The high school girl puzzled over the word feminism. Something to do with makeup? she asked 17-year-old Grace Powers.
My jaw dropped, and then I started laughing she was serious! said Ms. Powers, a Bowsher High School senior who is a member of the National Organization for Women.
She relates the incident to make a point: I really don t think the majority of high school students know about feminism.
Her story reflects both the strength and weakness of the women s movement in 2005. Its 20th-century victories have led to complacency among many younger women who have grown up in a country in which abortion and contraception have always been legal, and sex discrimination has always been banned in schools and the workplace.
At the same time, feminism has gotten a bad name from those who have painted all believers as fire-breathing, family-destroying man haters and, perhaps most famously, as femi-Nazis, a term popularized by conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.
Women themselves are divided: They can be on opposite sides on the issue of abortion while in virtual lockstep in expecting equal rights and opportunities.
But the 1960s-style feminist flame hasn t gone out and some activists predict it will flare again over filling Sandra Day O Connor s seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
I think there is still a lot of passion out there, said Mary Krueger, 47, a PhD. who directs the Women s Center at Bowling Green State University. Yes, there are young women who think the women s movement is so yesterday s news, she said, but others see the victories as fragile.
The BGSU campus has two student feminist groups: a chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League that was formed this year, and a three-year-old Organization for Women s Issues.
At the University of Toledo, where students have formed a group called Power of Women, the feminist community is very tenacious, very aware, and very active, said Nandini Bhattacharya, 41, an associate professor and chairman of the department of women s and gender studies who has a doctorate degree. It never was a really majority movement, but it is not by any means dying or gone.
The so-called third wave of feminism made up of younger women has washed into the larger community as well. Area residents in their teens, 20s, and 30s have joined veterans of the second wave activists of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s to re-awaken the local chapter of the National Organization for Women from a slumber of about 20 years. The chapter was re-established last fall.
From a mailing list of nearly 75 names, an average of 20 to 30 people including a few men attend monthly meetings at People Called Women bookstore on West Central Avenue. There s always a hope that more people will come, but people s lives are busy, said Gina Mercurio, a member of the group s six-woman steering committee, who noted that greater numbers turn out for chapter activities such as protests and vigils. It s not always about numbers. It s that quality versus quantity thing. If 20 people care deeply about something and want to spend their free time on it, that s fabulous, she added.
The group ranges in age from teenagers to seniors, but the majority are probably in their 30s to 50s, said Michelle Finley, 28, a Whitmer High School teacher who also is a member the steering committee.
Despite the age differences, We do have a great agreement on what our important issues are, she said. Some cut across the political spectrum violence against women, for example. Other projects follow a decidedly liberal agenda, including a peace vigil in support of anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and a rally Oct. 1 in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community.
Locally, the chapter has joined with other groups to organize a town hall meeting with officials on domestic violence, and is working on a newsletter that will be distributed in the community.
A new feminism
The issue of abortion aside, conservative women embrace many of the same goals as feminists, including equal access to education and job opportunities, said Joyce Meyer, a retired teacher and former president of Heartbeat of Toledo. The organization, with two locations in Toledo and one in Oregon, offers alternatives to abortion for women with unplanned pregnancies.
Mrs. Meyer sees a new feminism today, in which women feel they can choose their path in life but that they aren t put in a certain mold. So they can indeed marry, raise a family, and hold down a position if that s what they want to do.
The old feminism was more confining, Mrs. Meyer maintained, in the sense that you can t have it all you make your decision to have a career and everything else has to be put on the back burner.
Georgette Forney, 45, president of the National Organization of Episcopalians for Life and co-founder of the National Silent No More Awareness Campaign, said that she absolutely regards herself as a feminist. A Michigan native who had an abortion when she was a 16-year-old junior in high school in Detroit, Mrs. Forney said in an interview from her office in Sewickley, Pa., that she came to regret her abortion and realize how emotionally painful it is for other women as well.
I am in this because I m a feminist, because I care about women so much, she went on. I have seen so many women devastated by what abortion did to them... I don t get that people who claim to represent women can encourage it or represent it as positive.
She argued that they re not fighting for the right things. The focus should be on such issues as violence against women, for example, and equal pay. I don t make what my male counterparts make, Mrs. Forney noted.
Likewise, I think feminists got seriously off-track when they quit worrying about issues of equality and started focusing on such special agendas as abortion, and they have essentially left mainstream women behind, said Janice Crouse, 65, director of the Beverly LaHaye Institute, the think tank for the conservative group Concerned Women for America.
Mary Jones who lives on Main Street in America is not interested in far-left politics and far-left ideology. She s concerned about opportunities for her daughter, said Mrs. Crouse, a PhD., in an interview from her office in Washington.
Today s local activists continue a strong women s rights history in northwest Ohio.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Toledo was in the forefront of the national suffrage movement. According to records kept by UT s Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, the Toledo chapter of the American Woman Suffrage Association was founded in 1869, making it one of the earliest chapters organized in the country. The newspaper of the national association the National Citizen and Ballot Box was started here in 1876.
The local women in that first wave of feminism included Pauline Steinem, grandmother of Toledo native Gloria Steinem, who founded Ms. Magazine during the second-wave movement ignited by Betty Friedan with her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique.
