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Scholar: Feminism distorted, derailed by conservatives

Feminism has been dealt a huge setback because of iconic conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh and Phyllis Schlafly, who use the crusade’s more radical ideas to create unflattering caricatures of feminists, notions then perpetuated by the mainstream media, a North Carolina history professor says.

This misrepresentation has distorted feminism’s accomplishments and goals, so that today many young women don’t relate to the extreme stereotypes promulgated by conservatives and ultimately reject the movement, said North Carolina feminist and scholar Rachel Seidman.

Seidman, a visiting lecturer at Duke University and adjunct assistant professor at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, is the professor behind the “Who Needs Feminism?” campaign.  Launched in the spring as part of a Duke women’s studies assignment, it turned into a global social networking and Internet phenomenon, with more than 200,000 visits to the project’s Tumblr blog.

Seidman made the comments about conservatives’ influence on feminism at a recent forum at Duke, as well as in a subsequent interview with The College Fix.

At the Sept. 20 forum, called “Who Needs Feminism? Reflecting and Continuing,” Seidman and the students who co-founded the campaign bemoaned feminism’s current public relations problems before discussing ways to reignite and expand their campaign.

Today there’s a “profound misunderstanding of what (feminism) was in the first place,” said Seidman, who laid blame for that on “conservatives who caricature and erase history.”

Seidman’s comments were followed with a presentation by student Ivanna Gonzales, co-founder of the campaign, who attributed the following quote to conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh: “Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream.”

Gonzales also attributed evangelist Pat Robertson as saying feminism “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

She then took aim at Phyllis Schlafly, attributing a quote to the prominent conservative activist that “feminist is a bad word and everything they stand for is bad. Find out if your girlfriend is a feminist before you get too far into it. Some of them are pretty. They don’t all look like Bella Abzug.”

With the three quotes looming large on a screen behind her, Gonzales told the two dozen people in the audience she agreed with Seidman that “lots of negative stereotypes are perpetuated by conservative people in the media.”

If more women would simply educate themselves on real feminism – instead of buying into what conservative leaders say – they’d agree and identify with and support the modern feminist movement instead of reject it, several women leading the presentation indicated.

Seidman expanded on that point in an email to The College Fix.

“Those who felt threatened by the movement have drawn caricatures based on some of the more radical ideas and writings out there, and created a stereotype based on that, which became very popular in the press,” Seidman stated. “So today, young women carry around that stereotype in their head, rather than images of all the various types of real women who were active in the feminist movement, and if they don’t identify with that stereotyped version of radical feminism, then they think they must not ‘be a feminist.’”

“Who Needs Feminism?” spawned from a class Seidman taught at Duke in the spring called “Women in the Public Sphere.” It focused on women’s activism across the United States, and students were encouraged to develop a project with the intent of promoting social change.

Student Ashley Tsai, co-founder of the campaign, said at the forum that at Duke, many of her peers believe feminism is no longer relevant. To show why it is “relevant to people’s lives – not just in academics,” their project asked students to take pictures of themselves holding a dry erase board stating “I need feminism because,” then the reason why.

Initially the photographs were turned into posters and placed on campus, however the project founders said they wanted to include a social networking element and established a Tumblr page. The campaign grew to include a Facebook page and website. The Tumblr page features about 3,000 photographs submitted by individuals and groups from around the world.

There has been a backlash, however. A You Don’t Need Feminism Tumblr blog was started. Other feedback included negative or obscene comments posted online that poke fun of the original message.

Undeterred, the project’s co-founders are updating their website, and adding more resources to it. They provide a Start Your Own Campaign guide to those who ask. And the women are currently working with schools across North Carolina to promote a “Week of Action” in mid-October, during which students will be encouraged to add to the campaign and to discuss feminism.

Fix contributor Jessica Kubusch is a student at UNC Chapel Hill.

IMAGE: The Heritage Foundation

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