Keeping feminism's future on the table

Has the women's movement fallen out of fashion? Achieved all its goals? For six college students, it's as relevant - and personal - as ever.

Published February 28, 2006

In her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan redefined feminism with her description of educated women trapped at home with children and vacuum cleaner, yearning for more. When she died Feb. 4 on her 85th birthday, she had changed American culture. Yet years before her death, some were asking if feminism is dead, its goal of equality for women achieved, or its beneficiaries too disjointed to fight again.The St. Petersburg Times talked with six students at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg who are active in women's causes and sorting out their own life paths. They say they are different from women in Friedan's generation. They are feminism's next wave.

- SUSAN ASCHOFF, Times staff writer

Do you consider yourself a feminist? Do you tell other people?

Cameron Burkholder: Absolutely. I don't shy away from that label at all.Kendra Harvey: The media were the ones who gave feminism a bad name.

Why do you think it's a loaded word?

Aubrey Klaseen: The people who try to define it as man-hating are ignorant. For me, a part of feminism is the importance of a change in men. I think men are being left behind.

Is the women's movement alive or dead?

Sarah Sieloff: I do think the women's movement is alive and well. I think when we talk about waves, I think there's one moving now. Globalization has given a new impetus and really made inevitable an international women's movement. We know more, as do women in a variety of countries, about each other's struggles, and victories as well. Chile just elected a woman to be president. In Peru, there's a woman who's the front-runner. We have a lot to learn.

Anna Smith: I went to the 2004 Women's March for Choice in Washington. It was unbelievable. When the director of Planned Parenthood got up there, the director of National Organization for Women, and they said, "Where are the new feminists?" Huge response from the crowd: "We're here! We're here!"

What's holding back a woman leader in the United States?

Klaseen: People think there's not discrimination, there's not racism. It's illegal. I try to remind them, have you heard of the glass ceiling? We have yet to have a woman or a person of color leading our country.

Sieloff: There's also the question of horse trading. Are the Democrats going to be willing to risk it by putting a woman up?

Tareena Wimbish: I think we'll have a woman, not a black woman, in that position. Racism is still a very predominant thing. I think that will play a role in having a woman of any culture as president here in America.

That raises the question: Have men changed?

Wimbish: I feel like men are more aware, they're more accepting, they're willing to listen, to attempt to deal with the issues surrounding feminism and maleism. Our generation of males are going to step up to the plate.Burkholder: This could be your sister, it could be your mother, it could be your wife. You love your sister. She could be president. They (men) really personalize it.

What do you think will be different about your relationships than your parents' relationships?

Wimbish: Gay marriage all the way.

Burkholder: In the home, the domestic chores will be shared equally.

How will that happen?

Burkholder: It happens now.

Harvey: With my fiance, I don't touch a dish. He does the dishes, and I do my part. He's on an ROTC scholarship, so he's required to do four years of military service. The military culture is very patriarchal. In our prenup, which we're getting ready right now, after four years, if he wants to rejoin the Army, it's an automatic divorce, 50-50.

Everyone: Whoa.

Harvey: He agrees. The men in our generation - it's not like I have to argue with him.

Klaseen: It's coming to where it's not a fight. I think our culture should change so it's not some sort of stigma for the woman to earn more, it's not a stigma for the dad to stay home. Whatever works in the family. That's a way that feminism can progress, to be accepting.

Wimbish turns to Klaseen: What are people being accepted to?

Klaseen: To people just being what they need and want to be without being oppressive. We need to change the cultural mores because there's a lot more pressure now on men. That's one of the breakdowns in family: Men aren't valued as fathers as much as women are as mothers.

Are you assuming? Or are you having conversations with men?

Wimbish: There's more vocalization in all areas. We may not be standing out in the streets, but among ourselves, there's talking.

Sieloff: It makes me think of gender roles, the freedom to be. I think there's some blurring and blending going on, but I'm not sure how much.

Klaseen: You are starting to see (in TV commercials) where the dad's the one changing the diaper.

Burkholder: But it's still the woman with the dish soap and vacuum cleaner.

