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Jewish World Review May 10, 2000 / 5 Iyar, 5760

Evan Gahr

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Feminist Majority Rule -- IN BALTIMORE RECENTLY, an estimated 6,000 women from all over the country and world attended the "Feminist Expo 2000." Conference organizer Ellie Smeal hoped to "showcase the power of the women's movement" -- and counter the media "myth" that feminism is moribund.

For three days, about 600 speakers, who ran the ideological gambit from Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) to Gloria Steinem, lambasted the patriarchy, racism, sexism, and capitalism. But they also took credit for radically altering the place of women and men in society.

Perhaps the most telling moment came, interestingly enough, in a bathroom adjacent to the Expo's "Feminist Hall of the Future." In roughly eight minutes on Saturday afternoon, about eight women -- whose dress ranged from college grunge to business casual -- scurried inside, utterly indifferent to the huge "men" sign above the entrance, or even the white male reporter inside. But these ostensible feminist pioneers -- even a college student who could quote bell hooks verbatim -- were motivated by nature, not politics.

University of Pittsburgh undergraduate Sally Schlippert said the ladies' room was overcrowded. The alternative was obvious to Schlippert and the other ladies in the men's room. Alas, feminists who insist gender roles are mere social constructs -- that "biology" is irrelevant -- might be disappointed to learn that none of the women opted for the urinals.

This is feminism today -- brash, somewhat complacent, and utterly oblivious or indifferent to its fundamental contradictions.

Still, is a feminist PC gathering just another dog bites man story? Not really. In this supposedly non-ideological age, feminists have wisely adopted a soft-sell approach. Last weekend, everyone from Patricia Ireland to Carol Mosley Braun claimed that feminists just want to give women the freedom to make their own "choices." This oft-stated argument is a bit like a doctor telling his son he won't pressure him about careers, he can choose any sub-specialty of medicine he wants. After all, the modern feminist movement, launched after Betty Friedan likened suburban housewives to concentration camp inmates, has long sneered at many choices women make.

How does the current feminist soft-sell square against the reality of the conference? Are feminists really, as Patricia Ireland insisted in a brief interview for this article, of "many minds" on just about every issue? At the opening session Friday afternoon, politicians and activists declared that we are all feminists now. Vowing to keep making the personal political, Sen Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) insisted family values are really feminist values. "Honor thy Father and Mother" means support a government protection drug plan.

Later, Betty Friedan, clad in a maroon dress and large black hat that covered most of her gray hair, addressed the crowd. She "kvelled" with pride at the "sons and daughters" of the movement who had so radically changed the nation's "consciousness."

The opening ceremonies concluded with the song, "I am Woman." But the nostalgia continued later that evening with a reunion for the ERA movement. Huge replicas of the trademark "ERA Now" button and others festooned the stage. Some gray-haired members of the crowd, including a women in a circa 1979 red and black plaid sport jacket, poured over old photos of the struggle.

But a good part of this crowd -- at this event and everywhere else -- were college students. They seemed primarily interested in the evening's entertainers, including the musical group BETTY.

Saturday morning, it was back to the future -- a general assembly on "Winning Women's Economic Empowerment." One possible tool: the female condom for Third World Women.

But historian Blanche Wiesen Cook offered some more traditional solutions to economic inequality. Dressed in a multi-colored vest, which looked especially bright juxtaposed with her bushy gray hair, she demanded a tax on the internet. Then the "truly greedy" will "no longer ignore the truly needy." Most of the other speakers sounded like an illegitimate daughter of Pat Buchanan and Lenora Fulani. They denounced capitalism, globalization, and the World Trade Organization as malevolent, especially for women. Of the four general assemblies, this one was the least attended, despite some very heated rhetoric.

One of the most popular events on Saturday was probably a star-studded panel on "Feminism and Popular Culture." Moderated by Peg Yorkin, board chairman of the Feminist Majority, it drew an overflow crowd later that afternoon.

In a ballroom filled with mainly college-age women, six highly successful Hollywood writers and actresses lamented the rampant sexism in the entertainment industry that "marginalized" women. Laura Dern, resplendent with her long blonde hair, but identified in the official program with the gender-neutral "actor," blasted the "fashion industry" for enforcing unrealistic standards of beauty.

Yet, for all the finger-pointing at society, it was the female panelists who seemed most obsessed with physical appearances. Dern harped on "bimbos."

Still, even as the panelists behaved like a bunch of stereotypical catty women, they derided gender roles. "Irrelevant," said comedy writer Emily Levine. Yorkin was aghast that Toys R Us keeps toys for boys and girls separate. (An inconvenience for all those boys who can't find Barbie dolls fast enough?)

The next big event was a General Assembly on the "Radical Right." Feminist Majority board member Lorraine Sheinberg declared, "We've been lied to." Did she mean feminist's bogus "statistics" about rape on college campuses or the so-called pay gap? Or that, contrary to Gloria Steinem's famous adage, it turned out that most women without a man -- especially a husband -- are like fish out of water? Nope. The media had misled them about the right wing. An 18-minute video explained that a right-wing cabal had used religion for cover in order to take over the Republican party. Phyliss Schafly was the front woman.

Schafly as useful idiot for the patriarchy? That's how most women who didn't make the proper feminist choices were treated. Gloria Steinem said women who vote Republican brought to mind the book "Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them." And so on.

The other marginalized group at the convention were mothers. Out of 106 roundtables, training sessions, and symposia listed in the program, only one even mentioned mothers by name. "Our Mother's Daughters . . . And Sisters!" Throughout the conference women's status as "caregivers" figured in many discussions on economic inequality.

The conference ended on Sunday. In the morning, panelists weighed various threats to women. A panel on sexual harassment featured pieces of clothing to highlight the victims. No blue dress.

Interestingly, the only reference at the Expo to President Clinton's so-called personal life was probably a little noticed, flip remark by NOW president Patricia Ireland.

After a panel discussion on eating disorders, Ireland patiently stood on the microphone line to ask questions. When she spoke, Ireland remarked that a previous questioner, who offered an innovative means to reduce eating disorders on college campuses, had reminded her of Joycelyn Elders' famous policy prescription. Yes, the advice cost Elders her job. But I'm "wondering if Bill Clinton didn't wish he had listened to her."

At the concluding ceremonies Sunday afternoon, writer Robin Morgan vowed to make her vision of a feminist utopia reality. "We are the women men warned us about."

But who else should worry? Throughout the conference, feminists gloated about their vast influence throughout every segment of American society. Declared Smeal: "We are everywhere." Who is the we? As both men and women who have run afoul of feminist orthodoxy can readily attest, feminists regularly use the coercive (and undemocratic) power of courts and federal agencies to enforce their will.

Feminist majority? More like tyranny of the minority.

JWR contributor Evan Gahr is a former New York Post press critic. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Evan Gahr This piece is adapted from one that appeared on The American Spectator Online.