Faces of Feminism

By Jeannine Ouellette

Avis Meeks Day '78Women may have come a long way in the past century, but are they losing ground in this one? We ask Carls what it means to be a feminist today—and why those hard-fought-for gains might be slipping from their grasp.

During her senior year at Carleton, Rachel Vallens ’06 tried to invigorate the Carleton Feminist Alumni Network—“Feminism is a way for women to come together; the community aspect is important,” Vallens says—but the initiative fizzled out after several months.

“There was interest from alums, but it was hard to figure out what people wanted and how the Feminist Network would distinguish itself from general alumni activities,” says Vallens, now a master’s candidate and teaching assistant in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “And there were different ideas about what feminism should be and do, especially between older and younger alumni. It boiled down to whether or not to include men. Older alumni—those who graduated in the ’50s and ’60s and earlier—were more focused on a ‘stand up and fight for your rights’ mission, whereas recent graduates envisioned a group with a broader reach. They didn’t feel as much need for ‘rights’ activism, because we’ve always had those rights and tend to take them for granted.”

Vallens’s experience at Carleton reflects the various views surrounding feminism in the nation at large—views that once again came to the forefront of media attention in 2008 when the National Organization for Women Political Action Committee took an unusual step for the nation’s oldest and largest women’s rights organization and endorsed a presidential candidate. Instead of supporting McCain/Palin—the ticket with a woman on it—they picked Obama/Biden. That decision, along with the media coverage surrounding the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, renewed a national discussion of what it means to be a feminist.

Although the election clamor over women, politics, and the glass ceiling has faded, the questions remain: What does “feminist” mean to those who espouse the moniker today? Who defines it? Who can claim it? What are the current priorities of the movement? Is it even relevant to young women, who have never had to fight for the vote and for legal rights the way earlier feminists did? We asked Carls across the decades to tell us what feminism means to them and what it means for the future of women—and the world.

Feminist labels

Retired social studies teacher Sue Lebeck Adamek ’54, P ’89 worries that the feminist movement is floundering because many younger women don’t perceive it as urgent. “I haven’t any idea what ‘feminist’ now means,” Adamek says. “But I wish everyone believed in fair treatment for all individuals. I fear that young women take for granted the job opportunities, education benefits, legal rights, organized day-care opportunities, and so on that were gained over the past half century. The ’30s set back the gains of the ’20s, and I fear that the current economic downturn—coupled with women’s assumptions that the problems have been solved—will result in a similar backslide.”

“There’s a lot going on with the word feminist,” says Vallens. “A lot of women who support all the same things I support don’t feel comfortable calling themselves feminists.” Some young women balk at the feminist label simply because they feel disingenuous claiming it when they themselves have never had to fight for feminist causes, no matter how fully they support them. Other women don’t identify with feminism at all.

“[As an African American woman], I have never embraced the feminist movement because it seemed so far removed from my reality,” says Avis Meeks Day ’78, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas. “Both my maternal and paternal grandmothers worked. I did not know any stay-at-home moms when I was a child. Everyone worked to afford a home where the schools were best. My mom received her master’s degree after taking one class every summer while teaching summer school as well. It was something she was determined to complete. With these women and my aunts as examples, I did not see the point of a burned bra. Someone worked hard to purchase that item. Why waste that time and energy?”

Lawrence Perlman '60Feminist Workings

Although women have been in the workplace for decades, they continue to be underrepresented in boardrooms and other positions of leadership. “I don’t know exactly what a feminist is, but I’m somebody who feels strongly that we need the best people in the best positions,” says Lawrence Perlman ’60, P ’89, retired CEO of Ceridian and author of the 1993 speech “What If She Has a Baby?” In that speech, given at a conference on work-family issues, Perlman put forth the basic argument that U.S. corporate competitiveness is threatened by failing to meet the needs not just of women, but of all parents in the workplace. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to eliminate half the population from the candidate pool,” says Perlman, “especially the half that generally turns out to be the smartest.”

Day, who served as a member of the board of her medical group, notes that women bring a different perspective to the job: “We process ideas differently and we see extenuating circumstances. We can realize efficiencies in the workplace because we do that daily in our homes.” She acknowledges, however, that the balancing act between work and home is difficult. “Not as many women are nominated for board positions because they don’t want to take the time from their families,” says Day. “My children were in college and high school at the time, so it worked out for me. But the workplace will not allow equal progress if you leave work when day care calls. Advancement is sidelined when your pregnancy requires bed rest. Salary will not be on par when you decide to work part time, even if you do the same amount of work as one who is present full time. Appearance matters. If it appears your family is more important than the job—and it should be—your advances are not as swift as others’.”

