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What Feminist Activism Looks Like On Different College Campuses

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This adapted excerpt from my book emphasizes the cross-movement nature of feminist activism and the contextual differences in feminist activism using examples of coalitions on two college campuses. The findings are based on my multi-year research: 75 interviews and 1400 survey responses from students at the University of Minnesota, the University of California-Santa Barbara, and Smith College.

New generations of feminists are more likely to unite in coalitions than previous generations, as a result of their intersectional grievances and opposition to a monolithic women’s solidarity. Broadly defined, coalitions are alliances between two or more organizations within the same movement or across different movements. Coalitions are an essential tool of many mobilized participants’ activism — they may form for a single event or be more long-lasting, although research has indicated that brief rather than sustained coalitions may be more successful.

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In my book, coalitions influenced the tactics of feminist organizations on all three campuses. Successful collaborations occurred within a wide swath of student groups. Their tactical emphasis on working across movements and organizations was consistent with activists’ intersectional grievances and expansive collective identities. Their decisions to form coalitions were based on their goals. For example, at Smith College their goal was to bring feminist groups together through the cupcake social to show the breadth of feminism at Smith. At UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) and the University of Minnesota, activists had visions of mobilizing a massive number of students to pressure administrators to make the university more accessible. Ultimately, coalitions spoke to the wide acceptance of feminism as critical to social justice writ large.

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Smith: Spreading Feminism at the Cupcake Social

By New England standards it was a balmy spring day, and the Smith feminist cupcake social was geared up in a large room in the campus center. Floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the large lawn at the center of campus. Upon entering the room, students were given plain, undecorated cupcakes. Representatives from nine feminist student organizations sat at tables around the room, each stocked with frosting and toppings. Attendees moved from table to table, where they had opportunities to decorate and eat their cupcakes while speaking to members of the feminist organization at each place. Organizer Gabrielle said the purpose of the cupcake social was to “show [students] that feminism is broader than the issues they think it includes” and to create feminist community. Participants in a number of Smith groups considered their organizations feminist. While in the past the organizers have been frustrated at the lack of connection between feminist organizations, this event was a success.

As I moved around the tables, I spoke to all student representatives about why their organizations were feminist. Rueben, a transgender student involved in Beyond Gender Binary (BGB), told me that, although some feminists do not consider transgender men as feminist (“you know, because they are changing from women to men”), he did. He had a handwritten poster taped to their table that said “feminists are concerned with all people” and handed out a flier with phrases such as, “For every girl who threw away her easy bake oven, there is a boy who wishes to find one.” In our interview a few days later, Rueben elaborated on how BGB was a feminist organization: “[BGB] is about increasing trans visibility on campus, increasing education and rights, which all leads inevitably to hopefully being able to live as we see fit in our bodies. We do a lot with education, which is a form of working with equal access, giving people equal access to education, which is feminist.” For Rueben and many other students, their feminism was bound to their activism in pursuit of general progressive social change. Few students at any institution disentangled their desire for a more just world generally from being a feminist specifically.

Back at the cupcake social, a student with a pixie haircut and rhinestone-encrusted cat-eye glasses at the STAND organization table spoke to me in depth about her campaign to make Smith a conflict mineral–free campus. She told me that Stanford and Cornell universities were already conflict mineral–free, and they are hoping Smith will follow suit. When I asked her in what ways her organization was feminist, she said that she considered genocide and their conflict mineral–free campaigns to be feminist issues because both forms of social injustice affect women disproportionately. Similarly, the student at the Smith Democrats table spoke with me about all the connections between feminists and Democrats, and easily rattled off a list of the pro-women legislation that Democrats had recently passed.

Coalitioning was not only an expression of their intersectional feminism, however. Smith student Anna C. spoke about how she was consciously hoping to “spread feminism” through coalitions: “That’s definitely a big goal, [to] touch people in different ways, if they could see these other orgs, and how they relate to feminism in some way, they could really make that connection.” This resonates with many students’ approaches to feminist mobilization. Students incorporated feminism in a variety of coalitions that had both women-centered grievances and more general social justice approaches to feminism. These coalitions were promoted because of the feminist sensibility at Smith.

The cupcake social was an achievement, but it is unclear whether a sustained coalition would function. Smith students were not always in agreement over different approaches to the movement, perhaps because of their extensive knowledge about and passion for feminism. Elizabeth’s discussion of feminist and social justice groups was evidence of this tension:

"I think a lot of Smith’s extracurricular groups are very normative and completely within the bounds of the system. There’s a lot of people here who just want to save women in Africa or save women in India, and I think this tends to be really ignoring institutional problems, ignoring the forces of neoliberalism and imperialism, ignoring the problems with U.S. democratizing and the U.S. going in and the IMF and the World Bank and basically colonizing them."

Although Elizabeth was on the more opinionated end of the spectrum, I heard enough remarks about the divergences in feminist ideology that I suspected long-term feminist coalitions would not survive at Smith. Moreover, there was little incentive. None of the feminist groups had much funding, rendering meaningless financial resource sharing, a primary benefit of coalitions.

UCSB: Plentiful Coalitions

UCSB students formed a myriad of coalitions, and their presence was ubiquitous in respondents’ descriptions of their activism and in my observations of their campus feminism. This was due to the pride that students had in the institution’s activist history. Many Latina feminist activists worked in collaboration to empower their fellow Latinas. A UCSB sorority member, for example, told me about a coalition to encourage underrepresented Latina youth in Santa Barbara to matriculate at UCSB. She said, “[F]all quarter we put on the Latina youth leadership conference, we recruited ladies from local high schools, and we had a day for them here, with workshops and guest speakers, and wanting them to pursue higher education.” UCSB feminist organizations coalitioned with other organizations to put on events that sounded similar to the Whose U? Day of Action at the University of Minnesota. Summer said, “We work with quite a few Latino sororities and fraternities, and other Black sororities and fraternities. We work with other chapters of our sorority. Mostly we work with other Greek organizations. Next year, we hopefully will branch out . . . but also keep our connections, because we’ve had some really good collaborations with those organizations.”

Camille was involved in at least six student organizations, from the women of color spoken word group to the human rights group. When I asked her whether she cosponsored events between organizations, she responded enthusiastically:

"All the time. Honestly my time is extremely limited, and all the things I do intersect. Even if they are focused on different identities, they really are fundamentally all human rights focused. And, I think that is essential to all of them. And, you have to understand it’s also the networking abilities that you create here. And kind of getting involved in the activism community here, and building trust, and I’ve realized that cosponsorships on a flier may mean something, but it’s also meaning that I’ve got their backs and the other people’s backs. We’re constantly cosponsoring and working on each other’s campaigns."

It was clear from their achievements and visibility that these coalitions were effective due to strong networks ties and a shared vision for an inclusive and feminist university. While there were certainly divergences in priorities within the activist communities at UCSB, their pride in the activist history, support from the university, and shared goals for change sustained and nourished their coalitions. In comparison to Smith activists, who had fewer financial resources and more disagreements about feminist ideologies and goals, UCSB activists and their coalitions flourished.

Adapted excerpt from Finding Feminism: Millennial Activists and the Unfinished Gender Revolution, by Alison Dahl Crossley

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Alison Dahl Crossley is the author of Finding Feminism: Millennial Activists And The Unfinished Gender Revolution.

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