Trigger warning: Topics of sexual assault and rape are represented in this article.
On May 21 at 7 p.m., Knox students filled Harbach Theatre to attend “Why Feminism Matters: Sexism, Sexual Violence & Activism,” a presentation given by well-known feminist blogger Jessica Valenti. Using a projector, she provided visual support and evidence for her arguments and interacted with the audience.
Valenti, 33, founded Feministing eight years ago, a news organization and website formed in response to a lack of representation of the feminist movement online. The site is designed not only to be popular but to also cover a broad range of topics, both serious and humorous and reach out to people who might be feminists but do not identify as such because of American cultural stigmas.
“One of the first things people ask me when they find out that I’m a feminist … is ‘Why?’” Valenti said. “I come across reasons everyday for why I’m a feminist … I’m a feminist this month because in California, a 17-year-old girl was sent to jail because she was too afraid to testify against her rapist.”
She went on to cite further reasons, including that the current House of Representatives version of the Violence Against Women Act currently being negotiated in Congress excludes same-sex couples, immigrant women and native women, and the fact that the recent Congressional panel on birth control consisted solely of men.
Valenti followed this up with a discussion of stereotypes regarding feminism. After getting the audience to shout out specific stereotypes, she used a projector to display century-old political cartoons and noted strong similarities between stereotypes then and now.
“We can kind of laugh at these or identify with them,” she said, “but what I think is really terrible is that these are all that some young people know about feminism.” This labeling of feminism with negative stereotypes is strategic, Valenti said.
“There’s obviously an awful lot of effort being put into discrediting feminism,” Valenti said. “I think if young women were more exposed to what feminism is actually about…they would be much more likely to be involved.”
However, “for the most part,” Valenti said, “our cultural works have been largely reactionary. We’re constantly on the defensive.”
She acknowledged the importance of this reactionary behavior, but argued that in order for feminism to be successful, feminists need to learn how to “shift the culture in a more proactive way.” Perhaps one example of such proactive behavior is a Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, founded by Beth Wooten from Portland State University in response to her perception that “only men can be rock stars.” Now in five cities, the camps teach thousands of girls of grade school age how to perform and create rock music.
“Jessica had been on our roster for a while; we wanted to bring her last year, but … people said that they wanted to bring Dan Savage again, so we just went with that,” junior and SHAG co-president Allister Byrd said. “This year, I thought it was important to bring her … I thought that it would be important to have a really unabashedly strong feminist voice on campus, because I think a lot of Knox students are very interested in feminism and just really don’t know how to approach it.”
When asked what she and other SHAG and SASS officers were hoping students would gain from the event, she replied, “I really hope this talk reaches a lot of people who don’t know much about feminism and are willing to learn more about it. I hope that it expands their definition of it … feminism is a lot of different things.”
“Just that feminist activism can improve your life,” Valenti said when asked what she would like students who were not at the presentation to know. “You can see the world more clearly once you view it through a feminist lens.”