Young women carry on feminist fight with or without title

April 10, 1995|By MIKE LITTWIN

Washington -- I didn't see Denise Brown, although I heard about the T-shirt she contributed. I saw Salt of Salt 'N Pepa. And either Cagney or Lacey, whichever one has dark hair.

Toad the Wet Sprocket showed up. BETTY and Joan Jett were there.

So was Jesse Jackson. And Jesse Jackson's daughter Santita, described as a singer/activist.

But I didn't come for the celebrities.

I didn't come for the nun carrying the pro-choice sign either, or even this choice sign: "Republicans Don't Need Abortions, They Eat Their Young."

I came in search of young feminists.

My college-age daughter tipped me off there'd be many thousands of them, herself included, in Washington yesterday for a NOW-sponsored rally protesting violence against women. Patricia Ireland, who heads up the National Organization for Women, said there were 250,000 protesters spread across the Mall. The Park Police estimated 50,000.

In either case, there were many feminists at a time when feminism, or at least the word, has fallen into disrepute. One recent poll said that although 57 percent of women believe in a strong women's movement, 63 percent do not consider themselves feminists.

Why not?

"A lot of people don't want to be called feminists," said Kirsten Lee, a student at Ithaca College in upstate New York. "They think that the second wave of the feminist movement is all about lesbianism or man-hating. It's just not true."

She's carrying a sign saying that feminism is not a dirty word.

She and four friends heard about the rally in the class they're taking on feminist theory. They drove down because they thought it was important.

"Hell, yeah," Lee said, smiling.

The mood was, well, sort of militant. From the stage, there was a lot of anti-Newtism and a lot of talk about what they call the Contract on America.

Ireland said the violence against women was not limited to physical violence. She said the anti-abortion, anti-welfare, anti-affirmative-action messages coming out of Congress were also attacks on women.

As for Gingrich, regarding his mother's revelation about Newt's thoughts on Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ireland had this to say: "That's Ms. Bitch to you."

She got a standing ovation. So did Jesse Jackson, who can be depended on to show up at this kind of rally. He wondered why there weren't more men in the crowd.

The crowd was what you'd expect. There were some socialists trying to radicalize some of the students. On a very warm spring day, a few women were topless, a few more clad only in bras. They were making a statement, I guess. Most of the crowd seemed to be young women, who looked like typical middle-class kids, many of them college students.

There was the group from Ames, Iowa, who work at a shelter for women there. They were carrying a sign saying: "Get Angry, Get Active."

Michelle Larson, who's 25 and says she comes from conservative Iowa stock, doesn't think it's surprising that many women don't accept the feminist label.

"You get called a lesbian," she said. "You get called a radical, a femi-nazi. You say you're a feminist and make yourself a target. People are scared of the word. But I think most women agree with what feminism stands for."

At the bottom of their sign were the words: "Run, Rita, Run." According to Larson, Rita is a Jordanian woman who was beaten by her husband. But when they divorced, the judge gave the kids to the husband anyway. Rita grabbed the kids and ran home to Jordan.

The story was similar to many told at the rally. One of the most compelling came from June Barrett, who was injured in the fatal attack on her husband, James, and a doctor at an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Fla.

Beyond the stories, there were 6,000 T-shirts, each representing an act of violence against a woman, displayed on the Mall as part of what is called the Clothesline Project. Denise Brown contributed one in memory of her sister, Nicole Brown Simpson, which had this note from Simpson's 6-year-old son: "Mommy, I miss you and I love you. Justin."

"I don't think it's important if you're called a feminist or not," said Jennifer Mason, a student from suburban Washington carrying a sign that said: "Newter Newt."

"The important thing is that we're here and that we care and that we're trying to defend the rights of women."

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