HANOVER, N.H. (WOMENSENEWS)--While the temperature hovered below freezing and the first snowstorm of the season swirled outside, the auditorium and meeting rooms of Dartmouth College were filled with warm words of friendship and hot issues of gender and justice.
Something very different was afoot in this tiny town in the heart of Northern New England, on an Ivy League campus with a reputation as a seedbed of conservative ideas set within a rock-ribbed Republican state.
Women ranging in age from high school students to a group calling themselves the "Raging Grannies" talked about taking feminism into a new century, with a focus on reproductive rights, racism, economic rights, as well as gay and lesbian issues.
An assault on women's rights is underway in the United States, and feminists need to reinvent themselves for the new century in order to combat it, Leslie Mari Watson, a national advocate for reproductive rights told the crowd. And the crowd appeared to agree.
To counteract a conservative strategy that is anti-choice and anti-woman, Watson advised feminists to create coalitions that span generations, ethnic groups and causes. Watson is director of C.A.R.E. 2000, the Campaign for Access and Reproductive Equity 2000.
Her sentiments were echoed by a wide range of participants in the recent multigenerational women's conference sponsored by Leadership Education Action Diversity International.
Women Empowered By Energy of Diverse Gathering
Watson, the keynote speaker, called the conference "a good model for the kind of approach to empower all of us," because it brought together women of many ages, ethnicities, abilities and sexual orientations.
Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, authors of the book, "Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future," emphasized the need for feminists to reach out across generations to overcome misunderstandings. Richards, a cofounder of the Third Wave Foundation, said that so-called Second Wave feminists fought in the 1970s for the rights that benefit young women today as they begin their careers.
The barriers to equality in the workplace have been moved even if they haven't been entirely removed, Richards said.
"Young women may not have experienced inequality, but we need to forge relationships with older women because eventually we're going to hit those issues," she added.
Vernice Guthrie, a lawyer and international consultant, said feminism is often pigeonholed as a white, middle-class movement. An African-American, Guthrie suggested that the feminist community should work to dismantle this image because the movement is "broader in terms of who lives it, as opposed to who leads it."
That distinction emerged as a theme in a workshop on reproductive rights led by Kierra Johnson of Choice USA. Participants agreed that the consequences of a conservative trend in court decisions, federal legislation and state laws disproportionately affect women of color, young women and those receiving federal income assistance, Medicaid and Medicare.
Conservative Vermont Backlash Energizes Women on Gender Issues
However, several women spoke of an encouraging trend emerging from this year's election. Paij Wadley-Bailey, diversity chairperson of Vermont NOW, said a backlash against Vermont's becoming the first state to legalize civil unions for gays and lesbians has focused attention on gender issues. She said the result has been a resurgence of women, especially young women, organizing, taking part in rallies and becoming politically active.
"I don't know if it's the election or if it's just time," she said, adding that it was reminiscent of political action by women in the 1970s. Women of color also need to rally around the civil unions issue, Wadley-Bailey cautioned, "because oppression by any other name is still oppression."
She participated in a panel of six women who represented the diverse groups coming together. In addition to Wadley-Bailey, an African-American, the panelists included a high school student, a transgendered woman, a disabled senior citizen, a lesbian and a retiree.
Molly Goldberg, a 17-year-old senior at Montpelier High School in Vermont's capital, said that even though she was too young to vote, she felt empowered through participating in the social activism of her friends and family, organizing the school's gay-straight alliance and working to support civil unions legislation.
"Civil rights is not about defining a cause," she told the audience, adding that when everyone is working toward equality, the labels for each type of equality don't matter as much.
"People work for many movements and they blend into each other. Those who used to be called feminists now are working for gay rights, equal pay, environmental rights and for many other causes. You can't separate these movements because they're interconnected, just like everyone on this panel is interconnected," Goldberg said.
Patti Reid is a free-lance writer and former Associated Press correspondent based in New England.