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NEW GENERATION OF STUDENTS WEARS FEMINISM PROUDLY

T-shirts of every hue wave like flags from lines strung along the breezeways on the University of Central Florida's Brevard campus.

This is not washday. It is the Clothesline Project, an event held periodically on UCF campuses to raise awareness about violence against women.

Each T-shirt is a signal of anguish or outrage. Each bears a hand-lettered message from a woman in the community: "Victim." "Survivor." "You don't deserve my tears." And, heartbreakingly: "R.I.P. Baby Lei. Killed by your granddaddy."

Each shirt also is a bold, bright sign that feminism is alive and well.

"People think there's no reason for feminism anymore," says Lisa Logan, director of women's studies programs and associate professor of English on the Orlando campus. "They think we've achieved gender equality."

Not so, she says. Many women's issues remain unresolved, and feminism is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s and '70s, the tumultuous heyday of the women's liberation movement.

Even on UCF's conservative campus, feminists are a small but increasingly visible and vocal minority -- thanks in part to the women's studies program, its emphasis on activism and its dynamic director.

Inspiration on issues

"Many members of the women's studies faculty inspired and motivated me," says Emily Ruff, 23, a leading campus activist.

"There's a lot of work to be done in areas that white, educated, middle-class women take for granted," she says, including workplace inequality, body-image issues, child care and health care.

On campuses across the country, student feminism is on the rise, says Paula Krebs, professor of English at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., and a founding editor of the journal Feminist Teacher. And increasingly, women of color are joining the movement, along with small numbers of men.

"Especially at more conservative-identified institutions, feminist activists are finding their voices as they increasingly notice that a conservative political and social agenda is undermining women's gains, which has direct consequences for their own freedoms," says Krebs.

The focus on women's issues raised during last year's elections galvanized students to engage in feminist causes, says Elena Di Lapi, director of the Penn Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Those issues included reproductive freedom, gay rights and violence against women in war.

More recently, the firestorm over Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers' comments that innate gender factors might explain the scarcity of women in science prompted a fresh examination of feminist issues, says Ana Maria Garcia, director of women's studies at Arcadia University in Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, says Emily Mieras, professor of American studies at Stetson University in DeLand, "College students often seem reluctant to claim a feminist identity," even though "many students have a feminist consciousness."

The stereotype of feminists as ugly, strident man-haters is probably the reason students are wary of the feminist label, Mieras says.

In class, Logan uses author Bell Hooks' definition of feminism: "a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression."

A lot of students fit that definition of feminist without even realizing it, Logan says. As for the notion that feminism is all about male-bashing, she says: "It never happens in our classes."

Research and reflection

Logan, 42, is at her favorite cafe, the Starbucks not far from her home in downtown Orlando.

"I come from a line of very strong women," she says. "I just always behaved like I could do anything, because that's what I was taught."

That changed during her doctoral studies at the University of Rochester, when she was examining the personal narratives of early American women, which often included accounts of domestic abuse.

"I was, like, 'Oh, really? This is how it works for women? This is not good,' " she says.

Another feminist was born.

After teaching at Kent State University for three years, she joined the English department at UCF in 1996 and took over the women's studies program in 2001. Since then, she has seen a succession of students experience the same feminist awakening that she had known herself.

"Most students live privileged lives, isolated from the issues we bring to the classroom," she explains. "Then they read about the issues and start to realize it's their responsibility to reach out and do something about it."

To capitalize on this impulse, service learning -- or activism -- is a key element of all women's studies classes at UCF. "We may matriculate only 300 students a year in the introductory course," says Logan. "So in a university with 40,000 students, how do we make a dent? Well, we create a buzz. We get our students out there doing stuff, and everybody sees them."

She recalls one student running a "wage-gap bake sale," charging men $1 for cookies but women only 76 cents to illustrate the disparity in earning power.

"When students see something like that, they get it," she says. "It's hard to argue that women really want to make less money than men."

In one of Logan's classes, women's literature of social justice, the activism portion focuses on global feminism. Students Brittany Bernstein and Katie Zepp are raising funds for Partners of the Home, a project that helps women grow vegetables in a shantytown near Cape Town, South Africa.

"I'm realizing that there is a lot I can do as an individual to make a difference," says Zepp, 19.

In high school, Bernstein, 22, didn't think feminism was pertinent to her generation. "But, in college, I realized how many issues are unaddressed," she says. "And I realize I am a feminist -- not the stereotype of a man-hating radical, but someone with an ideology of equality."

Community, service

Service learning gives students more self-confidence, which leads to action, which leads to change, says Logan. "And that's empowering."

"My hope is that when the students graduate, they're going to remain in this community, making it better," she says.

One such student is Leandra Preston, 30.

After graduating in 2000 with a master's degree in English, Preston taught in the English department for two years before being tapped as instructor and program coordinator for the women's studies program at UCF's Brevard campus in Cocoa.

Now, as Logan hoped would happen, Preston is inspiring other women to become active in women's causes -- including Britta Moore, a student who helped with the recent Clothesline Project.

"The project really hit home for me," says Moore, 42. "None of us has the luxury of believing we're far removed from violence. It's going on all around us. As a woman, as a human being, I feel I have a responsibility to be active."

The project also forged in her a sense of kinship with other women, she says -- and a new pride in proclaiming herself a feminist.

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