NEW YORK—Sir Patrick Stewart stood in the center of the Diplomat Ballroom at the UN Hotel here on Friday, pounding his fist methodically against a podium, each thump punctuated with a number ("One ... two ... three ...") until he got to nine.
"Every nine seconds in the United States a woman is assaulted or beaten," Stewart said. "Every nine seconds."
The 72-year-old British-born actor, best known for his roles in "X-Men" and "Star Trek: The Next Generation," served as host for the launch of "Ring the Bell," a global campaign calling on 1 million men to make 1 million "concrete, actionable promises" to end violence against women.
"Violence against women is the single greatest human rights violation of our generation," Stewart said.
"This is a call to action—not an action that will make things better in six months' time or a year's time," he continued, "but action that might save someone's life and someone's future this afternoon, tonight, tomorrow morning."
The event—coinciding with International Women's Day and the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at United Nations headquarters—was attended by about 200 assorted actors, activists, politicians, filmmakers and musicians, including Michael Bolton, who fought back tears while talking about his work lobbying for the extension of the Violence Against Women Act passed by Congress earlier this week.
"We will continue to battle," Bolton, a father of three daughters, said.
Later, Stewart received a standing ovation after recalling the repeated violence he witnessed as a 5-year-old child at home.
"I became an expert," Stewart said. "I knew exactly when to open a door and insert myself between my father's fist and my mother's body."
He said his father was "an angry and unhappy man who was not able to control his emotions—or his hands."
"The truth is my mother did nothing to deserve the violence she endured," Stewart added. "She did not provoke my father—and even if she had, responding with violence is not an acceptable way with dealing with conflict."
Dallas Mayor Michael Rawlings, who in January launched an initiative to combat domestic violence in his city, suggested "dialing up the shame" for men who commit violent acts against women.
"You can call a man who hits a woman a lot of things," Rawlings said, "but you can't call him a man."
Don McPherson, a former NFL quarterback and college football Hall of Famer turned feminist, agreed.
"We don't raise boys to be men," McPherson said. "We raise them not to be women, or gay men."
McPherson compared the fight to end violence against women with the one to end racism.
"White people confronted white people to fight racism," he said. "Men need to confront men."
In a videotaped promise to act, Sir Richard Branson relayed a recent, troubling anecdote from a humanitarian visit he made to Africa:
"Yesterday I was at a clinic we run in Africa called Bhubezi Clinic and there were 40 women in the room. Somebody asked the women if any of them had been raped, and there was laughter amongst the women. We asked why they were laughing. The women said, 'Ask the question: Has anybody in this room not been raped?' Not one woman put up her hand."