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20 Years Later, Younger Women Still Debate “Feminisms”

At what was billed as “the first national conference for and by feminists in their 20’s’,’ Jewish women made sure that their voices were heard.

The conference, held in Washington, D.C. in November, was organized by the Washington-based Center for Women Policy Studies and attracted about 300 women. For most of the young women in attendance, it was a time to define what it meant to be a feminist and to discuss why so many women of their generation feel uncomfortable with that title.

“I think a lot of people are confused about what the feminist movement is and what it means to them’,’ said Caroline Coram, a graduate student at George Mason University in Arlington, Va. “The movement should go back to some traditional marketing principles”

But it became clear, as woman after woman addressed her peers before an open microphone, that there was not just one feminism being talked about. There were different visions and agendas.

For many at the conference, especially black women, the primary issue was racism, both within the feminist movement and in society at large. Others stood up to say that feminists of their generation should fight homophobia, ageism, discrimination based upon handicap, and economic inequality. Meanwhile, countering the fact that Jewish concerns were not addressed explicitly, a small group drafted a statement that was read at the closing session.

“In the feminist community, we often feel unrecognized” said Laura Shaw, a senior at Columbia University in New York City. “Anti-Semitism is a real problem, and as feminists we should include it among the oppressions we are fighting. Not talking about anti-Semitism and not having Jewish women on the panel to talk about Jewish-feminist issues are two ways of making us invisible” At that point about a dozen women, one by one, stood up and identified themselves as both Jews and feminists.

This “tapestry” approach to feminism — by both Jewish and non-Jewish women — came at a price. After nearly three days of meetings, the women could not agree on a common set of goals. Instead, they agreed to an alternative: a new national organization that would allow young women of differing racial, sexual-orientation, ethnic, class and ability backgrounds to discuss their differences and to find common ground.

“I think I envisioned more concrete goals coming out of this’,’ said Susan Wolfson, a young political consultant from Boston and a member of the conference’s steering committee. “We’re still struggling with the baggage of our precursors”