Re-energizing feminism

Challenge: Leaders seek to redefine the women's movement as Feminist Expo 2000 opens in Baltimore.

March 30, 2000|By Jean Marbella and Gail Gibson | Jean Marbella and Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

These might seem like good times for feminists, with Madeleine K. Albright overseeing the nation's foreign policy and the U.S. women's soccer team inspiring a new generation of female athletes.

Yet, as some of the mothers of the modern women's movement, including Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, open Feminist Expo 2000 at Baltimore's Convention Center tomorrow, their cause seems to be on the defensive.

"There is a constant attempt to gut the successes of the latter half of the 20th century, which were because of the advances in the women's movement," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which organized the three-day gathering.

"It doesn't just happen that there is a Madeleine Albright," Smeal says. "And if there's not a woman's movement pushing, there might not be another Madeleine Albright."

This weekend in Baltimore, the modern movement's oldest soldiers and newest recruits will be looking backward and forward, celebrating successes as they cope with challenges to those gains.

Politicians threaten to erode advances on bedrock feminist issues such as abortion and affirmative action. Pundits scoff when Vice President Al Gore seeks political advice from feminist writer Naomi Wolf.

A pervasive depiction in popular culture is that of self-absorbed young women more likely to have read "The Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right" than "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women." The conference, co-sponsored by Smeal's Feminist Majority and 430 women's groups from around the world, is part panel discussion, part networking, part group hug.

About 6,000 participants are expected to attend seminars or listen to lectures on economic empowerment, the status of women's lives from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, and feminist views on racism, poverty, violence and education.

Behind the activity will be a drive to re-energize a movement that its leaders say has transformed a generation but still can take nothing for granted.

"I know that we have made dramatic progress that my daughters' lives are so different from my mother's life as to be almost unimaginable and unrecognizable," says Claire Moses, chair of the women's studies department at the University of Maryland, College Park. Still, she says, "in the last 20 years it sometimes feels that we're knocking our heads up against a stone wall."

Some say it is the movement's success in improving women's lives that has made it less vital to younger generations that have grown up with birth control and abortion largely available, tougher laws against rape and sexual harassment, and greater equality in education, sports and jobs.

"Women my age are like, `Roe v. Wade, what else do we need?' " says Leena Mittal, 20, a Johns Hopkins senior among the 2,000 college students expected to attend the expo. "They don't realize how we have to constantly defend abortion rights."

Mittal started Students for Choice at Hopkins last fall after realizing that though there was an anti-abortion group on campus, there was no organized effort on the other side of the issue.

Mittal, a pre-med student, was drawn to feminism during her college years by a search for identity: A youngster when her mother died, Mittal was raised by her father and later began taking courses at Hopkins on gender identity and women's issues. She sees the Feminist Expo as an opportunity to hear and meet some of the women whose writings and accomplishments have changed her life.

"I keep having this recurring vision, that I somehow will run into Gloria [Steinem], so I have to have something prepared, something really eloquent to say, just in case," Mittal says. "She's like this goddess. She's been in the movement for so long, and yet she's still so into it."

Even if Mittal doesn't meet Steinem, the expo will not be for naught. As a budding activist on a famously apolitical campus, Mittal wants to connect with a larger movement.

"The kind of things that will come from this gathering," she says, "will forge a community."

Young feminists have organized groups, including Third Wave, establishing themselves as next in a line that began with Susan B. Anthony and the suffragists and continued through the 1960s and '70s with activists who sought equal rights.

Yet, feminism is led by a graying group. This weekend's programs seek to include more current fare -- Eve Ensler's play "The Vagina Monologues" will be performed -- even as many of the events have a flashback feeling. Cagney and Lacey will reunite, years after the TV detectives have been off the air, as will the real-life women who worked on the failed Equal Rights Amendment.

"They're so removed from reality. I went to the last extravaganza," says Christina Hoff Sommers, a frequent provocateur of feminists, referring to the 1996 Feminist Expo held in Washington. "It was like a time warp, down to them singing "I Am Woman."

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