Smith: I don't watch TV. That's how I deal with it.

Surveys on teen sexuality say that kids are having oral sex instead of intercourse. The girl is pleasuring the boy and the boy is not pleasuring the girl. Have the rules for sex changed? Who gives? Who gets?

Burkholder: I think a lot of guys expect to be serviced without servicing back.

Sieloff: I think the dichotomy between "nice" and "not nice" girls has never been stronger. Baby boomer mothers have been very open with their daughters. They have always been there, with advice, help with contraception. On a personal level, you still get from baby boomer moms that if you do this you're not a nice girl. There's all sorts of messages floating around that women's sexuality is dangerous. God forbid, should you enjoy your sexuality, then you are bad, then you are immoral.

There's still a lot of words for "loose" women.

Burkholder: Men are called players.

Sieloff: I wonder about the next generation, the girls behind us in high school. I'm very perplexed. You listen to high school kids and they throw around these words. "Bitch" is a really good example. They want to reclaim it. But the power is taken away.Burkholder: I listen to guys call all women bitches. What are you talking about?

Wimbish: You see it in the music. It's cool to feel like a player. Some messages are good. Like Kanye (West). He's trying to make that change.

Can you really have an equal partner?

Harvey: I'm going to have an equal relationship. It's not if I have a penis or a vagina, it's about your person. We need to go back to the books and work out how women are still not earning as much as men.

Wimbish: I feel like they need to step up. We were oppressed for so long and we stepped up. We're like here (holding her hand above the table) and they're like here (holding opposite hand below it).

Klaseen: We need to support them in that effort.

Wimbish: They can't say we should step down.

Klaseen: Just remind them, hey, you don't have to be in this little box anymore. We're not.

Statistics say almost half the students at Harvard Business School are women, but women make up only 6 percent or so of corporate executives. Where do the women go?

Harvey: They want to have kids. It's not okay for the man to stay home.

Sieloff: We've all watched our mothers. I was raised in a household with two parents who worked full time. My mom still did the majority of the housework. A lot of us have watched our mothers just burn out.

Burkholder: We don't want to be like that.

Klaseen: That's why we need to bring men in to help with the housework, to help with the children.

Burkholder: It's not help. It's part of your responsibility as a person. It's a practical thing.

Sieloff: If you look at our grandmothers' generation, we would be considered frighteningly androgynous.

A lot of what's happening in the workplace is brutal on the family. You cannot work 60 hours and not have the family suffer. Will your views change when you have to deal with family and work?

Sieloff: When we talk about capitalism, the market is everything. Our parents' generation was raised to be good little patriots. Our generation thinks there's more than one way to do this. Corporate mentality is not it. I hope there will be changes because we will be more ready to ask those questions.

Klaseen: There's more to life than the material.

Wimbish: Amen.

Smith: The United States has got some serious hang-ups. Wimbish: We realize it, but what are we doing about it?

Can each of you name someone who is a role model for you?

Klaseen: My mother. And Eleanor Roosevelt.

Burkholder: Kate Bornstein.

Wimbish: Emma Goldman.

Sieloff: I don't know. We grew up with Hillary Rodham Clinton, and at the time we may not have realized how revolutionary a lot of her acts were. This was not a woman who was content to decorate the White House, bake cookies. I think a lot of us have role models that are closer to the ground but just as powerful.Smith: For me, one is a black woman who is a single mom with a 10-year-old daughter. She works full time, has a daughter full time and also does sexual education in her community. It's incredible to me that she's willing to do that.

Will you be a Mrs., Miss or Ms.?

Smith: Ms.

Klaseen: Ms.

Sieloff: I use Ms. now. And if I were to get married in the future, I would keep my last name.

Wimbish: Ms.

Burkholder: I don't want to use a title.

Sieloff: I hate that when they make you fill in that little box. When they do, I put doctor.

Editor's note: Carolyn Johnston, Eckerd professor of American studies and history, participated in this discussion, which was arranged through the women's and gender studies program. Comments were edited for length and relevancy.

Susan Aschoff can be reached at aschoff@sptimes.com.