The new face of feminism 

What is feminism today? Who are today’s feminists?

These are questions that are difficult even for leaders of the women’s movement. The answer is that in today’s world, feminism means a lot of different things and feminists come in many forms.

The one thing that is a constant is that feminism and the women’s movement are alive and well. While much has been accomplished, the need for vigilance is stronger than ever.

The 27th Annual Southeastern Women’s Studies Association Conference was held March 25-27 in Savannah. Co-hosted by the women’s studies programs at Armstrong Atlantic State University and Georgia Southern University, the conference featured papers, panels, round tables, workshops and performances.

“Every year for 27 years, there has been a conference to give activists and scholars ways of connecting with each other,” says Dr. Lori E. Amy of

GSU’s Department of Writing and Linguistics and director of GSU’s Women’s and Gender Studies program.

“Each year, the conference addresses crucial issues,” Amy says. “What those issues are is different for each one of us. That is one of the things we have to ask every year, because women do not face the same problems.”

There are some concerns that are universal. “There are things that unite us,” Amy says. “That’s one of the things the conference explores -- ways we can come together.”

The theme of this year’s conference was Feminist Locations, addressing how feminism speaks to the current world situation. The conference also sought to bridge another gap -- the one between generations.

“I have worked with students who refuse to call themselves feminists, yet they are fighting for the same things,” Amy says. “Careers, education, child rearing -- all are feminist issues.”

Teresa Winterhalter, an associate professor of English and coordinator of the women's’ studies program at AASU, has made the same observation. “Most young women are interested in the role gender plays, yet the word ‘feminist’ leaves them cold,” she says.

A type of cultural amnesia has left many with little appreciation for the struggles their mothers and grandmothers experienced. “They don’t know the history of the movement,” Winterhalter says. “There is a lot of stuff they take for granted -- access to higher education, careers, women’s medicine. This didn’t just happen.

“They are forgetting that this all came out of the women’s movement,” Winterhalter says. “Our young women say ‘But that was then, this is now.’ I think it is very important to reach younger women and renew the bonds, renew the commitment we felt.

“We’re in a world where there is still a lot of injustice regarding gender and they need to be aware of that,” she says. “They need to understand that feminists are vital women, they are role models.

“They’re part of a global community,” Winterhalter says. “That’s why the theme of the conference, Feminist Locations, is so important.”

The experience of participating in the conference helps younger women understand the importance of the women’s movement, Winterhalter says. “There are presenters from all over the world,” she says. “The students are meeting people who are doing work in the field. They are learning where the needs lie in revitalizing awareness of gender issues, for both women and men.”

Women from around the world may have different problems and concerns. “What are the ways we can work together, even though we are different?” Amy asks.

“There is a popular misconception of feminists,” she says. “Students have all sorts of images of feminists, and they always seem to think feminists are angry.

“It is important to find a common ground across the differences,” Amy says. “We should work together for the common issues that confront us. And we should do it in a way of mutual respect.”

Students from GSU, AASU and Savannah State presented papers at the conference. There also were student panels that addressed feminist issues.

The conference was international in its scope. Scholars came from Israel, Palestine, Nigeria and throughout Europe to present work and network with other scholars and activists.

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization of Women, delivered the keynote address. She was elected president of NOW on June 30, 2001, the 35th anniversary of the founding of the organization.

A native of Louisiana, Gandy joined NOW in 1973 and eventually served as the Louisiana NOW president. She was elected to the national board in1982 and held the position of Mid-South Regional Director before being elected to national office.

An attorney, Gandy also oversaw NOW’s litigation docket and headed the organization’s landmark racketeering case against anti-abortion terrorists, NOW vs. Scheidler.

In a pre-conference telephone interview, Gandy said that feminists are as active now as they ever were. “The movement is as strong as it has ever been, despite repeated reports of its demise,” she says.

Gandy thinks it’s somewhat humorous that so many headlines have declared the women’s movement as dead, considering its long life. “It goes back to the first women’s conference in 1848, when women chained themselves to the White House gate to demand women be given the right to vote,” she says.

Things have changed considerably since Gandy joined NOW 31 years ago. “When I started in 1973, people were saying the idea of pay equity was ridiculous,” she says.

“They said men had families to support, while women were working for ‘pin money,’” Gandy says. “In 1980 or 81, Clarence Pendleton, the head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission called pay equity a ‘looney tunes’ idea. People were saying that it was ridiculous, that of course women shouldn’t be paid to work, and they opposed any kind of effort to make pay equitable.”

If it wasn’t for the Title IX amendment, which guaranteed gender equality in education and was passed in 1972, Gandy says she would not have gotten into law school.

“The class that graduated the year ahead of me had started before Title IX,” she says. “There were only 12 women in the class and only nine of them graduated. That was because they had a quota on women. They took the top 12, no matter what. They took only the cream of the crop.

