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Feminism campaign must dig deeper

Despite significant improvements in gender equality, the fight for equal status for women remains incomplete. Asserting the continued relevance of feminism, the “Who Needs Feminism” campaign combats the undeserved stigma associated with the feminist label and facilitates serious conversations about securing and defending the rights of women.

In many circles, at Duke and elsewhere, feminism has become a dirty word, conjuring up images of Amazonian bra burners or worse. Even those who agree that women deserve greater social status, better legal protections and superior academic and professional opportunities recoil from the feminist epithet. By presenting the varied and often uncontroversial beliefs associated with feminism, the campaign dispels myths and challenges preconceived notions about the term. In its attempt to destigmatize the language of feminism, the poster series arms students with a word and a label that may allow them to identify more closely with gender issues and change their behaviors in constructive ways.

Although the campaign has succeeded in facilitating discussion, a project of this sort could have engaged students on a deeper intellectual level. The campaign encourages students to think about feminism, but in its attempt to include a wide range of ideas, the poster series sacrifices definitional continuity. The statement “I need feminism because...” presupposes a definition of feminism without actually providing one. When surveying the various posters, it remains unclear whether the disparate statements about the necessity of feminism correspond to a common interpretation of the term. In the absence of a concrete definition, people cannot position their particular beliefs about gender issues in relation to the word “feminism” and may end up talking past each other or, as evidenced by unsavory retorts tacked onto several posters, dismiss the campaign entirely. Definitions of feminism exist, and, if the campaign were to offer one interpretation, it would provide students with an unchanging idea about which to debate and may foster more productive dialogue.

Additionally, we feel that the project could have encouraged a stronger emotional response and deeper reflection. Presenting relatively uncontroversial reasons to accept feminism may cause some people to reconsider their bias against the term. However, it does not challenge those individuals least sympathetic to the cause to consider the very serious consequences of persistent sexism and inequality. Projects like the “Breaking Out” campaign, which presents candid statements from Duke students who have survived sexual abuse, elicit a profound emotional reaction. The pictures jar the observer, instill outrage and force deep reflection about the problem. This discomfort is more likely to catalyze a real paradigm shift in Duke student culture. The feminism campaign, despite all of its successes, lacks a similar intense emotional resonance. It exposes real problems but does not incite students to think critically about the stakes.

By sparking conversation and reducing stigma, the campaign has made considerable progress in bringing attention to gender issues on Duke’s campus and throughout the world. However, we believe that identifying a common interpretation of feminism and better illustrating the severity of the problem will allow conversations about gender equality to become deep enough to produce real change. Before we ask the question, “Who needs feminism?” we may want to pose the more basic question, “What is feminism?”—and discuss the consequences of the hatred and inequality it attempts to erase.

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