Illustration by Melinda Beck

“Feminism and Feminists Today: A Conversation Across the Decades,” brought together alumnae representing nearly 45 years of feminism at this reunion panel. From “I Am Woman” in the ’70s, to the ’80s Sex Wars, to the ’90s backlash and riot grrrls, to “girl power” in the aughts and modern-day SlutWalks, how we define and defend feminism has evolved as have feminists themselves. The panelists shared their thoughts on what feminism meant to them as students, where it stands today, and how to protect its future. 

Courtney Martin ’02, a founder and editor emerita of and author of several books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, moderated. After introducing the panelists, she asked each woman to elaborate on how her relationship to feminism came alive or changed at Barnard. 

New Jersey Democratic Assemblywoman Mila Oden Jasey ’72 arrived in on campus in 1968 with the feminist message already instilled by her mother. She recalled that everything, even academics, took a back seat to another issue. “Feminism is not something I was focused on. We were more focused on the war in Vietnam,” Jasey said. The most feminist event she remembers was the founding in her junior year of the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW), created with a mission of supporting feminism and social justice.

“You couldn’t avoid being a feminist at Barnard when I was here,” said Katherine Franke ’81, the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law at Columbia and director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. She remembered a late ’70s campus buzzing about women’s rights, gay rights, sexuality, and feminism. The popular feminist debate was anti-porn vs. pro-sex; the famous Hustler magazine cover image of a woman being put through a meat grinder was everywhere. “It was an exciting [time]. Sexuality was so central to how we understood feminism, how we understood ourselves as women.”

Kathryn Drabinski ’97, a gender and women’s studies lecturer at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, arrived here from Boise, Idaho, looking for a radical time. “Women at Barnard were having fierce arguments and causing trouble,” she said. Despite the constraints of nascent political correctness, activism was hip. Drabinski worked in BCRW with many of her friends, volunteered weekends at an abortion clinic, and was involved in a group called LABIA (Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action). “When I was in it I don’t remember thinking, ‘I’m a feminist.’ I was just a college student,” she said. 

Shilpa Guha ’12 said the campus was not the wild political scene she expected. A T-shirt created by the BCRW convinced her to choose Barnard. The message: Dare to Use the F-Word. “It was one of these signs that I got on my campus tour,” recalled Guha. “I was looking for a feminist space.” She eventually found it as a research assistant for BCRW, and in events like Take Back the Night. 

In many ways, Guha represents a new breed discussed by the panel: the professional feminist. She already has an impressive CV. While attending Barnard, she was a coordinator for AfterHours Tutoring, a community impact youth group, and interned at the Ms. Foundation, the United Nations in Geneva, and the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. Guha interviewed Anita Hill on campus and has met Oprah Winfrey. With degrees in political science and human rights, she is headed to Washington, D.C. to intern for the American Bar Association. 

Franke and Drabinski find that students today are more professionally driven. “Kids today consider college to be a direct path to what you want to be,” says Franke. “My experience was anything but.” After college she was in a band, taught karate, and wrote a novel before law school. Drabinski worked at a video store, nannied, and did temp work. Jasey, who wanted to be a teacher, instead went to nursing school, despite protests from friends and family who thought medical school more appropriate. Even Martin waitressed at the Deluxe Diner near the campus. 

Such a rigid focus can make women less likely to take the risks associated with activism. The Facebook generation knows anything that lives on the Internet can come back to haunt them. Social media has generally been a boon for getting people involved, with online petitions, lively discussions in comment threads, and the ability to spread information quickly. Last year’s SlutWalks, which started in Toronto as a protest against a male official telling women they should stop dressing like sluts if they don’t want to be victimized, gained traction on the Web. Women in cities throughout the United States marched in “slutty” clothing. A picture or video at such a rally can spread just as quickly and easily. 

“I totally understand the fear of being on Facebook or YouTube,” said Jasey. While she doesn’t think rallies necessarily change things, they do keep young women politically minded. “That feeling of being in a demonstration and feeling that energy around you is very motivating. I’m worried that people don’t realize what we fought so hard to get can so easily be taken away.”

Perhaps young women don’t understand the urgency because they were born with the rights hard-won by their mothers and grandmothers. Or they are simply trying to live up to the standard set by a generation that insisted, “you can do it all,” without explaining how. Maybe the economy is to blame, or Martin suggested, there’s a missing externalized anger that seemed to drive previous generations.

Politics is the realm where women can really affect change, asserted Jasey. Yes, the system is broken, but it’s important for more women to get involved. “Experience gives you more patience and perhaps more courage to anger people and to do things that are not popular. Women more than men, in my experience in the legislature, are willing to take those risks,” she explained. 

Does it matter that women are still unwilling to label themselves feminists? Drabinski didn’t think so. At the beginning of her introductory gender and women’s studies courses, she always asks those students who consider themselves feminists to raise their hands. Maybe three out of 70 do. She might double the number of self-identifying feminists by the time the class ends, but it’s still less than 10 percent. The label means less than getting them to think like feminists, she said. 

Martin took care to mention that there are a great may young feminists who are speaking out on blogs and participating in conversations about reproductive and other rights. Not to mention the great many women who may not be calling themselves feminists but are still advancing the cause.