Where Are They NOW?
Four teenage girls from Poland, Ohio, sat in a café booth, excitedly chatting about their school trip to the nation's capital. Their bubbly conversation continued as they decided how to split the $30 lunch bill, a lot of money for 14-year-olds.
A simple question stopped them cold.
"What are feminists?" parroted Rose Boniooa.
"We don't know," said Emily Freed, answering for the group.
Boniooa tried to answer her own question.
"They're very feminine," she said, showing her braces as she smiled.
The girls' lack of knowledge could be the result of their age, or maybe their parents tell them they can be whatever they want, without using the word "feminist." But ask enough people, and their answers vary, depending on their ages and life circumstances. No matter their answer, many people wonder if feminism is still relevant, and if it is, what issues still need attention.
Sandra Dargan, 45, works for the state tax office in the District of Columbia, just around the corner from where she was having lunch. Dargan, who considers herself a feminist, said feminists today have many qualities such as independence, grace and respectfulness.
"They're fun," she said. "They're outgoing. They're strong women."
Her colleague, Cheryl Ruffin, 44, added that more women need those qualities.
"A lot of women with children need to be more independent," she said, "instead of depending on someone else to take care of them and their children."
Ellen Daly, Iowa State University senior in women's studies, said today's feminism would be better if women forgot the issues and conceptually went back to the basics.
Her message is simple. Women need to stop the cattiness, drama and gossip when they interact with each other.
"Women our age really need to learn how to focus on themselves and analyze our relationships with each other," she said.
The media don't help much. Television is filled with shows such as ABC's "Desperate Housewives," depicting women using less-than-admirable techniques to stay happy. And, according to news accounts of a Vanity Fair photo shoot, the "Housewives" actresses don't get along any better off screen than their characters do on screen.
Daly is president of the ISU chapter of Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, which promotes education and activism on women's issues. Issues that faced her mother's generation remain unresolved, she said, noting that women still make 76 cents to a man's dollar.
The "Third Wave"
Negative media coverage and a changing political culture bruised feminism at the end of the '80s, Daly said. People viewed feminists as bra-burning man-eaters, which is why many young women today are afraid to use the term.
Marissa Isak, 24, waited in Union Station for a train to take her home to Portland, Ore., after a job interview as a climate change consultant. She reflected on the role that men play in feminists' negative image.
"More people are feminist than say they are," she said. "They branded feminism as something scary."
Isak said her mother and father are proud feminists, and she wished she could still see feminists working in society.
"Unfortunately, they have taken a lower profile than I would like," she said.
It's a sentiment that one of the founders of modern feminism shares.
Betty Friedan, best known as the author of "The Feminine Mystique," spoke at the Library of Congress in March for Women's History Month. Friedan said a conservative political culture today makes women relax in their progress.
"In the 1960s, so much was happening - it was in the air," she said. "Now we are in a period, for the majority, things are comfortable. But there is a growing discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots."
Jill Bystydzienski, professor and director of women's studies at ISU, said today's women don't face the same day-to-day battles that sparked the women's movement in the '60s and '70s, known now as the "First Wave." Women don't see sex-separated job listings and have more options in choosing a profession.
"Some women think everything is solved, because issues are not raised," Bystydzienski said. "Once you begin to bring these issues up, women begin to recognize them."
Isak said that was true in her conversations with women.
"Some women don't know how powerful they are," she said. "But they still have a lot to say on a lot of issues."
Bystydzienski said "Third Wave" feminists are different from their predecessors. Today's activists embrace the media as a tool for social change, she said. Musicians such as Ani DiFranco and Sleater-Kinney use their craft to spread messages, and activists no longer shy away from reporters, who, at the time, were mostly men.
Also, she said, diversity within the movement is common, unlike the first two waves.
"There is a greater acceptance of men as part of the movement," she said. "There is a clear acceptance of difference in the national feminist movement. It is becoming very clear that women don't speak with one voice."
Of the 15 members in the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, Daly said four are men.
Daly prefers an individual approach to educating people on women's issues, which she said is more effective than blanketing the campus with fliers and staging marches.