Perlman, the first CEO to testify in Congress in favor of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, won, during his corporate career, a number of awards for breaking the glass ceiling. He sees progress, but not enough, especially when it comes to the dearth of female CEOs. “We’ve got a stereotype for CEOs, the best example of which is those auto executives who testified before Congress,” he says. “They represent a view of white male America that we’ve got to shake a bit.”

Indeed, a 2008 study conducted by the Corporate Library, an independent research firm that focuses on corporate governance (the rules, processes, and laws by which businesses are operated, regulated, and controlled) showed the number of female CEOs in America to be less than 3 percent of the total number of CEOs, a figure that one of the study’s authors called “shockingly low” in a Western economy.

According to a 2008 report issued by Catalyst, a “leading nonprofit membership organization working globally to expand opportunities for women and business,” American women have gained little ground in advancing to business leadership positions, holding 15.2 percent of directorships at Fortune 500 companies in 2008, up only slightly from 14.8 in 2007. The number of companies with no women board directors increased from 59 in 2007 to 66 in 2008. Globally, the situation for executive women is even bleaker. Only 5.8 percent of foreign-national directors are women, according to the Global Board Index issued by Egon Zehnder International, an international executive search firm.

The Corporate Library study also found that while American female CEOs receive higher base salaries than their male counterparts, they earn only about 85 percent of the total pay packages (including cash bonuses, perks, and stock compensation) that the male CEOs receive. In the U.S. workforce at large, women earn 77.8 percent of the male dollar for year-round full-time employment.

“Every person should be paid according to the same criteria,” Day says. “How to make that happen? We should continue to put ourselves up for board nominations to adjust the business world’s views and policies. The changes happen at that level; I don’t think it happens governmentally. Change the culture of the company and the workplace improves for women.”

It appears that the American workplace will need a lot more women in leadership positions before things improve significantly. “A handful of female CEOs isn’t enough to effect change,” says Perlman. “When we have a critical mass of women in senior management positions, people will recognize their competence and appreciate their perspective. There’s been more progress on the political front.”

Feminist Politics

Katie Fischer Ziegler ’02, Denver-based policy specialist for the Women’s Legislative Network of the National Conference of State Legislatures, studies women’s progress on the political front every day. “Women make up about 24 percent of all state legislators,” she says, “and the percentage of women in Congress is 17 percent for the 2009 session.” However, says Ziegler, the gains have stagnated over the past 15 years, during which time the ratio of women state legislators has increased by less than four percentage points: “The line graph went up steadily from the ’70s through early ’90s but has just crept for the past 15 years.” According to Ziegler, the leveling off of women taking legislative office is a result of a similar flattening out of the number of women running for office since 1992. The women who run are seeing improved acceptance and success, but expanding the number of female candidates remains a challenge.

“There’s a lack of women in the political pipeline,” says Ziegler. “Last May [2008] the Brookings Institution published a report on why women aren’t running for office. It showed that women were less likely than men to be recruited, and less likely than men to feel as if they had the freedom to balance family, work, and, on top of that, a political campaign. Remedies are going to have to come from greater support and more equitable distribution of labor on the home front.”

Corporate women face the same challenges, says Perlman: “I don’t think the domestic duties of many American two-wage-earner families are split 50-50, and that makes it harder for women to succeed, particularly when they may be subject to more intense scrutiny once they’re hired or elected.”

Barbara Allen, professor of political science and director of women’s and gender studies at Carleton, says there’s a spate of research showing that women candidates for office as well as women officeholders are not treated like men who run for or hold office. “So, in that, the 2008 election showed nothing new,” Allen says. “It was a replication of research results that have been known for at least 20 years.”

Feminist Agendas

However far women have come in the corporate and political spheres, violence against women remains one of the most widespread violations of human rights. Globally, at least one in three women and girls is beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime, according to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. That’s why Jini Rao ’09 (Bombay, India), an economics major with a concentration in cross-cultural studies, cites violence against women as the core feminist issue with the most powerful worldwide resonance. “The need for prevention of violence against women is a concern shared by women’s groups all over the world,” she says.

