The event was billed as an Event -- not just dinner and a conversation with Gloria Steinem, but an evening of startling revelations and fascinating stories from the trenches of young feminism. "You've read the articles. You've seen the coverage. But do you know the real story?" asked the mouth-watering press release. "Contrary to popular belief, feminism is thriving among Generation X. To prove it, Gloria Steinem, feminist icon, is coming to answer the questions no one has dared to ask about a generation few understand."
The tireless, iconic women's rights advocate was in San Francisco to raise money for the Third Wave Foundation, an organization that supports programs that educate and empower young women. The name Third Wave refers to feminism's latest incarnation, the First Wave being the early women's movement of suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony; the Second Wave, the heady days of the ERA and the founding of Ms. magazine, when Steinem and her sisters took to the streets and to the newsstands.
Third Wave has broad, admirable goals. Foremost, the organization aims to be truly inclusive, in an effort to right the wrongs of the Second Wave feminists who were criticized, fairly, for being almost exclusively a middle-class white cabal. Implicit in all Third Wave literature is the catchword "diversity." Third Wave claims members are of all races, religions, colors, sexual orientations -- and yes, genders. Far from the days when Steinem quipped, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," men are welcome here.
But Third Wave is also an attitude. Lipstick lesbians, riot grrrls and sex positive Susie Bright acolytes are encouraged to join, women for whom feminism is a given and political expression often takes the form of a zine, a Web site or a performance art piece. According to their brochures, Third Wavers are encouraged to "talk about their experience," not just to protest. They are urged to "explore the boundaries of race, class, gender and sexuality" and to "challenge the way [they] see, hear and feel everything."
"The ethos of Third Wave springs from 30 years of feminism's shortcomings and unfinished business as well as its achievements," journalist Rachel Gorlin summed up in the Washington Post. "Third Wave is made up of women who have felt less of what Second Wave women called oppression."
If Third Wave is the political leg of the much vaunted "New Girl Order" -- epitomized by Bust magazine's sassy sex-positive rants and Ani DiFranco's righteous music more than, say, "equal work for equal pay" -- then why, I wondered, was the new feminist vanguard looking to Gloria Steinem, the queen of feminism past, the embodiment of crusty, Upper West Side, white, middle-class feminism, to rally the younger, hipper troops? A woman -- sorry, an icon -- more than twice my age, older than my mother -- was going to tell me what I think about ... myself? Where were the young voices, the fresh perspectives, the new ideas?
Several years ago, when Susan Faludi's "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women" reignited debate about women's rights and women's progress, a photo of Faludi and Steinem graced the cover of Time magazine, suggesting that Steinem was passing the torch to a younger generation. But it turns out, Faludi hasn't carried that torch and no one has replaced Steinem as the activist feminist icon for the next millennium. What's a movement to do?
At the sold-out reception, I asked a Third Wave organizer why Steinem was chosen to "prove" that feminism is "actually thriving" among our generation.
"Second Wave feminism paved a good road for us," answered Caroline Barlerin, 24, a leader of Third Wave in San Francisco. "They got us out of the home and opened many fabulous doors."
Over grilled salmon and wilted greens, I asked my dinner companions, none of whom I had met before, about their involvement in Third Wave. A law student from New York and the man sitting next to her were both invited because they knew an organizer, but neither belonged to Third Wave. A woman in her 30s told me she had heard about the group through a friend -- this was her first time at an event. Finally, a 25-year-old graduate student told me she was involved with Third Wave, but when I asked her what the group did, she stumbled around for an answer. "I'm not really sure. I've only been to a couple of discussions." The group holds monthly discussions on staple feminist topics such as "body image." I asked her if the discussions drew a lot of people. "There were only about five or six women at each of the meetings," she said.
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Perhaps, I thought, one of the male organizers might have a fresher perspective.
"I was a women's studies major in college," said Jason, 28 of his involvement. "Most people assumed since I was a feminist, I must be either gay, pussy-whipped or trying to get laid." In fact, Jason said, it was his interest in smart women that led to his interest in the movement. "In college, those smart women from high school became
feminists and that's who I hung out with," he said, then quickly added: "By the way, my feminism has never
gotten me laid."
When Third Wave leader Heather Cassell made her way to my table, I asked her to fill me in on what exactly the group stands for. Instead, she started with what the group isn't. "We are post-feminist, post-gay rights, post-civil rights," she said. "We are women and men who care about women's issues for ourselves and for future generations."
So why did the evening feature an old-guard feminist?
