The Changing Face of Feminism

Article excerpt

The dictionary definition is simple enough: "belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes."

But at the close of a century that has seen remarkable gains for American women - from winning the right to vote to flying space shuttles - the word "feminism" ricochets like a verbal bullet across the cultural landscape. It seems to defy any single meaning for women or men but still carries within it a world of profound social and political change.

Historian Helen Horowitz says feminism can be described as a "social movement for the advancement of women." Yet conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh deride feminism as a left-wing cause run by "femi-Nazis" who are "femi-nutsy."

Time magazine weighed in a few weeks ago with a cover story that focused on young women and included the headline, "Feminism: It's All About Me." But Molly McLeod, a young investment adviser in Boston, thinks feminism is about equal opportunity: "It's not all about me, it's all about everybody."

So it goes in the 1990s. Women and men today are negotiating their lives - and their relationships with each other - in a society that has been changed irrevocably by the feminist movement of the 1960s and '70s. The fact that the word "feminism" prompts such widely varying views - both among and between the sexes - is an indicator of the force and upheaval of the change played out in the workplace, at school, and at home.

"We are the freest generation of women in history," says Danielle Crittenden, editor of the Women's Quarterly, which is published by the Independent Women's Forum, a conservative group. "We have basically broken down every legal and economic barrier."

Some barriers remain, of course. Women have yet to crack the top ranks of Fortune 500 companies in significant numbers. And women's rights activists say that in social-policy areas like welfare reform, poor women still bear unfair burdens in terms of work and child care.

Still, the gains of the past 30 years are undeniable. Women's studies programs are now a fact of academic life at universities across the country; legal decisions have forced the walls of all-male bastions, such as clubs and schools, to come tumbling down; federal funding of girls' sports programs has changed the face of athletics on playgrounds across the country; and workplaces have been forced open by women workers entering virtually every profession, from politics and law to construction and the nation's space program.

Given the sweep of social change fostered by the women's movement of the 1960s, perhaps it's not surprising that at the close of the 20th century, feminism appears - in some ways - to have lost some of its early force and focus. Or that the social revolution it launched has given rise to a backlash among conservatives.

Today the voice of feminism - once embodied by groups like the National Organization for Women and publications like Ms. - has fractured into many voices. A whole cadre of women who think feminists went too far are speaking up - criticizing the early movement for creating an "us against them" mentality between women and men.

"We have had a women's movement obsessed with proving men are brutes, with exaggerating men's misbehavior," says Christina Hoff Sommers, author of "Who Stole Feminism?" and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "We need reconciliation. Men and women have to approach one another with respect and the spirit of friendship."

Women aren't the only ones who have criticized the early movement. Many men have lashed out at what they see as reverse discrimination - laws that they say unfairly favor women in situations involving things like child custody, and social policies that place more emphasis on women's health than on men's. Web sites like www.backlash.com feature articles with headlines like "When the bully is a babe. …