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Purses For a Purpose: The Future of Service-Based Feminism

Author: Julianna Russ

Written: April 28, 2020

Editted: May 3, 2020

Since January 2017, the annual Women’s March in Washington, D.C., has invited women young and old to celebrate all that the feminist movement has accomplished. In doing so, it has sparked passion in a new generation of female activists. After decades of dormancy, feminist-centric activism is back in vogue.

This passion is expressed in many ways; some use social media to promote social justice, while others take to the streets wielding megaphones and picket signs. But modern feminism can--and should--be built on more than protests, marches and theories.

Enter Shayna Rutman. An 18-year-old high school senior living in San Diego, Shayna has spent the past year implementing feminism at the community level to help women in need. Though Shayna isn’t shy about her beliefs, whether online or at local rallies, her unique, service-based approach to advocacy is scarcely seen in youth-led activism today.

Shayna Rutman at the 2017 San Diego Women’s March.

It started with a plea posted on Facebook, asking for purses to be donated to women at local homeless shelters. When Shayna’s father mentioned the post, it was a lightbulb moment for her.

“Why don’t we fill them with travel-sized toiletries?”

Thanks to Shayna’s dedicated promotion on social media, her seemingly small idea rapidly transformed into a massive nonprofit organization, which she lovingly named Purses For a Purpose. Within months, the den of the Rutman home was overflowing with donated purses and toiletries. Now, she makes monthly trips to deliver the jam-packed handbags to various women’s shelters, and in the meantime, carefully coordinates and collects donations from across San Diego, ensuring every purse is equally stocked with love as well as toiletries.

Shayna at a purse donation drive in 2019.

Although her work is currently on hold due to the COVID-19 crisis, Shayna plans to bring Purses For a Purpose with her to Washington, D.C., where she will pursue an undergraduate degree in political science at American University.

For Shayna, the impact of her project is priceless. She points out that “the goal of Purses For a Purpose is to remind these women of their femininity and to remind them they are valuable. Each purse is different and has a different story, just like every woman participating has a unique story of her own.”

Over the years, advocacy has shifted policy in favor of feminism. This has pushed social issues into the forefront of the movement, while the pillar of women helping women has unfortunately faded into the background.

Shayna’s feminism differs greatly from the feminism displayed at the Women’s March. Her organization features no catchy chants, her work isn’t seen by millions of people and phrases like, “The Future is Female,” are nowhere to be found. But she’s meeting the material needs of real women. Performative activism has its place, but service-based activism like Shayna’s is truly an avenue of change; too often is it underestimated, overlooked, and neglected. Her work proves that a large-scale, service-based revival is possible.

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