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
The answers were varied and poignant:
I need feminism because my mother gave up her dreams for a
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
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. …