WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)--When 24-year-old Alison Stein was in college at the University of Pennsylvania a few years ago, she lived with progressive women who were active on campus in groups such as College Democrats.
But when she asked them to join her in a pro-choice group or at the women's center there, they said they agreed with her in principle but that they weren't feminists.
"I said if these women aren't feminists, then who are feminists?" said Stein.
Now Stein is a program assistant at the National Council of Women's Organizations. There, as coordinator of the Younger Women's Task Force, she is at the center of a new effort by younger feminists to build their own movement with the guidance of established feminists such as Martha Burk, National Council of Women's Organizations' chair.
The task force is the most recent effort to organize younger women. The New York City-based Third Wave Foundation supports feminists ages 15 to 30. The National NOW Young Feminist Task Force includes women age 30 or under who advise the organization on issues of interest to them. The White House Project's Vote, Run, Lead initiative aims to involve young women in politics.
Feminism No Longer a 'Trendy Word'
While feminism had positive connotations in the 1970s, as women fought for equality at home and in the workplace, it's no longer seen as a "trendy word," said Stein. The term has become associated in recent years with radical left-wing politics and may sound intimidating or unattractive to men, Stein said, noting that a feminist is "not necessarily" the first thing she calls herself.
The danger now is that young women who don't want to use the feminist label won't identify with and advocate issues of concern to women, such as the need to stem rising health care costs.
"People vote for themselves and if they don't see that an issue affects them, they won't vote on it," Stein added.
Kathleen Casey, who heads the Program for Women Public Officials at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, said involving young women is a "natural evolution" of the women's movement. "There are a lot of gray-haired women" in the movement, she said. "It's time."
But she cautioned that the older generation shouldn't try to make younger feminists in their image. "You have to be really careful to meet them where they are."
Against this backdrop, the National Council of Women's Organizations started planning the Younger Women's Task Force last June to provide women 18 to 35 with a stronger role in the policy making process--such as encouraging more women to vote and run for office--and develop the next generation of the women's movement. The group is nonpartisan and its members support abortion rights and access to other reproductive health care.
In its first national summit, which ended on Sunday, the Younger Women's Task Force convened 86 women to discuss and consider the need for young women to take a more active role in society. The women--deemed leaders in their professions and communities--were chosen regardless of their financial ability but based on essay responses about the top issues facing young women and what steps they would like to take to address them.
Topics of Concern
The task force attendees were asked to develop issue statements about nine topics of concern to women ages 19 to 39. Besides feminism, these included media representations of women and women's body image; sexual and reproductive freedom; and access to education and career opportunities. Attendees say the issues differ somewhat from the agenda of feminists in the 1970s. While older feminists were concerned about discrimination in the workplace and securing abortion rights, attendees tackled issues such as the number of women featured in the media, violence against women and eating disorders.
The attendees recognize that the issues that mattered to women in their 50s and 60s aren't the same as for them. While reproductive rights meant abortion rights in the 1960s, today it means birth control that's not covered by insurance companies even while Viagra is.
"For them, it was laws and bills," Stein said, referring to older feminists. "For us, it's implementation and everyday life."
Several conference attendees said they paid their own way to the conference because they wanted to think about topics affecting all women.
"It's a matter of just being at a point in my life where I can look at more than myself," said Annette Gaynes, a 27-year-old engineer from Tucson, Ariz. Others said the current administration and the threat to abortion rights sparked their attendance. "It's a really scary time for young women and the rights that women fought for a long time," said Kelly Miller, 29, a graduate student from South Burlington, Vt.
Updating Feminism's Image
They also want to erase feminism's outdated image. Andrea McClanahan, 28, who teaches a communication and gender course at East Stroudsburg University in East Stroudsburg, Penn., asks her students on the first day of class what a feminist is. Some students think that feminists are physically dowdy or hate men. But then they look at McClanahan and notice that she wears makeup and jewelry and has long hair.
"You can be a feminist and wear your Jimmy Choos," she said, referring to the designer of expensive high-heels and handbags, during the group's discussion.
Whether more young women will embrace the term feminism is unclear. Several women who attended the conference wrote on their applications that they are not feminists. One task force group that discussed power dynamics in feminist efforts wrote, "We recognize that use of language can alienate and exclude people. We call on the women's movement to be thoughtful and strategic about the language it uses."
Even older feminists, such as the 51-year-old Casey, said labels are less important than actions.
"I don't care whether they call themselves feminists," she said. "I want to know that they're engaged in the issues."
While the task force is an National Council of Women's Organizations project, Stein is the force behind it. She gathered about 30 women in her apartment once a week for six months to organize the event. The National Council of Women's Organizations helped her with grant writing and fundraising and gave her space to promote the event on its Web site. Stein and older women don't see any problem with the Task Force being part of a group headed by older women.
"We're the facilitators," National Council of Women's Organizations' 60-year-old Director of Special Projects Ellen Boneparth said. "The younger women are very interested in our experiences and very committed to doing better."
Stein said the feeling is mutual and that a favorite part of the weekend was the nine intergenerational dinners hosted by older women. "If our conversation happened in isolation," Stein said, "it wouldn't be as powerful."
The conference, which cost about $10,000, was funded by donors and organizations including Lifetime Television, Oxygen Media, Inc. and the General Motors Foundation. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton sent a videotaped message congratulating attendees for helping to bridge "the gap between the women's movement of today and the women of tomorrow."
Those who attended the conference will now confront the next, and what could be daunting, task. Now that they're back home, attendees will have to recruit more women, solicit media attention and take action on one of the nine issues. Stein hopes to hold a retreat for regional directors in Washington this summer and to hold national conferences annually.
But outside observers said sustaining such enthusiasm can be difficult.
"Anytime you try to do a grassroots movement from a national perspective, it's hard," Casey said. "Those kinds of movements germinate at the local level."
Another task for the group is helping young women understand that while previous generations made gains socially and professionally, more work remains.
Stein said she hopes the group creates a "really clear, engaged, well-communicated voice for younger women." And she realizes that doing so may mean not using the word feminism.
"It's more about creating a movement that's less rigid, less narrow, less defined and more inclusive and making feminism or whatever we may call it something that women who care about women's equality just think of themselves as," Stein said.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill newspaper in Washington, D.C.
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