Feminists and Students Discuss the Future of Feminism

The panelists were (front row,left to right) Gloria Steinem, Marysa Navarro, Barbara Smith, and Gwendolyn Mink; and (back row, left to right) Siobhan Eaton '99, Analisa Balares '99, Ruth Lopez '99, Elizabeth Young, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ellen Carey FP '99, and Rochelle Calhoun.

"We believe that women have a right to be on earth as free human beings and to thrive. On that we all agree, though we disagree on practically everything else," said author Barbara Smith '69, one of four "founding feminists" who spoke on International Women's Day, March 8. Smith, Gloria Steinem, Gwendolyn Mink, and Marysa Navarro answered questions posed by MHC panelists before a capacity crowd in Chapin Auditorium. The women are four of the five coeditors of The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History. The fifth, Wilma Mankiller, was unable to attend.

The discussion--titled "Does Feminism Have a Future with the Next Generation?"--ranged widely and included comments on everything from affirmative action and welfare reform to reproductive rights.

Asked about the present state of feminism, University of California professor of politics Mink noted the "serious challenge posed by Clinton's pledge to end welfare. The challenge to feminism is to look beyond their own circumstances and find ways to act in solidarity with other women." Smith talked about the need to join forces, with feminists being just as concerned about racial and homophobic attacks as about anti-female bias. "We need to be concerned with justice on a broad scale," she said.

Dartmouth College history professor Navarro said, "A sense of solidarity is still needed at home, but must also be extended to the rest of the world." The great challenge, according to Ms. magazine cofounder Steinem, is "right-wing, anti-equality, homophobic, racist backlash," but added that we're experiencing anti-feminist backlash because there was a "frontlash" a move in public opinion away from hierarchical thinking.

Siobhan Eaton '99 asked the panel to who young people can look for guidance "when Time magazine features a chronology of feminism that begins with Susan B. Anthony and Betty Friedan and ends with Ally McBeal and the Spice Girls." "What's in the media almost never is what's going on with real people," noted Smith. "You have the opportunity to define and shape your own reality. Watch TV for the chewing gum for the mind it is. Then go get a book and find out what's really going on."

Asked by Ruth Lopez '99 where women of color, working class women, Christian women, heterosexual women, and others fit within feminism, Steinem countered, "What makes you think white women are the movement?" Smith said that successes by feminists of color exist, but have been poorly publicized. Mink added that "women of color have been a growing part of the women's movement for thirty years, but the perception of the women's agenda doesn't seem to reflect the needs and concerns of diversely situated women."

Mink characterized the fight to save affirmative action as "a political struggle we all need to get involved in." Smith suggested it has not been taken up as a women's issue because it has become so heavily characterized as something that benefits people of color only. "Legal actions have separated women from people of color on the issue of affirmative action," Navarro acknowledged.

Analisa Balares '99 asked panelists to name the most important battle women will fight and how it can be won. "I try to prioritize, but life presents you with oppositions and opportunities you can't control," said Steinem. "The art of activism is understanding that you can't control what happens, but you can use what happens. Tactically, I'm for anything that's off its ass." For Navarro, the fight for reproductive and rights is top priority. "That's the struggle poor women need, because they die by the millions from botched abortions in Latin America." Smith cited protecting the environment and ending violence as most important. "I hope we have an environment that can support all life forms so we can continue to struggle [for equality]."

Panelists also responded to audience questions on topics from bilingual education and defining feminism to using rage over injustice as a prod to action. Steinem summed up the panelists' sometimes mutually exclusive answers this way, "You don't want unity [within feminism]; you need a community. No matter how hard it is to do, it's harder not to do it."

Photo by Lee Bouse