After Todd Akin comments: Why women – and men – still need feminism

My students' Who Needs Feminism online campaign is reclaiming feminism as an umbrella for dialogue on issues that affect all of us. And it holds the potential to effect real change, especially in the face of Todd Akin's shockingly misinformed and misogynist statements.

Orlin Wagner/AP
Missouri Republican Senate candidate, Rep. Todd Akin talks with reporters in Sedalia, Mo., Aug. 16. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are heading to the Republican National Convention in Tampa with the national debate focused on rape and abortion and with the divisions within his party on full display. Op-ed contributor Rachel F. Seidman says of her students' Who Needs Feminism online campaign: 'Changing how we talk about issues can change how we think and act.'

This Sunday, Aug. 26, Women’s Equality Day, marks the date in 1920 when women in the United States won the right to vote after nearly a century of political organizing. It also commemorates the 1970 March for Women’s Rights, when feminists emphatically declared it necessary to continue working toward women’s full equality in the workplace, the home, and American culture as a whole. 

In 2012, is Women’s Equality Day still relevant? In the 21st century, who needs feminism?

As it turns out, thousands of young women and men from across the globe, of all different races, religions, sexualities, and economic backgrounds, have spoken up to say they do, through the Who Needs Feminism online campaign. Their efforts to reclaim feminism as an umbrella for dialogue on issues that affect all of us – men and women – hold the potential to effect real change. The campaign is especially relevant in the face of the outrageously misinformed and shockingly misogynist statements that Missouri Republican Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin made last weekend when he claimed that the female body has a way of preventing pregnancy in cases of “legitimate rape.”

In spite of pressure from GOP leaders, including Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, to bow out, Mr. Akin vowed to stay in the race. He apologized for the wording of his statement, but did not disavow its content. 'I used the wrong words in the wrong way and for that, I apologize,' Akin said in a TV ad released Tuesday.

The Who Needs Feminism campaign was the brainchild of the Duke University students in my course on Women in the Public Sphere last spring. They had long conversations in class about important challenges facing all of them – sexual assault on campus, access to birth control, their own worries about how to combine careers and family commitments. But when they tried to talk about these issues outside of class, they were often shut down by their peers' refusal to engage and accusations that they were “man-hating feminists.”

“How can we make progress on any of these issues,” they fumed, “if we can’t even talk about them?”

Determined to change the campus culture, they came up with the idea for a PR campaign, which they called “Who Needs Feminism?”. They recruited friends and acquaintances, young women and men of all different backgrounds, and took photos of them proudly holding up whiteboards on which they had written in black marker, “I need feminism because...”

The answers were varied and poignant:

“I need feminism because my mother gave up her dreams for a family.”

“Because I shouldn’t have to justify my ambitions.”

“Because intoxication shouldn’t mean yes.”

The campaign instantly went viral. Within days they had thousands of “likes” on Facebook, and today those number more than 16,000. Young people sent in their own “I need feminism because” posters from all around the world to the Tumblr site the students created. Today, more than 100,000 people from 164 countries have visited their Tumblr.

What does a campaign like this mean at a time when women’s rights to abortion, to contraception, to basic health care are under attack by politicians at the state and federal level? And how does it square with Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that online activism can’t create real change?

Mr. Gladwell, after all, has thrown down a challenge to young activists, suggesting that they are all talk and no action. Social media, he declared in an article in the New Yorker, “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”  In part, he says, that’s because online activism requires no risk.

It turns out, though, that to take a feminist stand, especially on the Internet, is to take a risk that feels quite real. When some of my students’ posters were immediately defaced with crude and sexist comments, or torn off the wall and stomped on, they were shocked but energized. “This just proves why we need feminism,” they said to each other, and linked images of the defaced posters to their Facebook page.

But the torrent of misogyny and violence-laced attacks that then ensued online seemed of a different order. While we had prepared ourselves for this possibility, it was horrifying nevertheless.

Online harassment operates much like street harassment. It curtails women’s freedom to go where they want without worry, and robs them of their sense that they have every right to participate in civic life – whether walking down a street or adding their voice to important debate – without fear or shame.

The intensity of the online backlash eradicated any sense of complacency my students might have felt. The need for strong connections with other women and men who would support their right to take a stand, to participate fully in civic life, became very real. More than ever, they sensed, they needed feminism.

They also gained a new consciousness of their potential influence. While the attacks had been shocking, the outpouring of support and excitement from women and men around the world was far stronger.

What would they do with all that attention? To me, their Facebook page and Tumblr represented a potential source of political power: They could ask people to sign petitions! They could talk about the upcoming elections! But the students sought a different kind of impact.

My students are convinced that reclaiming the word “feminism” is key to any future progress on important issues concerning women – and to gaining greater acceptance and equality for everyone. They want to reach out to a wide variety of people, including those who have never before identified as feminists, and increase their sense of comfort with the word itself. To do that, they argue, they have to eschew defining feminism or dictating what constitutes feminist activism.

I now share my students’ belief that they can make a difference without endorsing partisan politics. Many of the issues on which their campaign posters focus – double sexual standards; gender norms; body issues; sexist, racist, or homophobic assumptions and behaviors – are cultural at base. Addressing and changing some of these issues will thus require personal activism as much as political or regulatory efforts. Understanding that they are not alone can give young women and men the courage they will need to make changes in their relationships and behaviors.

In an emotional moment this past spring, one of my students shared with her classmates that a friend had been sexually assaulted at a party the night before, and had told her “I just kept thinking about your Who Needs Feminism campaign, and it made me realize that I didn’t have to accept this silently, that it was my right to speak out about what had happened to me.”

Do I still hope that Who Needs Feminism inspires young feminists to vote against politicians like Todd Akin who espouse policies that impede women’s access to health care, birth control, and abortion, or seek to redefine rape? Yes. But I also believe my students are onto something: Changing how we talk about issues can change how we think and act.

As my students’ campaign shows, online activism has the potential to strengthen the connection between talk and action in profoundly important ways.

Rachel F. Seidman is a US women’s historian and visiting lecturer in Women’s Studies at Duke University, where she co-founded and co-directed The Moxie Project: Women and Leadership for Social Change. She is associate director of the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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