It's not easy being a feminist on college campuses today. Just ask the students gathering in Washington this weekend for a conference sponsored by the National Organization for Women.



WASHINGTON -- For weeks, Charlotte Hernandez tried not to look at the tree draped with shoes on the campus of George Washington University. Word among some students was, every time two brothers slept with the same woman, they threw a sneaker over one of the branches. The brothers denied the tradition existed, but Hernandez didn't believe them. So, she fought the fraternities and lobbied the administration to get the shoes removed.

The next thing she knew, she had become a symbol herself.

"I'd hear stuff like, 'Oh there goes the Femi-Nazi' and names like that," says Hernandez. "I said that tree offended me. And the rest of it I just tried to ignore."

Such is the life of a young feminist at the end of the 1990s. Sure, she still exists, but most folks know her by some other name, usually a sneering one. She is a man-hater. She is a lesbian. She is a radical, a leftist, a militant. She is an outcast.

It wasn't always like this. During the heyday of the feminist movement, leaders like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan strode onto college campuses as conquering heroes. Now they've been shoved aside by a succession of younger writers, who proudly announce the death of feminism in their latest book.

So what's a feminist to do? One antidote is to seek comfort in a gathering like the one being held in Washington this weekend by the National Organization for Women. Here, hundreds of young feminists have converged on a hotel to keep the movement alive. They're going to seminars, listening to speeches and, most importantly, findingstrength in numbers and reassurance in the fact that not everyone runs in horror from the F-word.

"A lot of young women feel like they're being shouted down and ostracized," says Inson Kim, 27, one of the summit's organizers. "I don't think it's such an easy thing to be an 'out' feminist. Sometimes people look at feminists like they're some sort of freaks."

Some say the only thing left in feminism is the stereotype. After all, they say, many of the big battles for equality already have been won. But women at the conference say the fight is anything but over.

"There's so much we still have to do," said Laurie Oleson, 21, a University of Maryland senior. "We're still treated like we're a minority even though we're half the population."

Among the top issues at the summit: fighting date rape and sexual harassment while defending equal pay and abortion rights. In seminars, women studied grass-roots organizing and political lobbying with the hopes of reinvigorating feminist movements on their campuses.

First, people have to get past the label. That's what Jennifer Schreiner, 20, a sophomore at Mount Holyoke, discovered one summer during a NOW internship. She thought the 15 men and five women who lived with her in a fraternity house at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey would never warm up to her self-proclaimed feminism.

"The looks on their faces when I said, 'I'm a feminist.' They'd be like ..." -- she imitates a dramatic gasp -- "like they thought feminism was something archaic."

But once she explained her beliefs in women's rights and equality, she found that the others agreed -- they just never wanted to call themselves feminists.

"The word 'feminist' just wasn't part of these people's vocabulary," she says. "Sometimes I think people are just afraid of that word."

'Too strong a label'

A half-hour away, at the University of Maryland in College Park, Sara Moussavi, 22, and Jennifer Butler, 27, are standing outside the Student Union holding drained coffee cups during a break between class. The young women, both students in the predominantly male School of Agriculture, cannot understand why a woman would need to call herself a feminist. Not now.

After all, the sexes seem so equal to these two women. Moussavi plans to join the Peace Corps -- something her mother, a housewife in Bowie, never could have done. Butler just returned from Africa and feels grateful she can do anything she wants -- unlike the women working the fields in Botswana. Here, life is good. Why agitate?

Moussavi and Butler never use the word "feminist" to refer to themselves. If they have to, they'll make their fingers do quotation marks around it. It's as though the word is a little distasteful.

Sara: I would definitely fight for women's rights to equality but I wouldn't say I'm a feminist. ... It's too strong a label -- it's too ...

Jennifer: (laughing) I know what you're thinking.

What, exactly?

Sara: I was in this woman's studies class and there was one woman, she was just such a man-hater. She was always so angry about something and there was nothing to be angry about. So that's what I see a feminist as. For me, it's just not something I think about.

Jennifer: I know. I have so many things to think about. I'm not really concerned with it.

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