Last week, a campaign took the internet by storm. What started as a small project for Oxford University’s Women’s Campaign turned into something much greater. The idea is simple, men and women are photographed publicly holding signs, on which they write in a few words why they need feminism. Originally inspired by the Who Needs Feminism project started at Duke university in North Carolina, the images exploded on the internet, being shared around the world and gaining tens of thousands of ‘likes’ on Tumblr. The messages are diverse, from thoughts on gender norms, sexual harassment and violence against women to riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. They are refreshing, engaging, witty, and more than anything, they are statements of empowerment and pride. If you ever thought feminism was dead or a thing of the past, these are the images that will make you think again.
Simone spoke to Elisabeth, one of those behind the campaign about the state of feminism at one of the world’s most prestigious universities how the project got started.
Could you tell me a little bit about your society within a university context? Is it large, popular, has it been around for decades?
We are called the Women’s Campaign, and we are one of the autonomous campaigns of the Student Union, I think possibly the oldest although I’m not sure how old exactly. We have weekly discussion meetings on a wide range of topics such as everyday sexism, men in feminism, and women in media, usually attended by around 20-30 people, as well as a few larger events every term, such as a Slutwalk last year and our yearly Gender Equality Festival and Love Your Body Garden Party. One of the great things, I think, is that many people who don't necessarily come to our events do support our actions, but it is quite difficult at times to make sure all feminists in the university know we exist.
Do you feel that Oxford is suffering from the 'uni lad’ culture that’s being documented in England recently?
In my experience, Oxford is quite diverse in this sense. There are dodgy nightclubs, overly macho crew-dates, and a lot of other 'lad culture’ things around and these are often very public and hard to escape completely. At the same time, there are also a lot of nice, sensible people to hang out with, as shown by the amazing support for our campaign.
How did the photo campaign first come into being?
The idea is originally from Duke University in the US, where they held this campaign and subsequently spread the word online encouraging others to do the same. We encountered the photos online, and thought it would work perfectly in Oxford.
What were you imagining from it, and how do you feel now it’s taken off?
It has far, far exceeded our expectations. We were hoping for a hundred pictures on our original day, and far surpassed that with 195. After the pictures went on Facebook, there was a huge outpouring of support, as well as a lot of people who said they wished they had been there. We then organised a second session three days later, to allow everyone who wanted to to take part, and were blown away by the number of people that showed up - we took another 279 pictures. The reactions continue to be really positive, with many people saying it has prompted a lot of discussion about feminism, and it has gotten attention from outside the university too.
Any criticism / crazed men’s rights activists descending?
There have been some legitimate criticisms, such as a relative lack of people of colour in our pictures, which we are planning to take on board going forward. Sadly there has indeed also been trolling and people saying we’re crazy/whiny/misunderstanding everything, but a lot less than we might have thought, and those comments aren’t getting a lot of support.
It’s great to see so many men participating, is there generally good male support of feminist issues?
We were very happy many men took part, because one of the main messages that we wanted to bring across is that everyone can be a feminist, regardless of gender. In my experience, men in Oxford are very supportive of gender equality, but seeing them willing to take the extra step of declaring themselves a feminist was fantastic.
The original images that were circulating seemed to predominantly feature white people - are Oxford’s minorities invested in these issues?
This is something that has been remarked on before, and we absolutely agree that it’s very important for feminism to be intersectional. Part of the problem is that Oxford University is still, sadly, a very white place, something which access work is trying to improve. We are not entirely sure what accounts for the rest of the discrepancy, and we are keen to think more about how we can improve this in the future.
Other than projects like yours, how do you think we can make feminism a more acceptable, inclusive movement that isn’t limited by the ill-conceived stereotypes of its past?
Personally I think the most important thing is for people to be willing to say outright 'I’m a feminist’. That creates space for discussion on what feminism is and should be, and breaks the taboo that still exists around the word. It’s also important that feminist activism, whether that’s protests, lobbying, or awareness raising, is done in a way that fosters inclusivity and makes feminism understandable and relatable for everyone.
Simone agrees! Thank you so much Elisabeth and all those involved.