Advancing the quality of life for underprivileged women is another compelling issue. Beth Budnick ’11 (Westfield, N.J.), a political science major and member of the Carleton student activist group Carls for Choice, says that for her, feminism is about the economic equalizers that affect people’s ability to live independently. “But I’m also a champion for reproductive rights,” she says, pointing out that as younger women lose sight of past eras of illegal abortion, they may be less committed to protecting future access to safe and legal reproductive services.

Rachel Vallens puts abortion rights at the top of the feminist priority list. “And that’s unfortunate, because it’s reactionary, a defensive move in response to those who want abortion to be illegal again,” she says. “That drowns out a lot of the other productive things feminists need to be working on, including basic human rights on a global scale.”

Beth Wright ’93, cochair of the Out After Carleton LGBT alumni organization, also circles back to reproductive rights as a central feminist issue. She exemplifies her point with the 2008 presidential election: “Sarah Palin may have wanted to say she was representing women, but she certainly wasn’t representing me or many of the women I know. If she’s so strongly antiabortion, she cannot really claim to be for women because when abortion is illegal, women die.” Ultimately, says Wright, inclusiveness and respect for basic human rights define feminism for her.

Kaaren WilliamsenCarleton’s Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC) supports a mission to “strengthen and sustain an inclusive campus community that promotes gender equality and awareness and welcomes people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.” Kaaren Williamsen, GSC director, chooses to define feminism with another tough question: “How do we support all people for their identities, and respect all political beliefs? That’s the ultimate challenge.”

She recalls a GSC feminist photo project from a couple of years ago: “It started with a discussion around the phrase ‘I’m a feminist, but . . .’ because people were struggling so much with that term. They completed the phrase in all these different ways: I’m a feminist, but . . . I want to change my name at marriage, I want to stay home with my kids, and so on. Accompanying those discussions, we had a ‘this is what a feminist looks like’ photo exhibit. Hundreds of people—mostly Carleton students—displayed their photographs, and that was a good conversation starter about how the feminist umbrella can extend over young and old, male and female, and all ethnicities.”

Williamsen is an advocate for thoughtful dialogue about gender expectations of both men and women. “We need to give people a place to negotiate and critique those expectations,” she says.

Feminists Online

Feminists, too, need a means to critique expectations of themselves and the feminist mission, and many of them are finding it in new social media. “You could say that the whole consciousness-raising thing of the ’70s, where people sat in their living rooms talking, has moved online,” says Beth Budnick, who sees blogs as an emerging source of community for young feminists and an important part of the contemporary feminist movement. She keeps up her own blog on LiveJournal and knows a lot of people, herself included, who read feminist Web sites first thing in the morning in order to stay informed and connected. “I’ve seen action—including successful boycotts—come out of the social networks,” she says. “In one case, a group of feminist bloggers were infuriated about a child-size thong at Wal-Mart that said ‘money-maker’ on it, and we all wrote asking them to remove that item, and they did.”

Last fall’s Sarah Palin–inspired viral fund-raising campaign for Planned Parenthood was equally concrete. The campaign spread via e-mail and social networking sites as people encouraged their friends and contacts to turn political outrage into action by donating five dollars to Planned Parenthood in Sarah Palin’s name. Part of the incentive to donate was the promise that Palin would receive a handwritten thank-you note for every gift made on her behalf. As of December 2008, some 38,000 supporters had contributed more than $1 million in Palin’s name, and Planned Parenthood informed her of every honorary gift.

Many contributors undoubtedly sent checks as much for the fun as for belief in the cause. Fun, says Budnick, is part of the appeal of Jezebel (www.jezebel.com) and other pop-culture feminist sites. “It’s seen as ‘feminism lite,’ ” she says, “because they weave in a lot of fun feminist perspectives, but they attract people who might not otherwise be seeking out information on women’s issues.”

Feminist Dynamics

Bob Gale ’48 says he’s always supported feminism. Gale, who spent six years as Carleton’s vice president and 32 years as a trustee, is currently a trustee emeritus. He dedicated his entire career to civil rights causes, including feminism. As director of public affairs for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he defended the commission’s activities to feminist activist Betty Friedan when she insisted that the EEOC wasn’t doing enough for women. “I showed her confidential files that proved just how much we were doing for women,” he says, adding that he probably shouldn’t admit to having done that. “You always have to have militants to get something started,” he says. “It was true for blacks and true for women. Now feminist issues are pretty well accepted in most places. The changes have been dramatic.”

