To young women who foolishly abandon feminism

February 28, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

"I am not a feminist," she said. "I don't believe in feminism."

She said it as if she didn't need to be a feminist. As if it wasn't relevant anymore. As if she would get by on her own merit. She is a college student, and she said the feminists on her campus offended her. Their ideas offended her. And she said it as if feminism means hating men, forswearing marriage and children, behaving like a battle ax in public.

I had heard it before from young women, this notion that you don't have to be a feminist to succeed. That sexism, like communism, had long ago fallen of its own weight. That it had all been taken care of.

Hey, I want to tell them, belong or don't. Sign up and call yourself a feminist or go it alone. But don't for one minute think that your sex doesn't matter anymore.

When you applied to college, I wanted to tell her, somebody put your application in the pile marked "women." And when someone gives you a job, it will be because you are a woman.

Either your employer needs a woman to spruce up his affirmative action image, or he has discovered that women often outwork men in their attempt to stay even with them, and he doesn't mind reaping the benefits of that. But he is hiring you because you are a woman.

He will probably also hire you because of your looks. Pretty and thin matters. For some men, it doesn't matter a great deal. For other men employers, it is all that matters. But it matters. When they think about hiring you, one of the things men think about is whether they would mind having you around to look at.

Once you are hired, you will undoubtedly earn less money than a man for all or part of your work life. Perhaps you are trapped in fields such as teaching, banking and insurance, where women are concentrated but powerless and paid less as a result. Perhaps you are juggling the demands of home and work and aren't free to make the commitments that will earn you more. Or perhaps your employer simply thinks he can hire you for less than he has to pay a man. But you will earn less, and it will be because you are a woman.

Sometime, some man in your workplace will make a pass at you. It may be a vague comment that you fear you might be misinterpreting. Or some guy might pin you against the wall in the elevator. But sometime during your work life, it will happen. Think about it now, because how you respond will affect your future. Ask Navy Lt. Paula Coughlin, who blew the whistle on the boys at the Tailhook convention.

If you are lucky, the men you work with will treat you in a professional manner. They might fear the consequences of not doing so, or they might consider themselves too cool, too correct to react to you in any other way. Or they might decide you have earned that kind of treatment. But you are a woman, and men know the world is watching how they behave toward you.

If you are not so lucky, the men you work for will try to derail your career. They might not promote you, or give you the assignments or projects you need to succeed. They might be threatened by you or think you can't do the job or they might pass over you without giving it a thought. Simply because you are a woman.

I know this all sounds bitter and negative. But these are the rules of the game. If you think that you are just a walking academic record or a breathing job history, unaffected by your sex or your looks, you are wrong.

This may not be a big factor in your life. But it will never not be a factor. It is not a level playing field for women. There are advantages and disadvantages, but sex is never a neutral issue.

Even if you choose to stay home and raise your children, it is a choice that is yours because society believes you are better equipped to do it and has made some effort, however small, to support that decision.

And so it infuriates me when the next generation of women declares that they are not feminists. Being a feminist isn't about making the workplace an armed camp or hating men or being a lesbian or discarding marriage or child-rearing.

It is about choices and the freedom to make those choices. Listen to the women who have gone before you; they know. If you think for one minute that the fact that you are a woman isn't a factor in the choices you are allowed to make, you are wrong.

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