I cannot remember the last time the president of the U.S. praised feminist activists. Has it ever happened? Color me surprised when last week, Obama said the “inspiring wave of student led activism” motivated him to create the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Okay, so the president didn’t praise feminist activists per se, but feminists have been mobilized around this issue for decades.
Citing the figure that one in five women college students have been sexually assaulted, Obama is giving the task force ninety days to come up with suggestions and initiatives to reduce sexual assault and improve compliance with existing policies. In the last few years, several U.S. colleges have been outed as stymying sexual assault reporting. As evidence mounted about the widespread lack of reporting and mishandling of sexual assault cases by administrators, college activists pressured the federal government to respond and to comply with Title IX. Despite affecting millions of us, never has the issue of sexual assault been given such national attention.
As I read the wave of news articles and blog posts documenting Obama’s historic move, my mind turned to the student activists who are no doubt celebrating. I thought about the young feminists today and the feminists who came before them who have been so dedicated to confronting the prevalence of sexual assault. During my research with college student feminists at three U.S. colleges, I found students across the country mobilized around the issue of violence against women and sexual assault. They often cited sexual assault as a top feminist grievance. Student activists made presentations in dorms and fraternities/sorority houses about sexual assault and consent, teamed up with Men Against Rape groups, marched in the streets, and posted statistics on their Facebook wall to alert their friend network of shocking statistics about sexual assault on college campuses. To them, I imagine that Obama’s task force is a victory. Yes, rape culture is a serious issue deserving of all of our attention.
Naysayers may question whether Obama’s plan will lead to more bureaucracy and oversight of higher education, and student activists may be worried that their experiences will be lost in the hullaballoo of Washington politics. Time will tell. For the moment, I say we should not only be optimistic, but also thankful for the student organizers who fueled such momentous change.