Looking for next leaders of feminism

February 01, 2000|By Susan Reimer

ELEANOR SMEAL, a name forever linked with feminism for those of us old enough to remember the movement's infancy, will be at Goucher College Thursday evening on a recruiting trip.

This is something like her 48th visit to a college campus since October, and her field organization has spawned feminist cells on 87 campuses. At least that many more have signed up over the Internet.

Smeal is no longer the president of the National Organization for Women, but she was so identified with NOW in the 1970s and '80s that many women from that era may think she still is. For more than 12 years, though, she's headed the Feminist Majority, a women's rights group that is part think-tank, part activist organization.

She is looking for fresh recruits because she believes the movement is thisclose to its goal of equality for women and she wants the generation of women who will inherit that equality to be part of the final push.

"We think this generation really has a chance of reaching equality and taking real leadership positions. In business and politics. On boards of directors. Where decisions are being made.

"For this to happen, women must think of themselves as leaders," says Smeal from the Virginia offices of the Feminist Majority, which she founded in 1987.

Smeal is 60 now. When she graduated from Duke with an ambition to attend law school, she was told she would never see the inside of a court room -- because she was a woman.

Today, women make up nearly half of all law school students and are full partners in discrimination law and domestic violence among the legal specialties. Likewise, there are not only plenty of women in medical school, but women's health is a full-fledged division of medicine. It isn't just about having babies anymore.

It is this success that makes Smeal's recruiting efforts difficult. The young women in her audience, for whom opportunity seems open-ended, must first be convinced that there is something left to do before they will sign up to do it.

"The feminist movement has not spent enough money or time on recruiting," Smeal admits. "We take for granted the younger generation and we should not. The women's movement has been fed by the younger generation for 30 years. But you can't expect young people, or any people, to be activist unless there is action."

None of the young women in her campus audiences has been denied admission, or even a spot in a highly selective course of study, because of her sex.

Indeed, many of them have taken courses in women's studies or feminist thinking. Others may have majored in it -- something that seemed impossible 30 years ago.

The women's movement has leveled the playing field on which these young women now stand. Their difficulties wait just over the horizon, when the demands of combining work and family test their sense of equality and fair play.

"Do they take it more for granted? Sure," says Smeal. "But that it is good thing. If they didn't they wouldn't think they belong."

Smeal points out that women of her generation went to college to find a husband and that those who graduated without one felt like failures.

The women who followed her into college may have graduated, but they thought of their college degrees as something to fall back on in the event of marital disaster, never as the first step toward a career or self-sufficiency.

"If you didn't get married in school or immediately after, you felt old," she says. "Now women don't feel that pressure at all and would feel weird if they did.

"Marriage has been pushed way off past the college years. They are all talking about graduate school. That was unthinkable in my day."

Smeal is correct. Women are marrying later and later, and most expect to be part of a bread-winning team.

However, trouble postponed is not trouble denied. While their mothers might have happily stepped out of the work force to raise them, the fact that these young women expect to have both a career and family does nothing to make that combination any easier to achieve.

Smeal says women are waiting to get married, and even living with prospective spouses first, to make sure they find someone who will join them in the yoke of child-rearing.

"They want to see if the guy is going to shape up," she says.

Maybe. However, a liberated male is only half the equation. If women are going to marry a career and children, they will need a liberated employer and not just for those first six months after a child is born.

Children are an 18-year chunk out of your life, and their needs are likely more intense in their adolescence than they are in babyhood.

"A woman's career, once she has a husband and children, has a kind of conditional mood to it," writes Susan Cheever in her nonfiction book, "A Woman's Life: The Story of an Ordinary American and her Extraordinary Generation."

"Because there is no doubt which is more important in the crunch -- a job or a child."

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