“It was very, very difficult for a woman to get into law school, medical school or even college. When I graduated, it was almost impossible to get a job as a lawyer. There was a woman in the class of ‘77 who was editor and chief of the law review, and she could not get a job.”

Today, women make up half the classes in most law schools, but things are by no means equal, Gandy says. “They are still butting up against the glass ceiling at some point, especially when it comes to being named partners.”

Another issue that has changed women’s lives is reproductive rights. “Birth control is widely available, so women have the ability to plan their lives and make changes in their families’ lives,” Gandy says.

Women in different parts of the world face vastly different issues. Presenting the keynote lecture was Carolyn Nordstrom, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Peace Studies at Notre Dame University.

“She has done a lot of work with women in war zones, particularly Mozambique,” Amy says. “Her first book makes the central argument that war is not necessary.”

Nordstrom has undertaken extensive field research on the front lines of wars around the world. She is the author of A Different Kind of War Story and Fieldwork Under Fire, co-edited with Antonius Robben.

Cate Fosl, Assistant Professor of Communication and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Louisville, also was a presenter at the conference. A native of Atlanta, Fosl came of age during the years of school desegregation in Coweta County.

Fosl became an activist in women’s and peace movements in the 1980s. She teaches women’s studies and humanities and is the author of Women for All Seasons: The Story of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and Subversive Southerner: Anne Braden and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Cold War South.

Fosl describes Braden’s work as a civil rights activist who was accused of being a communist and seditionist by Southern politicians. Braden later became a role model to protesters.

Young feminists were represented at the conference by Jessica Weiner, a motivational speaker and author of A Very Hungry Girl: How I Filled Up On Life....And How You Can, Too!”

Amy and three of her students met Weiner at a NOW conference in New Orleans. “She was on her way out, but the students were so enamored of her, they wanted me to meet her,” Amy says.

The students were insistent that Weiner speak at the SEWSA conference and began working towards that goal. “I’m definitely here because of their hard work,” Weiner says with a laugh. “It’s awesome! They have a very persuasive way about them. They walk the talk, and that’s a very important lesson.”

At the conference, Weiner specifically addressed the feminist issues that concern younger women. Now 30, she focuses on giving audiences the tools they need to turn their lives around.

It is a lesson Weiner learned for herself. “I lived a hard life in my young years,” she says.

From age 11 to 18, Weiner struggled with anorexia, bulimia and compulsive eating disorders. She wanted to be an actress and began starving herself to fit the image of movie stars onscreen.

Despite her efforts, one high school drama teacher told Weiner she had not gotten a lead role because she wasn’t thin enough. Yet others never realized the pain Weiner felt. “I never looked sick,” she says. “I was able to hide it. I went undiagnosed.”

But Weiner knew something was very wrong. When she was in college at Penn State University, she began attending group therapy sessions.

When one of the women in her group committed suicide, Weiner dealt with the pain by developing a performance piece about eating disorders and self-esteem. That eventually led to the formation of ACT Out Ensemble.

Weiner began writing interactive theater productions about eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, date rape, school violence, child abuse and other issues and taking them around the country. She directed ACT Out for six and a half years before moving to Los Angeles.

During that time, Weiner’s career as a motivational speaker began. “I first started speaking about body issues,” she says. “When you talk about something like body issues, it gets larger. It’s not just about weight or body image, it’s also about domestic violence, drugs and alcohol abuse.”

After the Columbine school massacre, Weiner added school violence to her list of topics. Six months after the tragedy, she spoke to students at Columbine, including survivors of the massacre.

“Columbine was a real turning point for me,” Weiner says. “I want to do something about the very negative impact the media have had on kids. I call it ‘Springerized’ by the media.”

At the present time, Weiner is developing a talk show, but one that will be devoted to positive change. “I basically will be talking about issues relative to young audiences, ages 18 to 34,” she says. “My focus is on action. You have to take action to change your life.”

While Weiner agrees that many of today’s young women don’t understand the struggles faced by earlier women, she also thinks older feminists should be more understanding.

“I find it’s a double-edged sword,” she says. “Younger women don’t understand what came before what they consider rights. But they are living in a time and culture that is completely different from the one the older feminists came from. My goal is to try to bridge those two worlds.”

But problems have emerged. “Feminism has been taken over by Madison Avenue,” Weiner says. “Advertisers are selling the sexualized image of women who are strong and in control.”

There is another major difference in today’s world -- the Internet. “Our young women today are getting more information in one day than many women in the past got in their whole lifetime,” Weiner says.

The women’s studies programs at GSU and AASU are fairly new and the conference is a real milestone for them.

“This is our third year of having a women’s studies program,” Winterhalter says. “GSU is also building a women’s studies program. We were able to get an incredible lineup of speakers.

“Hosting the conference gives us public exposure,” she says. “It gives the students a feel for the issues and it really creates a sense of community among the faculty. A conference like this is a celebration and makes us aware of the important role gender plays in life.”

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Linda Sickler

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