The real future of feminism

January 13, 1994|By Cristina Posa

TELEVISION, magazines and news articles are pummeling America with the belief that all of today's young feminists are freaks or wimps. They still don't get it.

For example, Esquire magazine ran a profile in its February issue of a young woman whom it christened "The future of American womanhood." She's a 17-year-old from Madison, Wis., named Suzanne Jacobson whose most definitive "feminist" characteristics seem to be fishnet stockings, a nose ring and a boyfriend named Mohawk Matt.

Granted, Ms. Jacobson's studied nonconformance is funny and fascinating. But she is by no means representative of young women gearing up for the 21st century.

Nor are the female students at Antioch College, whose rules on undergraduate sexual conduct have been the subject of countless articles in recent weeks. According to the college's newest rules, men must receive explicit verbal consent at each stage of a sexual encounter from a peck on the cheek to intercourse.

This kind of absurd campus paternalism undermines all that TC young women have been fighting for over the last three decades.

Young women of previous generations have fought for the right to attend universities, for coeducational housing and for sexual autonomy. To imply now that the young women of my generation are nothing more than potential victims merely reinforces the old stereotype of "weak" women who need to be taken care of.

There's no denying men need to behave more responsibly. But it seems that a man would be less likely to rape a strong, assertive woman who knows how to take care of herself than one who relies on the campus dean of students to play daddy-in-absentia.

Luckily, most young women don't conform to the whiny, sexually paranoid model promoted by the media. Nor do most mirror Suzanne, the "riot grrrl" role model -- an ultra-radical, angry, screaming, punk feminist. Esquire would have us believe that any college feminists who are not hiding behind sexual harassment codes on campus are closet freaks in combat boots and spiked dog collars.

Bikini Kill is the name of an all-female "riot grrrl" band. It has been featured not only in feminist publications but in Time magazine. I stumbled into a Bikini Kill concert one summer and quickly learned that "riot grrrl"-dom was not for me.

Friends had heard that a "punk percussion protest" concert would be held on the lawn of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. We had no idea who these "punks" were or what they were protesting, but as college students we are always open to free musical entertainment.

The "concert" turned out to be more comedy than music. The group's lead singer dedicated her first song, touchingly entitled "Suck My Left One," to her baby sister. Then she exhorted women in the audience to "start giving each other pelvic exams, so we can get the government off our backs!"

My friends and I decided thanks, but no thanks.

The media have trouble accepting that the future of feminism is about more than combat boots and a weepy fear of sexual harassment. It is about taking charge. No matter how TV and the print media try to distort the issues, for most young women equality is still the name of the game.

Some experts, for example, believe that economic inequality is at the root of domestic violence. Many women are forced to remain in abusive relationships because they can't support themselves and their children without a man's income.

Thus ending the cycle of domestic violence requires empowering women economically. The old slogan "equal pay for equal work" still applies.

And while the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings got more press attention, young women had a greater stake in the family leave bill. Embarking on a career can be scary if it means you'll never be able to have or raise children.

Most of today's young feminists are working to achieve equality by fighting their way into a male-run world. The young women who are breaking into such traditionally male-dominated fields as medicine, engineering, business, journalism and politics may not be as photogenic as "riot grrrls," but they are the ones making the truly significant strides for equality.

I'd like to offer my own candidate as an exemplar of future American womanhood. Her name is Melissa Morse. She's a sophomore on the dean's list at Johns Hopkins University and a student in the biomedical engineering program there. The program is the best in the country and one of the most academically rigorous majors offered at Hopkins. It's also less than 19 percent female.

Melissa is proving that women can be engineers. She does so by hard work and talent, not by screaming obscenities from a stage. To my mind, that's what real equality -- and real power -- are all about.

Cristina Posa, a student at Johns Hopkins, is an editorial intern for The Baltimore Sun.

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