If Gale, at 82, observed a feminist shift from “radical” to “solid,” Budnick, at 20, saw the feminism of her generation metamorphose from “fun feminism” to something more focused: “The 2008 election said, ‘No, there are still real issues, real sexism that we need to face.’ It refocused my lens and intensified my commitment to the more serious pillars of feminism—equal rights in politics and the workplace, reproductive rights, issues of social justice. The election intensified my commitment to be active in these issues.”

Feminism’s increasingly dynamic nature is as much a reflection of our increasingly dynamic times as of the growing range of individuals who advance the ever-broadening agenda of a movement that began with suffrage. The changes of the past century have been dramatic, but significant challenges remain.

 “Whatever is changing is moving slowly,” says Barbara Allen. “Hillary cracked the ceiling with 18 million primary votes, but we voters still struggled to learn about Hillary’s policy proposals, her decision-making style, and other relevant aspects of ‘candidate character’ because we were hearing about her décolletage, or about Bill, or about Chris Matthews being afraid to uncross his legs around her, or reading Maureen Dowd’s vituperation. It all suggests a great deal of work for us ahead.”

Jeannine Ouellette is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.

Beth Wright’93

Beth Wright '93

Beth Wright ’93
Co-owner, Trio Bookworks, Minneapolis; cochair, Out After Carleton
Berkeley, California
Mother, teachers, books—“My mother encouraged me to follow my own interests, to read the newspaper, to discuss big issues in the world.”

“A feminism that’s able to accomplish anything today is one that takes into account human rights on a broader scale,” says Beth Wright. “Problems of the past sprang from the public face of feminism—the leaders, the organization—being representative of only upper-middle-class white people. In order to progress, feminism needs to consider racism, disabilities, civil rights, the international picture, and not just North America or Western culture, LGBT issues, and so on. It needs to encompass a much more global and multifaceted set of ideas or principles.”

Wright cites economic justice as a critical issue facing contemporary feminists: “On the international level, poverty hits women hard. In the United States and other wealthy countries, economic injustice has a more complicated face. But in terms of uniting feminists around an issue, I think it is economic justice.”

As a child, Wright knew sexism existed, “but I grew up in Berkeley in the 1970s, and doors were opening everywhere,” she says. “That’s the impression I had. I rode bikes, climbed trees, and played with paper dolls. I grew up believing I could do anything I wanted and my opportunities were not limited by my gender. I was probably about 10 years old when I started reading biographies of groundbreaking women.” In fact, Wright read and read and read, and was also exposed to important ideas at home and at her private school: “I am a child of privilege, with two academics for parents. My big rebellion is not to go to graduate school! I recognize that modern feminism has to pay attention to class. Sexism is alive and well, that’s clear to me as an adult. But the only way to break out of its limitations is to focus beyond young white women in their 20s. There needs to be an overarching feminist agenda that acknowledges the universal value of human dignity, that acknowledges we all are human.”

Mimi Larsen Becker ’57

Mimi Larsen Becker ’57
Associate professor of natural resources & environmental policy, University of New Hampshire
Hometown: Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
Mother and father—“My mother was the original pushy broad.”

In 1993—at the age of 52, and 36 years post-Carleton—Mimi Larsen Becker “ran away to graduate school,” she says. Duke University had offered a fellowship too good to refuse, so she left her Ohio home for six years of residential graduate study in North Carolina. It was the first time that she had ever lived alone. “It was my turn,” she says. “I’d spent six years in New Haven while my husband was in graduate school, earning my PhT—you know, ‘putting hubby through.’ ”

After graduate school, Larsen Becker took a position at the University of New Hampshire and has since commuted back to her Ohio home for holidays and breaks. “I got started doing what I really wanted to do at just the time many of the women I knew were retiring,” she says.

Larsen Becker has “been through all four phases of the women’s movement—well, I guess I wasn’t a suffragette, but I’ve seen a lot of change over the years,” she says. “Today I see students who have never worried about whether they could pursue the profession of their choice. They’ve never believed that they did not have equal legal rights.”

Still, she sees problems: “Young women have to worry about their safety, that hasn’t changed. And they’re a long way from equal pay for equal work, at two-thirds of men’s salaries. Women in science, especially, have not been adequately compensated or respected in the past, and that’s just beginning to change. I see my role—and I’ve been very unapologetic about it—as one of training change agents. I’m training people who are going to upset apple carts, people who are going to get us to a better place than where we’ve been for the past eight years, and longer than that.”

