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Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 2001 / 28 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Amy Holmes

Amy Holmes
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Feminism goes to battle -- I WILL never forget the moment that I discovered I was not a feminist. It was during the Feminist Expo '96. Women from around the country had flown in to Washington to network and strategize against the '94 Republican takeover of Congress. I was listening to a panel of activists in the Woodley Sheraton Hotel rail against the extravagance of our military budget. To my far right, I noticed Gloria Steinem listening discreetly in her signature shaded owl glasses. Then, one of the panelists, emboldened by the approving crowd, began to chant: "There will be no more war! There will be no more war!" I don't remember if the crowd cheered, but I, for one, became a conservative. It was, as feminists say, a "click" moment.

Now that we are in a war, the National Organization for Women, which claims a half-million members, has responded resoundingly. In a statement, the group urges: "In this time of national and global turmoil, the reasons we celebrate Coming Out Day are more visible and more important than ever." Apparently heeding President Bush's exhortations, NOW is back to business as usual, obsessing over the parochial issues for which it is known.

These are difficult times for the sisterhood. Should America scream into combat like Xena the Warrior Princess? Or should we, as novelist Alice Walker has suggested, punish terrorism with love?

Caught between American public opinion and its radical base, NOW, not unlike our moderate Arab allies, has carefully sidestepped the "war question." On its Web site, below a link soliciting funds for itself, NOW reports that women "worry aloud about war." One group, "Women in Black," silently enacts "women's historic voicelessness" on the steps of the New York Public Library in protest of military action. Far from concerning itself with the latest murderous utterings of Osama bin Laden, or the Taliban's threat to execute a French journalist, NOW features as its "Outrage of the Week" an Urban Outfitters men's T-shirt that depicts a naked cowgirl as "tender, juicy beef." Could this really be the meat of the matter? To the extent that NOW is involved in military issues, it has been to attack the armed forces' policy on gays and lesbians in the ranks. It makes a glancing and belated mention of the plight of Afghan women.

There is an alternative feminist view of America at war. The 14-year-old Feminist Majority, which was founded as a breakaway group by Eleanor Smeal after she left the presidency of NOW, has, to its credit, found a relevant issue in the plight of Afghan women. Feminist Majority board member Mavis Leno, wife of talk show host Jay Leno and fierce advocate for Afghan women, has studied the issue closely and is trying, in a way that NOW is not, to avoid marginalizing feminism. "So that our country does not have to worry about Afghanistan as a fount of terrorism, it must be rebuilt as a constitutional democracy," Leno told me. But she warns that elements of the Northern Alliance, our nominal allies in the current struggle, are as radical as the Taliban. When we prevail, the women of Afghanistan must be at the center of reform, Leno argues, not a collateral concern. They, perhaps better than anyone else in the region, understand the urgency and necessity of democratic government and individual liberty.

Leno's hopes are not unrealistic. Before the Taliban, Afghan women voted, held elected office and enjoyed equal rights with men. And contrary to NOW's claims, women have not been historically voiceless. Pakistan twice elected Benazir Bhutto, a woman, to its highest office. Indira Ghandi served as prime minister of India for 15 years.

Polling finds that American women are far less squeamish than the feminist hierarchy about wielding military might. When asked if she agrees with President Bush's war against the Taliban, Leno told me: "We had to do something."

JWR contributor Amy Holmes is a Washington-based writer. To comment, click here.


09/10/01: Predators and the women who love them
07/02/01: Is Yates on the road to feminist stardom?
05/07/01: Now they're 'profiling' presidents' daughters?

© 2001, Amy Holmes