Where Now Feminism? It Depends On Whom You Ask, But Here Are Views Of Those We Wurveyed

December 08, 1991|By A. M. Chaplin

The William Kennedy Smith rape trial. Clarence Thomas' confirmation hearings. Court rulings confirming limits on abortion. President Bush's assertion that he would again veto a parental-leave bill. The last year has seen the nation's attention riveted time and again by events involving women's issues, and the public's consciousness has been raised to heights unimagined even 10 years ago. But the results of this consciousness-raising aren't quite so clear as they might be, and the jury is out on how it has all been interpreted by American's women.

On the one hand, a Gallup/Newsweek poll done in the beginning of October showed that a majority of American women say they don't consider themselves feminists. The poll also suggested a decline in the number of women who believe the women's movement has improved their lives. But on the other hand, the same poll showed three-quarters or more of American women believing they are better off now than 10 years ago in the area of legal rights, economic resources and their status in society.

So how are these seemingly contradictory signs and signals to be interpreted? At a time when massive numbers of women appreciate the gains made by their sex, at a time when women's issues are receiving so much attention, why aren't more American women willing to identify themselves with feminism? These are the questions the Sun Magazine asked a number of women, prominent and not, feminist and not. Here are some of their answers.

Peg Yorkin, chair of the Fund for the Feminist Majority.

The [number of] women saying they are feminists has dropped, but that is because of the media, because of what the media has done to the word "feminist." They always portray it as someone wearing Army boots, strident, blah blah, blah, that kind of thing, so people say, "Well, I'm not a feminist, but . . . " But they support the women's movement, I don't care what they call themselves. . . .

A lot of women are saying, "I haven't been active in the women's movement for a long time, but . . . " Particularly with the Anita Hill thing. People are outraged. I mean the phones are ringing in all of our offices. It's way over the top. We haven't seen figures like this in many years. And it was the women, after all, calling in to the Senate who got the 14 white men to consider that sexual harassment was indeed a problem.

Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum.

The feminist movement has not improved women's lot, so the polls reflect the fact. The fact that the majority of women do not want to identify with feminists I think is obvious, and it's always been so. And the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings showed the feminists to be the malicious, ugly, nasty people that they are. It was a savage, 11th-hour attack by the feminists on an honorable man in an attempt to prevent him from getting his promotion, and the American people were turned off by those dirty tactics. I think the Clarence Thomas confirmation really exposed feminism for what it is -- they hate men and they're out to destroy any man who stands in their way.

Susan Faludi, reporter for the Wall Street Journal and author of "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women."

Women have been convinced through endless attacks on feminism to separate feminism itself from the goals of the feminist movement, which, from my reading of the polls, increasing majorities of women support. So at the same time you're seeing this decline in women who identify themselves with feminism, you're seeing an increase in the proportion of women who support every point in the feminist platform: equal rights legislation to equal pay to the right to an abortion. Support for all of those is on the increase.

But because at the same time there's been this relentless sort of demonization of feminism, women have backed off publicly identifying themselves with the women's movement. This is a classic example of how a counterassault on the campaign for women's rights has pushed women underground, but it hasn't convinced women that they don't need and want equal rights. It's definitely made women very leery about expressing their beliefs in public.

Jennifer Goldberg, a junior majoring in English secondary education at Towson State University and a member of the Young Feminist 1990 steering committee for the National

Organization of Women.

Feminism definitely isn't dead among young people, but young women first getting involved in the movement are very inhibited by the word. I think to young women it means hating men, No. 1. It means, like, you have some kind of problem, you can't get along with them, you're just unhappy and blame them for all the problems. I tried to start a feminist consciousness-raising group, and the response was terrible. I tried to do Students for Choice, and the response was great.

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