Carolyn Chalmers ’68

Carolyn Chalmers '68

Carolyn Chalmers ’68
Director, Office for Conflict Resolution, University of Minnesota
Middlebury, Vermont
Women’s consciousness movement—“What a powerful impact socialization had on me.”

From the Vietnam War to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, tragedy, controversy, and tumultuous change marked Carolyn Chalmers’s time at Carleton. “Despite the changes, I didn’t have the self-awareness of how limited my options would be as a woman,” Chalmers says.

Neither her parents nor Carleton prepared her for the restricted opportunities she would face in the workplace. “As women, we didn’t think of careers beyond teaching, nursing, and other sex-segregated jobs,” she says. “All I applied for after Carleton was the master of arts in teaching.”

After graduation, Chalmers traveled to India on a Fulbright scholarship, and the acceptance letters to various teaching programs began arriving back home. “My father wanted to know what he should tell them, and I was thinking, ‘I am not going to be a good teacher of little kids,’ ” she says.

Chalmers settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts—and didn’t pursue a teaching degree. The employment ads she scanned were divided into “men wanted” and “women wanted.” After accepting a job at a research consulting firm, Chalmers discovered that research assistants were young, attractive, accomplished women supporting men. “I started to understand how I felt about that, how I felt about sexual harassment even though as a legal concept that wouldn’t be developed for another 10 years,” she says.

Finally, she thought of law school: “I was married, with a baby, and with the women’s consciousness movement it slowly grew on me that law school was something a woman could do. It amazes me that I didn’t realize it sooner, especially since my husband had a law degree! My great gift came from the feminist movement. I would not have been able to open the door of myself without that support.”

Employment discrimination law appealed because Chalmers felt that she had been subjected to discrimination herself. “Feminism is about wanting half the population to be fully engaged and productive, to have their talents utilized,” she says. “[It’s about] ensuring full access to opportunities, making sure women aren’t discouraged from going forward.” By those standards, says Chalmers, there hasn’t been another movement as dramatic as the women’s movement: “In the mid-1960s women were never cops, never bus drivers. You didn’t see women lawyers or doctors. By and large, women were at home. There were anomalies, of course, but that’s just what they were, anomalies. There’s been a huge sea change.”

Jini Rao ’09

Jini Rao '09

Jini Rao ’09
Economics major, concentration in cross-cultural studies; Carleton Center for Gender and Sexuality associate
Bombay, India
Mother and father—“They believed girls deserved the same opportunities as boys, and they made sure I knew that.”

Jini Rao says she can’t really define feminism. Born and raised in Bombay (she prefers Bombay rather than Mumbai and says most “Bombayites” do), she notes that feminism is essentially a Western concept. Rao quotes the writer Rebecca West, who said in 1913, “I myself do not know precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that distinguish me from a doormat.”

“I don’t know if there is a central feminist agenda, either,” Rao says. “There are central issues. Certainly women’s groups all over the world share the concern of violence against women. Otherwise, contemporary feminism is marked by the way that women also engage with their other identities. Second- or third-wave feminists identified as feminists within race and class groups, but now it’s also in other arenas and agendas, from spiritual affiliations to whatever else you can think of.”

Rao’s entrée into women’s issues was her interest in economic development and sustainable development in impoverished countries. “I realized that gender is really important, that gender can affect how economic development happens, how we conceptualize it,” she says. “You can look at Wangari Muta Maathai of Kenya, who won the Nobel Prize for her movement to grow trees, or the Grameen Bank and Muhammad Yunus, who also won the Nobel Peace Prize. Yunus and the Grameen Bank basically started microfinance, giving very small loans to women who are so poor that they did not have any collateral, but organizing them in groups to create social pressure so that the loans got repaid. This is the kind of work that inspires me.”

Rao inquired at Carleton’s Gender and Sexuality Center during her first week on campus and since 2006 has worked at the center. “Our focus is sexual violence prevention, healthy sexuality awareness, LGBT issues—which, other than in a few cities in India, are really not talked about much back home.” Rao also credits the center for promoting discussion of healthy masculinity.

“If I were working with women’s organizations back home, then women’s work and livelihood and financial security would play a much bigger role,” Rao says. “Globally, economic issues would play a much bigger role than on a college campus.”

After graduation, Rao will be working as a research assistant at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. “But,” she says, “I’m increasingly interested in going back to India to teach for a couple of years before I apply to graduate school.”

Web Extra: Follow a time line of American feminism at http://go.carleton.edu/timeline.

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