Cover Story: Generation Next

College campuses debate the life, death and redefinition of Feminism

May 11, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Becca Collins

"don't avert my eyes anymore/ in a man's world/ i am a woman by birth/ and after nineteen times around i have found/ they will stop at nothing once they know what you are worth."
— Ani DiFranco, "talk to me now"

A recent conversation about feminism with my likewise white, female, middle-class college friends lasted all of two minutes.

Almost two years ago, Time magazine published a similarly anticlimactic cover story begging the question: Is feminism dead? Good question in the year during which Ally McBeal and the Spice Girls shook up the traditional boy's club with revealing skirts and "girl power."

But that article merely surmised that an influx of testosterone and boy bands have reduced young women and girls to screaming and swooning.

Carol Winkelmann, professor of English at Xavier University, has been involved with the feminist movement since her early 20s and has focused on the historical, literary and social feminist movement in her university course, Technologies of Gender.

"(Many college women) understand oppression intellectually, but they don't feel it in their bones until they get into the 'real world,' " Winkelmann said.

I could accept this explanation — until I look at the experiences of my friends and myself. Although we've led very lucky lives, we have also dealt with issues such as sexual harassment, rape, abuse, abortion and gender wage differences. Yet we've chosen to deal with these issues personally and within our small group, instead of nationally.

For us, feminism is an individual ideal.

But Alicia Manson, a junior photography major at Miami University and president of Miami's Association for Women Students, is anxious to become part of the national movement.

"You can read all these things (about the feminist movement), but you need to be submerged in it to truly understand it," Manson said.

Stella Washington, a senior English literature major at Northern Kentucky University, has never seen herself as "someone who wanted to be on the front lines" of the feminist movement. In the same breath, she recognizes feminists for accomplishing some amazing things.

"(There are) groups that let you know that something's wrong in society," she said. "If there's someone yelling, there's something going on."

"The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off."

— Gloria Steinem

If feminists are yelling, Jessica Haney, instructor of English and Women's Studies at the University of Cincinnati, said it's because they opened their eyes to injustices and they're angry.

Even Becca Collins, a senior biology major at XU who's idealistic about the feminist movement, admitted that she sometimes gets frustrated with the imbalance of power. She wonders why women can't have the majority of power to balance the history of male domination.

Vinnie Ray, a local social services case manager who participates in discussions about divisions within the feminist movement, said the anger is more about a lack of choices. "Maybe the bottom line is for us to choose who we are," she said, "because society has told us, 'You are a mother, a wife, a daughter.' "

In any case, anger and passion are internal emotions.

"Every woman has to come to realize her own oppression and responsibility to the feminist movement," Winkelmann said.

But that responsibility can be difficult to define when the first and second waves of feminism didn't represent or even welcome every woman.

"In the last 10 years, feminism has done a great job of embracing diversity," Winkelmann said. "Feminists began to understand diversity when they were challenged by the black women and lesbian women. (They) let the feminist movement know there was a problem."

This problem was akin to the common cold ­ dealt with quickly and effectively so daily work could be continued.

"Any large, very inclusive group is going to have differences," UC's Haney said. "To talk about divisions and fractions is off the mark. ... We're too busy out working on issues to fight with each other."

And today's feminist can't pretend there's only one woman to represent. "Everything that we're doing now is trying to be inclusive and trying to never say 'We just need this one thing,' " she said.

Still, Ray said that white women and their issues remain at the movement's forefront. But she also encourages "finding the things that make us different and then finding the things that make us similar."

So it seems differences aren't being ignored. But they aren't being highlighted, either.

Washington said that race, which could be utilized as a unifying vehicle, is often the very thing that keeps factions separated.

"Probably the first thing that keeps white people from listening to black people is yelling and screaming about race," she said.

Miami's Association of Women Students has some of the deepest local roots in the feminist movement, and for most of that history it's required that all women students belong. The club is extracurricular now, but Manson said they still "want to make everyone welcome, want to collaborate with other groups and want to include everyone's voice."

Because the movement is open to diversity and boundaries are constantly expanding and shifting to be more inclusive, mainstream stereotypes are disappearing.

"The bra-burning 'FemiNazi' (image) just doesn't hold anymore," Winkelmann said.

That might be true within the movement, but social stereotypes are harder to dissolve.

"Just by saying 'feminism/feminist,' you're turning a lot of people off," Manson said.

To Be or Not to Be
While the debate over inclusion within the feminist movement rages, it has somehow managed to evolve in spite of itself to incorporate differences between individuals.

"Today's (feminist) leaders are all women who are working toward equality in their own space," Collins said.

And their space is as individualistic as the women who call themselves feminists.

"You don't have to be a member of NOW (National Organization for Women) to be a feminist," Winkelmann said. "You can be a housewife and be a feminist."

Like any other movement, feminism comprises individuals who are leading personal movements and small community movements wherever they are. Although these movements often vary and stray from the national feminist movement's issues, "(The national and community feminist movements) definitely need each other and rely on each other," Manson said.

Winkelmann agreed, adding that once a woman understands oppression she finds the feminist movement as a support network. But if that support network were missing, she might not have the wherewithal to recognize oppression.

"I think if we look at the whole (movement), the things that are done are done within our communities," Ray said.

Ray and Winklemann work in different areas of social services. Manson has been involved with the Association for Women Students for two years. Haney is involved with the UC Women's Center and is working on her master's thesis on high-school education. Collins has focused on inclusive language and women in the church.

As for me and my friends, I suspect we will continue to find our support system within our close-knit group.

The feminist movement to this point has been so expansive and all-inclusive that individual movements and diversity are more than necessary — they're the very heart and soul.

"I think there's a long road ahead for America, keeping in mind that (change) needs to be done with all members of society," Collins said.

Like the individual woman who chooses feminism (or not) on her own terms, so, too, does any person who finds passion, comfort and belonging within a larger cause.

"There is a universal movement going," Washington said. "There is something that pushes us to be better beings. It's not just the feminist movement." ©