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Students Still Face Barriers When it Comes to Feminism In the 21st Century

March 11, 2015

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CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Less than 100 years ago, women won the right to vote for the first time in American history and feminist activism was at the heart of this movement. However, Dr. Amy Aldridge Sanford, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication and Media at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, recently discovered that students face many barriers when it comes to participating in feminist movements. 

“Feminists are very concerned with amplifying the voices of the marginalized and working for equal rights,” said Sanford. “Recently, we have seen marriage equality come to fruition in many states across this country, but triumphs like that do not just happen. They require years of planning, protests, dialogues, court cases, and legislation.”

Through research that included interviews with students, Sanford discovered that financial and family responsibilities, a lack of leaders, a lack of supporters, a dislike of politics, and fear of confrontation were just a few of the perceived barriers to feminist activism students experienced.

“Activism isn't just about huge campaigns,” said Sanford. “When people see something that is wrong, they should feel empowered enough to call it out in a thoughtful manner.”

Women’s History Month, celebrated in March, is an opportunity for women and those who love and support women, to examine issues connected to the feminist movement. However, when most people think about feminists they think of angry women who want to get even with men and dominate them. Sanford says this is a major misconception when it comes to understanding feminism and taking part in the movement.

“Feminism is really about equality and opportunities for any oppressed groups of people,” said Sanford. “In fact, men can be feminists and also call attention to unfair situations.”

Sadly, this misconception can often lead to students not wanting to get involved or even call themselves feminists and Sanford wanted to learn why. She noticed that when students learned about current day issues, such as the Lilly Ledbetter Supreme Court case for equal pay, they reacted at the unfairness but did not know how to take up the cause.

“Initially, I was inspired to do this research because I would witness students have consciousness-raising moments in the classroom and then be very uncertain with what to do with the knowledge,” said Sanford. “I often wondered why they didn't take up the causes that interested or moved them. The students seemed hesitant to take that step.”

To uncover what was stopping students from being active Sanford conducted qualitative in-depth interviews of 17 students enrolled at a regional university in a mid-western state. Students expressed several fears, such as being sent to jail if they participated in a protest, a lack of support from conservative parents, and having it interfere with their work. One student even expressed a fear of losing his nursing license if he participated in protests.

“This research has really inspired me to take on a book project that is intended to help students like the ones interviewed for this study,” said Sanford. “It's a book I wish I would have read as a college student when I first became aware of marginalization, oppression, feminism, and my voice.”

In her book, Sanford will explore terminology, the history of social movements, stories about activists, and the risk as well as the rewards that come from being an activist. She will also share pieces of her own journey to activism as well as the importance of communication skills when it comes to healthy dialogues. The book is in the works and is expected summer 2016.

Sanford was the founding director of the Women’s and Gender Studies at Northeastern State University located in Tahlequah, Okla. before joining the staff at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.