ASK DEBORAH MACK, one of eight black women sitting in a small apartment, whether she is a feminist and she peers at you with a glare.
"What's the big deal?" said Mack, mother of two and a divorced anthropologist who works at the Field Museum of Natural History here. "I can't figure out what all the damn uproar is over. I was raised feeling I was equal to men. There's nothing unusual or feminist about that. Not where I come from, at least."
"Amen!" shouts Denise Carrillo, 41-year-old entrepreneur who is married and the mother of four. "I was always told I had to be self-sufficient to support my children because even if I found a good man. He may die, he may be killed. So I have always been kind of freaked out by this whole concept that goes `Oh, if you stay at home . . . you're not a feminist.' That isn't a real issue in my community."
A chorus of affirmation fills the room. Another meeting of the Colored Women's Eating Club is in session. Tonight's topic: Do black feminists help or hurt black people, especially black men?
The question has long reverberated among black women who face ever more complex decisions than white women in deciding how far and how loudly to press demands for equal rights.
Many have feared, or been warned, that by seeking to better their own lot they may harm black men because the white world will permit the success of either black women or black men - but not both.
Even among the most outspoken black women, the issue of gender differences among black people rarely shares equal billing with the predicament of black men. When the subject does arise it remains within the safety of groups like the Colored Women's Eating Club, a private gathering of like-minded black women in the Chicago area.
According to some observers, the silence emboldens some black men to believe they can escape responsibility for mistreatment of black women by appealing to the need to preserve racial solidarity.
One example, some of them claim, was the strategy initially employed by Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., fired last month as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Confronted with the allegation that he agreed to pay Mary E. Stansel, a former aide, $332,000 to quash a threatened sexual discrimination suit, Chavis has argued that "forces outside …