"We have tools, thanks to our foremothers," said
Cassell. "We have names for things like sexual harassment and date rape."
I admire Gloria Steinem's boundless energy, her ideological zeal and her commitment. And I'm not stupid enough or ungrateful enough to think that I -- that all women in my generation -- don't owe a debt of gratitude to women like Steinem who have in many ways shaped my political sensibility. But this night I was promised something new, and that's what I wanted. If feminism is looking to be reborn it seemed that a perfect place to start was with an examination of the White House sex scandal, which has called into question many feminist stances and loyalties, and has confounded feminist leaders.
More then any other event in recent memory, the current scandals present a glorious opportunity for young feminists to define themselves separately from their Second Wave foremothers. The New Girl Order should be unafraid to challenge men, even those who politically are "on our side." This is an occasion for young feminists to swipe the torch from women like Steinem, to call a pig a pig.
I asked Cassell what Third Wave members thought about the Clinton scandal. "There's been no discussion of the Clinton scandal," she said. "We've been busy on other issues."
Didn't she think what was allegedly going on in the White house was upsetting?
"Personally, for me, what's going on in Iraq is more pressing. It would be important if President Clinton had sexually harassed [Monica Lewinsky]," said Cassell, seemingly oblivious to Kathleen Willey's widely reported charge earlier that week that the president had made unsolicited sexual advances. "If not, it's a personal thing between him and Hillary. I think that women's groups are sick of hearing about it. It's almost a given that the president is going to be flirtatious and come on to women."
But should women accept a licentious president as "a given"? And what if Lewinsky was rewarded with a coveted internship at the White House because of a sexual relationship with the president? Couldn't Clinton's pattern of "coming on to" women in the workplace, if true, be considered an abuse of privilege and power? And how are we to reconcile the fact that the most feminist-minded first lady in history, a woman who has been an inspiration to many, stays with a man who continues to humiliate her publicly? We may all be sick of hearing about it, but aren't there still important issues that need to be addressed?
Apparently not. "It's so sad that nobody knew these women's names two months ago and now -- through their action, through their victimization or whatever -- they are household words," added Barlerin, the Third Wave member, referring to Lewinsky, Paula Jones and Willey. "Because of the media, there is a tragic perpetration of our desire to know it all. Right now I am more angry at the media. "
I asked Barlerin why women's rights groups aren't defending Willey or Jones as they did Anita Hill -- or at least looking carefully at their allegations?
"That's a good question. I'll have to consider that for myself and for Third Wave."
By the time the lecture began, it was clear that the evening was meant to be more like a cozy, sisterly fireside chat than a provocative forum. Journalist Evelyn White, an unabashed Friend of Gloria and author of a forthcoming biography of Alice Walker, also in attendance, seemed like an unlikely choice for the interviewer deemed to ask the "questions no one has dared to ask." And, in fact, as Steinem and White chatted in plush armchairs next to a vase of spring flowers, they seemed more interested in their generation than mine. Probing questions ranged from "So Gloria, tell me about the early days of Ms. What was it really like?" to "Tell me about the book you're working on now."
Finally, White fired a fast one. "Let's talk about what is going on in the White House ..."
"Well, clearly, President Clinton needs sex addiction therapy," Steinem said, to titters from the audience. "But ... he doesn't need impeachment."
Steinem went on to say, much as she did in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times the following Sunday, that the difference between the allegations against President Clinton and those leveled at Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and former Sen. Bob Packwood came down to that old feminist aphorism: "Yes means yes, and no means no."
"With Willey and Jones, what he allegedly did was a gross, stupid, reckless pass -- that never happened again. In the case of Packwood and Thomas it happened, and it continued to happen, over the course of several years. It seems to me that the minimum we can ask is that they take 'no' for an answer, and Clinton did that."
Sure, he took "no" for an answer from one woman, but then he allegedly went on to bust more moves. For the woman who spearheaded the modern women's movement, Steinem's response reeked of old-fashioned female denial -- and seemed suspiciously to pin women into the old, classic role as arbiters of appropriate sexual behavior. And by neatly packaging the president as a "sex addict," she seemed more interested in looking for a way to excuse him than in engaging in an honest dissection of the complex issues involved.
"The media says we're inconsistent," Steinem continued. "I think we're being real, listening to each woman."
As I walked out of the theater that night, still wondering who was doing the listening, I overheard a Third Wave
organizer say to a friend: "I'm so glad Gloria addressed the Clinton issue. Now I know what to say when people ask me about it."