After Todd Akin Comments: Why Women and Men Still Need Feminism

Article excerpt

This Sunday, Aug. 26, Womens 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 Womens Rights, when feminists emphatically declared it necessary to continue working toward womens full equality in the workplace, the home, and American culture as a whole.

In 2012, is Womens 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 cant 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 shouldnt have to justify my ambitions.

Because intoxication shouldnt 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 womens 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 Gladwells theory that online activism cant 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, thats 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. …