Who Needs Feminism?

Alerted by social media that the UNC chapter of Omega Phi Beta sorority was undertaking a Who Needs Feminism photo shoot in the fall of 2012, I walked to the Pit, eager to see how the social media project would unfold on my own campus. I stood in the shade, watching these efficient, organized young women eagerly talking with the peers who approached their table to see what was going on. The Betas provided sheets on which participants could write their own ending to the phrase “I need feminism because…” and took their picture with a professional-looking camera on a tripod. I watched quietly in the background for a while, but eventually I went up to one of the organizers, asked if I could take a photograph of their event, and introduced myself as the professor in whose class Who Needs Feminism had originated at Duke. “Oh my gosh!” she shrieked, giving me a gargantuan hug, “You’re the one who started the revolution!” I laughed at her enormous overstatement, but it was in that very real, in-person moment that I started to understand more fully the impact of this special social media campaign.

“Who Needs Feminism” started in a class that I teach as an adjunct member of the Women’s Studies program at Duke University. In that class we study the history of women’s activism, and discuss current obstacles facing women who seek to practice leadership. In the spring of 2012 we were discussing urgent issues in the very political context of the approaching elections—sexual assaults on campus, new legislative restrictions on access to birth control and abortion, limiting constructions of gender. But, when my students tried to talk about these issues outside of class, they were often rebuffed by peers’ refusal to engage in conversation or hostile accusations that they were “man-hating feminists.”
Deeply frustrated by the stereotypes they heard and the way such resistance operated to silence debate, the Duke students came up with the idea for a PR campaign that 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.…” “I need feminism because my mother gave up her dreams for a family,” said one young black man. “Because I shouldn’t have to justify my ambitions.” “Because intoxication shouldn’t mean yes.”

Having aimed to start a conversation on their campus, the students were astounded when suddenly their project became a global dialogue. Their posters instantly “went viral,” and the project took on national and international dimensions. Today we have over 34,000 likes on Facebook and thousands of young women and men from around the world have sent in their own “I need feminism because” pictures to the Tumblr site the students created. Google analytics shows that Who Needs Feminism has been viewed in nearly every country on the globe.
In the early days, watching the numbers of Facebook “likes” ticking upward by the second was incredibly exciting. The power of a virtual community was played out in front of our eyes, as we saw people who would never meet in person debating and discussing on our Facebook page, and sharing their powerful messages of hope and determination with each other through their Tumblr images. But it was actually in the Pit, watching young people standing in the sun, laughing, and sharing their ideas with each other, that I saw the real potential for this project unfolding in front of my eyes. The excitement of contributing to a “cool” and trendy online project brought these talented women together and gave them a way to reach out to their peers. Not only did they take the risk of standing out in the Pit announcing their feminist beliefs to the very real public around them, but they organized a discussion later that week to reflect on what had happened. They invited me and several students to talk about the pictures that had been submitted, and some of the anti-feminist responses they had received on their Facebook page.

In a survey we sent out to project participants, many of them reported on increased networking and important conversations in their communities. A recent article in The Guardian credited our project with an increase in feminist organizations at schools around the United Kingdom. These kinds of conversations and connections are happening around the world, with Who Needs Feminism serving as the catalyst. That is its real power.

Last year I gave a talk at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication on Who Needs Feminism, and Ping Nguyen was in the class. He came up to me afterward, buzzing with ideas. I am delighted to see Siren renewed on UNC’s campus, and take great pride in knowing that the creative energy unleashed by Who Needs Feminism touched Ping and Morgan, which helped inspire them to re-launch this important outlet for feminist views and news. It’s far too soon to lay claim to a “revolution,” but initiatives like this are unfolding around the world. Who Needs Feminism has shown a remarkable ability to connect the speed and global reach that the internet provides with the creativity, talent, and local community-building of real people. Where this will all lead, I’m not sure, but watching the impact of the project at UNC has given me great hope.