The idea for a specifically feminist organization on campus came to junior Claire Thompson in a dream. After failing to find a place for feminist-focused activism, Thompson decided to turn that dream into a reality.
“I just sort of felt like there was this lack of a specifically intersectional feminist space,” Thompson said. “So I had a dream that I started this organization and it was wildly successful … Then I got on Tumblr and was like, ‘VCU people, should this be a real thing?’ And the overwhelming response was ‘yes’ … So, I went ahead and made it a thing.”
Thompson spent the past 10 years in Springfield, Va. before transferring to VCU this past spring to double major in English and gender studies. The influence of Thompson’s mother sparked Thompson’s intersest in feminism, which later developed as a teenager through extensive reading and online resources like Tumblr.
While other student groups like Queer Advocacy address similar issues of intersectionality, Thompson felt the absence of one that placed feminist issues in the forefront.
“(I) was looking for a space where I could meet and interact with other feminists and have a space for activism that was specifically feminist-focused,” Thompson said. “I’ve always been that kind of person that was like, well, if nobody else is going to do it, I will.”
Thompson held an interest meeting where its 13 attendees voted in officers, discussed ideas for the group and addressed concerns of what the organization’s definition of feminism would be.
“I know some people were really concerned coming into the meeting that it was going to be all vaginas and seventy-seven cents and I really don’t want that to be this at all,” Thompson said. “I want to have a range of perspectives.”
Senior Ashleigh Shackelford, a double major in business administration and political science, is the founder and president of the body positivity organization Full Figure Revolution. She was elected to be vice president of FSO at the interest meeting, where she said it was important to establish what definition of feminism the group will target.
“Often times it ends up being a mainstream, very white-oriented feminism that doesn’t really address people of color, doesn’t address the queer community, doesn’t address anybody but able-bodied people,” Shackelford said. “So that was a really big point we wanted to make with the organization as well.”
Maheen Shahid, a sophomore in the five-year education program, is the organization’s treasurer. She said the organization won’t be limited to addressing what’s often thought of as strictly feminist concerns. It will tackle the grey areas where feminism overlaps with issues of privilege, inequality and human rights, she said.
“Feminism isn’t just about women. It’s about all sorts of people,” Shahid said. “We’re not just focused on one issue because there isn’t just one issue that someone’s facing. It’s usually a crosshatch of different issues.”
For Thompson, the goal of the organization is to move beyond dialogue to employ activism in addressing the way these issues intersect.
“I don’t want to just sit and talk about the issues. I want to make change,” Thompson said.
The group aims to raise sensitivity to preferred gender pronouns, hold an anti-racism rally and offer free childcare to single mothers in the community.
By building the organization on a foundation of diversity, the group will combat the misconception that feminism welcomes a certain type of person, Thompson added.
“I feel like a lot of people see feminism and see activism and say, ‘Oh well, I’m not perfect … so I can’t be a part of that.’ No, you can,” Thompson said. “This is why I think it’s important that our group be diverse. I really didn’t want this to be a space where anyone was excluded.”
A feminist community can be found outside the walls of academia for those who seek it, Thompson and Shahid said, both of whom educated themselves on feminist issues online. Shahid said forums like Tumblr shouldn’t be overlooked as vital educational tools.
“Online activism is where I learned about all of this oppression,” Shahid said. “This is stuff they’re teaching in my gender studies class now … but these are all online resources that I received for free, (and) dialogues I’ve had with other people, I’ve had for free. I don’t believe anyone who says that online activism doesn’t do anything. I believe it does a whole lot.”
Thompson said the city and the university’s diverse environment make Richmond and VCU a promising platform for confronting these issues and raising awareness.
“I think it’s such an interesting location to be addressing these things,” Thompson said. “I don’t know why this wasn’t here before.”
Liz Canfield, a professor in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department, said there are other student organizations, such as Safe at VCU, that address feminist issues as well.
“This isn’t the first feminist organization at VCU by any stretch, but it’s the first organization that has called itself such in a couple years,” she said.
In the past, VCU has had student organizations associated with the Feminist Majority, Planned Parenthood and Feminist United.
The group’s hopes for the organization extend beyond the college campus. For Thompson, feminism is about creating a more equal society.
“I think it’s important to be conscious of inequality and injustice. Standing idly by and watching injustice occur just isn’t who I am,” Thompson said. “I care about feminism because I care about creating a better, stronger and more just society.”