For some, feminism is a tradition

At city convention, generations weigh movement's impact

April 02, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Ask first-grader Kelsey Briddle if she's a feminist, and she makes a face at you.

But her mother and her grandmother are doing their best to change that. This weekend, the three came to Baltimore to attend the Feminist Expo 2000. They listened to lectures on women's empowerment, bought books and buttons and, between afternoon workshops, shared lipstick.

Mother, daughter and granddaughter -- ages 59, 36 and 7 -- span the history of the modern feminist movement and reflect its multigenerational face. Sandra Shahady joined the movement in 1969, when it was just getting off the ground, and has spent much of her adult life as an activist. Her daughter is a different type of feminist, balancing family and career, going out of her way to teach Kelsey that girls are every bit as capable as boys.

And as for Kelsey, she isn't sure what the word "feminist" means -- yet. Her mother and grandmother have gone out of their way to be certain she's familiar with its principles.

"I think we've still got a long way to go," says Shahady, of Lighthouse Point, Fla. "But I'm happy that my granddaughter has more opportunities than I did, or than my daughter did."

Shahady, otherwise known as "Nana," joined the movement when she was in her late 20s, seeking refuge from her life as a housewife and mother of five.

"I felt under-appreciated and under-cared about," she says. "I decided I wanted to get involved."

At the time, Shahady says, it wasn't "cool" to be a feminist -- at least not in Akron, Ohio. But she didn't let that stop her. She joined the National Organization for Women, began to give speeches and joined consciousness-raising groups.

Later, she marched and organized in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Today, that doesn't sound so revolutionary. Then, Shahady says, it was. Much of the time, her impassioned speeches about women's equality were not well-received.

"I used to go sit in my car and cry afterward," she says. "But I kept doing it for a long time."

Growing up, Shahady had wanted to be a nurse, but she shelved that dream when she got married right after high school and had her first baby at 18. The first time she ever traveled anywhere by herself she was 35. Her destination? A feminist retreat in Vermont.

Eventually, Shahady returned to school, first to the University of Akron, then to North Carolina State in Raleigh, where she earned a master's degree in social work in 1986. After her children were grown, she worked as a counselor at a women's center in Chapel Hill, N.C., for 10 years before retiring.

Yesterday afternoon, while her daughter and granddaughter took in a workshop on "Raising Feminist Children" at the Baltimore Convention Center, Shahady treated herself to something a little less political: a seminar on women mystery writers.

"Since I've done so much political activism over the years," she says, "I like to do fun stuff now."

Her daughter, Lisa Briddle, who lives in Raleigh, isn't one to give speeches or attend consciousness-raising sessions. But she juggles motherhood with a busy career as a real-estate agent -- and applies feminist theory every step of the way.

Kelsey, for example, is encouraged to play with trains and blocks while her 3-year-old brother Jacob is plied with dolls. Kelsey's good at math, a talent her mother encourages. She's trying to inundate her daughter with feminist theory now, so when adolescence hits, she'll be prepared.

And when her son's old enough, she says, she'll raise him as a feminist, too.

"When we come back in four years, he'll be with us."

Kelsey, not surprisingly for a 7-year-old, says she was bored by lectures such as "Salute to the Milestones of the 20th Century" and "Winning Women's Budgets." She amused herself by drawing pictures and playing tic-tac-toe with anyone who would cooperate.

But it's possible the weekend is already having the desired effect. Kelsey proudly donned a sticker someone gave her yesterday, which said, "End Violence Against Women." And she took notes during the panel on "Raising Feminist Children." The spelling wasn't perfect, but her spiral pad contained something about the importance of boys and girls respecting each other.

Perhaps most significantly, when asked what she wants to do with her life, Kelsey doesn't say "mother" or "teacher" or "nurse" -- answers that would have been common for a girl in her grandmother's day.

She simply smiles and replies, "I haven't really decided."

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