't know, my elder brother didn't know, I don't think even my mother knew, which put into context - did not excuse, remotely, not at all - but put into context my father's behavior. And so on Friday I spoke about being part of this campaign on behalf of my mother and my father, because he too needed help and wasn't getting it. It was not there to be provided. And there are men who cannot do this on their own and they do need help. So it's a two-pronged process, in many respects. I think that's why Friday's event was so powerful.

For more information or to make your own promise, visit www.breakthrough.tv/ringthebell.

Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets including O, The Oprah Magazine, In Style, CNN.com, EW.com, the Women's Media Center, and many others. Marianne is a featured blogger at The Huffington Post and a regular contributor to the nationally syndicated NPR radio show, 51 percent The Women's Perspective. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women's web site and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. She is the author of Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women. You can visit her website at www.marianneschnall.com.

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