"One of the reasons college activism burns out is because you want to affect so many people, and the percentage of positive reaction is nothing compared to the negative and the responses of people who just don't care," Daly said.
Because of this "behind the scenes" approach, Daly said many college students think the movement is lost. "It is not as visible of a movement because a lot of activism has gone down to a smaller scale."
Bystydzienski said not only that, but feminist groups unite with other groups on campus to create change.
"There are a lot of coalitions being built," she said. "There are a lot of feminists involved today in many other kinds of movements."
The Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance has worked with the Black Student Alliance, Time for Peace and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Alliance - to name a few, Daly said.
"There is an interconnected web of oppression," she said.
Different means, same goal
Olga Vives was 28 when her husband left her. It was 1982, and she had a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old to care for.
Vives never collected any child support from her husband, and she struggled to stay in the job market with two young children to juggle.
"It was an injustice perpetuated against me," she said. "I felt I was given the short end of the stick This is a situation that happens to many women in this country still."
One day in 1982, Vives attended an Equal Rights Amendment meeting in Chicago with the National Organization for Women.
"I found in NOW a wonderful network of activists," said Vives, now the group's national vice president of action.
Vives said she felt empowered and found a way to help other women like her gain independence.
NOW played a key part in igniting the women's movements of the '60s and '70s. Friedan was one of the founders and its first president.
The organization came together after the 1962 Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. They require equal pay and prohibit employment discrimination on the grounds of race, color, religion, sex and national origin. NOW founders felt these laws weren't being enforced and created a group to champion women's rights.
The group's activism contributed to many advances for women, one of the first being gender-blind want ads in newspapers.
Bystydzienski said NOW became synonymous with women's rights. But, today's young women largely don't recognize what the group does, which she says is not just the organization's problem.
"We are not hearing as much from the feminists as we should be," she said.
Vives said she doesn't understand the "Third Wave" concept and thinks some of the tactics used by women like Daly are ineffective.
"It takes masses of people to create change. You can't do it individually," she said. "Although I respect it, and if it works, great. But it takes a lot of people to get out there and make sure voices are heard."
The Equal Rights Amendment
The Equal Rights Amendment remains among NOW's top priorities. Congress passed the amendment, which stated that government must enforce equal opportunities and protection regardless of sex, in 1972.
But it failed in 1982 after only 35 of the needed 38 states ratified it within the time limit set by Congress.
Every year since, the ERA has been reintroduced. At a press conference in March, NOW and other women's organizations argued the time limit was arbitrary. They said the 35 votes still stand, and they will not stop until the ERA becomes a part of the Constitution.
If Congress doesn't accept that, NOW President Kim Gandy said at a press conference they would start over - by drafting a new amendment. Gandy said women need constitutional protection today more than ever.
"Yes, we have statutory protection in place," she said. "But we cannot count on statutory protection alone. They can go back from whence they came."
Daly doubts the ERA will pass this year.
"Because of our governmental structure right now, and the political culture of society, I don't think it has a chance," Daly said. "It is divided between progressive and conservative."
Even so, Vives said women are prepared to fight, which she attributed to the group's rising membership. This year, NOW opened 100 new chapters all over the country.
Despite some losses, activism has opened doors for women entering the job market.
Christie Barnes, 24, is getting a master's degree in physiology at Georgetown University here and applying to medical school. She wants to be a surgeon. Barnes said equality in the medical arena has yet to happen. She mentioned that when Viagra first came out many insurance companies immediately paid for it, even though few of them paid for birth control.
Barnes said her mother "burned her bras and went to college" and instilled in her the wish to do whatever she wanted. But, entering a field dominated by what she calls "good ol' boys," she sees disparities.
She has shadowed male surgeons who called her "sweetie" and made chauvinistic jokes.
"You hear about people going into a hospital setting and getting discriminated against," she said. "I think we haven't quite hit a place where women can feel equal to their male counterparts."
Posted Thursday, April 14, 2005 :: infoZine Staff
By Kathryn Fiegen