Getting beyond old stereotypes of feminism

Allison Morse

August 24, 1993|By Allison Morse

I WAS a senior in high school when I finally found an image of womanhood I liked.

I didn't find it on General Hospital, in the pages of Vogue or in my worn copy of "Pride and Prejudice." I found it in Ms. Dolores Kendrick's classroom. There the image of womanhood was gloriously alive. It was expressive, assertive and powerful.

Today I realize that for Ms. Kendrick, being a woman meant being a feminist. The two were vividly, inextricably connected.

One step inside her Women's and Minority Literature class and I was surrounded by the faint smell of her perfume. The long painted nails, the bracelets chiming as they dangled from her wrists -- all seemed to underscore a certain delicacy about Ms. Kendrick.

But then there was her shoulder-length hair, coarse and curly enough to frame her powerful face like a lion's mane. There was her swagger, and the way her voice could silence the howling January wind.

"Speak out," she told me. "Do not be tentative. Let your voice be heard."

Ms. Kendrick's poetry described the struggles of slave women to retain their identities under oppression:

They be things to stand up for, Be for, believe for.

What things, I say. Yo'self, Minerva say.

Am I a thing? I say. Minerva don't answer.

She jes' give me a hug.

These words can speak to all women, whatever their race -- and speak for them as well.

Ms. Kendrick embodied the image of "woman" as I would like to embody it myself. She had a presence about her, a confidence and fierce intelligence that I revered. When she entered a room she simply demanded the attention of everyone in it. As a minority woman at a school with a primarily male faculty, she expected to have her views heard.

She was quickly tagged a "feminist." Unfortunately, to most people that meant she was too forceful, too opinionated -- and therefore too threatening.

But still I graduated hoping every woman was, or could be, like Ms. Kendrick. Arriving at Johns Hopkins University that September, I expected to find strong women who also cried, "Listen to me."

What I found when I set off on my own was something much different.

I was startled to learn that of the 164 full-time, tenured professors who teach in the Arts & Sciences and Engineering at Hopkins, only 12 are women.

I was startled to read that the only two professions in which a woman can make more than a man doing the same job are modeling and prostitution.

I was startled to learn that for every one acquaintance rape that is reported, 20 have occurred. Women know that the public scrutiny that accompanies rape trials will jeopardize their professional and private lives.

I began to wonder: Why are these women keeping quiet? What happened to the "feminism" I learned about in school? Why are women seemingly rejecting the "feminist" label?

How can any woman in this country today not call herself a feminist?

I am not the only one asking this question. High school and college-age young women from east to west are out to convince us all that feminism is not a dirty word.

"Being a feminist means believing in your own power and your own rights," says Jennifer Mehrtens, chairperson of the National Organization for Women's Young Feminist Task Force.

Feminist issues are humanist issues. Any professional woman who wants equal pay for equal work, any mother who wants affordable day care for her children, any woman who wants to protect herself against date rape, who feels she deserves the right to control her own body, or the right to walk down her own street without hearing cat-calls can, and should, call herself a feminist.

Today, anyone can be a feminist. Thankfully, the days of the bra-burning, man-hating, unshaven lesbian feminist stereotype are gone. Almost.

In a recent letter to the editor, a Baltimore Sun reader declared that the women opposing the sexual exploitation of waitresses at a nearby restaurant are merely "the drabs and drubs of feminism -- the women whom no one would want to glom onto, with or without clothes."

We should all thank the man who wrote this. It is this kind of archaic thinking that is helping to fuel the young feminist movement.

Those who still cling to the antiquated notion of "feminist as man hater because she never got the guys in high school" ought to open their minds. They ought to talk to the young women from Berkeley High School in California, who arose at 4 o'clock one recent Saturday morning to help women get inside an abortion clinic whose entrance was littered with protesters.

They ought to read Ms. Kendrick's poetry, dedicated to the women in her family, "whose strong and gracious presence was [her] inheritance."

They ought to speak to the woman at a small college in New Hampshire who started a sexual assault education program because she herself had been assaulted.

They ought to talk with the men who support all of these women.

They ought to realize that all people -- whatever their sex, race, age, sexual orientation or religion -- who care about any issue pertaining to women can call themselves a feminist.

The stereotypes which have plagued the word "feminist" are already beginning to fade, thanks to the young women who comprise what has been called the Fourth Wave of feminism. They represent the feminist of today: confident, competent, smart, savvy and, most of all, strong.

They have to be. Look at what they're up against.

Once we all embrace the word "feminist," the stereotypes these women are fighting will vanish completely. Then we can work to make life so much richer -- not just for women, but for all of us.

Allison Morse graduated from Johns Hopkins University in May.

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