The face of feminism

This is what a feminist looks like! Look again. Those on the front lines don't match the old stereotype and won't stand for a new one. They are here for different reasons, with a common goal.

April 01, 2000|By SUSAN REIMER AND TAMARA IKENBERG | SUSAN REIMER AND TAMARA IKENBERG,SUN STAFF

If your mental picture of a feminist looks like an Earth mother in peasant garb, with streaming salt-and-pepper hair and no makeup, you might need to adjust the knobs on your stereotypes.

People who call themselves feminists believe that women and girls should have the same opportunities as men and boys and should receive the same rewards. But that might be where the sameness ends.

The delegates to Feminist Expo 2000, in Baltimore this weekend to celebrate the accomplishments of the women's movement and to plot a course into the future, come in all descriptions.

The yogic nun and the Internet entrepreneur. The college idealist and her mother. The librarian and the widow. The guy and the child of poverty.

Like the button sold at the Expo says: "This is what a feminist looks like!"

Here are some of their stories.

Casey and Arlene Smith

Casey Smith didn't inherit her feminism from her mother; she infected her mother with it.

The Hunter College student from Saylorsburg, Pa., didn't like the movement too much until she did a research paper on the effect of teen magazines on young girls.

"I did all this reading, and I realized that feminism is more than the stereotype of man-hating lesbians," says 21-year-old Casey. "It is not some hippie issue that died in the '70s. Feminism had a lot to say to me."

Her mother, Arlene, asked to tag along to this weekend's conference for a reason familiar to mothers of college daughters everywhere.

"I just wanted to be with her," says the 46-year-old mom. "She amazes me. I wanted to see what she is so passionate about."

What Arlene found codified her everyday experiences as a Weight Watcher's spokeswoman. "I don't deal with women who want to lose 10 pounds so they can be more attractive," she says. "I deal with women who are overweight and depressed. A man left them and they eat and eat until they are almost dying and say, `Poor me.' "

Arlene thinks she might have always been a feminist: "I can tell by the way I feel about myself and the way I've raised my daughter."

Amanda Ferrer

Ferrer says she has been a feminist since birth. Literally.

"My mom is a hippie and a big feminist," says the 19-year-old Florida resident. "There were midwives at my birth and everything."

Ferrer says she grew up in the feminist tradition, but she embraced the principles of the movement on her own. "It is inside all of us, whether we are part of the movement or not."

Though she is a religion major at Brandeis University, Ferrer says Mammon, the Old Testament god of money, should be the patron saint of the feminist movement.

"Equal pay. That has to be it. Money is power," she says. "Money opens doors and it speaks to everyone."

Rose Dabney

Dabney says her left-leaning politics have made her the black sheep in her family, and someone who doesn't seem to fit in anywhere.

"When I am in a white space, I am often the only black woman there. In my West Baltimore neighborhood, I am the only feminist," says the Western High School graduate, now a senior at the University of Maryland.

"I am a woman and I am black. It is not one or the other," says the 19-year-old. "Gender and race connect for me on a lot of issues. There isn't one part of me that is more important than the other."

As is often the case for young women, the sleeping feminist inside Dabney was roused by a college women's studies course in college. When she looked up, she realized her mother had been her feminist example, though her mother would never use that word.

"I look at her life and her struggle. She is a single mother. She was married for 15 years in an abusive relationship before she got herself out. She is on her own with two young children. She is really strong. She is really independent and she raised me to be that way, too."

Sharon McGowan

McGowan grew up in an Irish-Catholic family in Queens, N.Y. Dad was a cop and mom was a school teacher, and she went to an all-girl Catholic high school.

"My life was like a bad pub song," says the 26-year-old who will graduate this spring from Harvard Law School.

Her parents, she says, might have been more shocked by the fact she was working for the American Civil Liberties Union than they were by her announcement she was gay.

"By the time I told them I was a feminist, my mother said, `Well, we assumed that,' " says McGowan, who appeared on a panel at the Expo.

She came to feminism through the back door. She had plenty of women role models in her high school who broke the stereotypes of women in math and science and women in leadership, so feminism didn't make much sense to her.

But when she got to the University of Virginia and found women in so many traditional roles, "the webbing on my vision of justice gave way." She calls herself a reformed anti-feminist.

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