Membership statistics are sketchy, but Toledo s NOW chapter was formed in July, 1972, and a year later had about 100 members. The group was active through the early 1980s.
We never officially disbanded, but people got into other issues, said Sue Carter, 58, a social worker at the Medical University of Ohio and former president of the chapter. Ms. Carter became active in the American Civil Liberties Union and now heads the statewide organization.
As the older women moved their focus to other causes, they weren t being replaced by new activists. For the younger people that we were trying to recruit, there weren t burning issues, recalled Ms. Carter, who is still a member of NOW. I think the older ones felt the issues could always be in our face again, because our rights are so tenuous, but the glass ceiling didn t seem to be pressing enough to make them take to the streets in the 90s.
Today, with changes on the U.S. Supreme Court leading some to see the possibility of overturning the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion, I think there may be a resurgence of feminism, Ms. Carter said.
The Sandra Day O Connor seat on the Supreme Court is the tipping point on abortion, warned Melody Drnach, 45, who was elected to a four-year term as national action vice president at NOW s conference in July. A native of Marion, Ohio, and 1982 graduate of BGSU, Ms. Drnach predicted in an interview from her office in Washington that the next Supreme Court battle will enrage and fire up a lot of people.
Ms. Drnach said she hopes the Supreme Court debate will draw seasoned, inactive feminists off the sidelines and back into the movement, where their experience and traditional organizational techniques can be used in tandem with younger members greater technological savvy and global perspective.
That blending of generations is already going on in the organization, she said. Demographics also are changing as more women of color enlist.
We re opening up the organization more, making it more accessible, working to make sure that our messages are articulated in a way that resonates in all communities, Ms. Drnach said.
NOW reports it has more than 500,000 contributing members and more than 500 local chapters and campus affiliates, in all states and the District of Columbia. The organization does not release historical membership statistics, saying only that there are fluctuations from year to year and decade to decade, depending on the political climate and other factors.
(The 2005 edition of the Encyclopedia of Associations compiled by Gale Research, Inc. agrees on the number of chapters but lists membership at 250,000. The 1996 edition listed NOW membership at 280,000, indicating a decline of 30,000 in almost 10 years.)
Ms. Drnach doesn t believe the negative image of feminism deters recruiting as much as what she calls electronic activism.
A lot of people think if they send an e-mail to a CEO or their senator, they re done I ve done my part to change the world. That s just not true, Ms. Drnach said. The way we move people and create social change on a large scale is through grass-roots, in the streets, door-to-door, person-to-person activism.
Ms. Finley, of the local NOW chapter, sees an upside to the negative associations that many people have with feminists. It s difficult to overcome sometimes, but it also can be a great place to start off in teaching people what feminism really is, she said simply a belief in social, political, and economic equality for women and for men.
Amy McLoughlin, 33, a counselor at Bowsher High School, said she has found that many students don t understand that feminism is not a bad term.
When she tells them the movement is about equal rights for women, they say that s what I think, too. As long as they re not labeled a feminist, she said.
Chelsea Lambdin has had the same experience with some of her peers at BGSU, where she s a 21-year-old senior majoring in women s studies. I think a lot of women would agree with [the goals of] feminism, but it s hard sometimes to identify yourself as a feminist because of the backlash, she explained.
The label doesn t matter as long as one supports equal rights for women, Ms. Lambdin added. I think people put too much emphasis on particular terms.
The demonizing of feminists has been going on for decades, observed Pat Murphy, who describes herself as one of those radical feminists from the 70s. Ms. Murphy, 65, is interim director of the Eberly Center for Women at UT.
It s so tiresome to have to do the women s movement over and over and over again, she lamented. If we made any mistakes, maybe it s that we didn t capitalize on the goodwill of our male allies. We didn t cultivate our male allies.
But a negative image is just one of several hurdles that feminists face, said Ashley Nickel, 21, a senior at UT. One is an overall apathy a lack of activism even in people who are socially and politically conscious, she said. Another is the emergence of tightly focused special interest groups at the expense of larger-scale movements.
People are not uniting. There are very small groups around, but to get a large group of people on the same page, it s very hard, Ms. Nickel said. With separate groups pushing for racial equality or gay marriage rights, for example, I don t think they understand we re all fighting for the same thing. I don t think feminism is just about female equality.
And it s not just about white, middle-class women, a criticism that was leveled at the second-wave activists by minority women, noted UT s Ms. Bhattacharya. While younger women haven t lost sight of the basic issues, she said she perceives a more diversified notion of feminist concerns an emphasis on individual rights and social justice across class and race, not just gender.
We have more worldly issues that have evolved, said Cassandra Mt. Castle, 22, a junior at BGSU. We can t have equality for one without equality for all.
That makes for a daunting to-do list.
One of the things that s challenging for younger women coming into the movement is the simple fact that not only are there the same issues as before, but we have so much more information about what s going on in the world, said Ms. Drnach, of the national NOW office.
We see the world much more as a global entity, that we are all one world, and I think the weight of the number of issues sometimes becomes overwhelming to all of us.
Contact Ann Weber at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6126.