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Who's a feminist? A new generation talks about the role of women

They stood for equal pay for equal jobs, for gender equality and social change. They marched in parades, founded organizations and forced others to listen. They were called pushy, man-hating and extremist. They were the feminists of the 1970s.

Betty Friedan, author of the 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique" and co-founder of the National Organization for Women, died last month. Credited with giving the feminist movement its first spark, Friedan's book drew attention to the growing dissatisfaction women had about being housewives. While many contended that her book included sweeping generalities, the movement that followed would forever be in her debt.

"Some people think I'm saying 'Women of the world, unite, you have nothing to lose but your men. It's not true. You have nothing to lose but your vacuum cleaners," Friedan said in a 1963 interview with Life magazine.

However, as years passed and laws like Title IX and the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision made news and slowly moved out of the spotlight, and as feminists from the '70s retreated from their hold on the public's attention, new generations of girls began to define feminism on their own terms.

"I tried to read this book ... and I thought [the author] was overly feminist. She wouldn't use tampons because they were a 'man'-made product. She had a list of stores where they were only women-run and with women made-products," said Shannon Gostomski, a senior at the Buffalo Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts. Certainly, the author to whom she refers is one of the stereotypes that come to mind when teenagers today think about feminism.

"I think people have this misconception that feminism already occurred," said Caroline Billet, a senior at City Honors. Teenage girls today are redefining the look and feel of feminist to suit their own needs. Perhaps the advances made in previous eras have given today's generation of girls the comfort of taking equal rights for granted.

At two discussions held in the past few months, one at City Honors and one at The Buffalo News, high school senior girls gathered to discuss feminist issues and attempt to redefine the trends and ideas that came about during the 1970s.

>WHO PAYS?

Take the feminist idea of splitting the check on dates for example. While it may have stood for assertiveness and independence at one time, it is, in many cases, no longer seen as a necessity.

"I think it depends on the individual," said Nardin senior Maria Camaratta.

"Whoever asks to go on the date should pay," said Marissa Coleman, a City Honors senior.

"I don't want to pay, but I guess if you are thinking about individual rights, it makes sense if you split the check, but it's just whatever you're comfortable with," said Nichols senior Courtney Douds.

"I don't think it really matters. If I'm on a date with somebody, we're equal. I don't think it really has anything to do with me having the ability to pay or not," said Ebele Ifedigbo, another City Honors senior.

>GUY/GAL RELATIONSHIPS

As the topics moved onto guy-girl relationships in high school, a growing trend appeared.

"Boys in high school are very intimidated by girls who are very focused -- driven girls will tell boys what they think," Maria said.

"In terms of dating, not too many of [my past boyfriends] could deal with the fact that I can't answer my phone all the time because I'm at work and I have other things to do. They're on the priority list, but they're not at the top -- I noticed that in a lot of my relationships it didn't work out because I had a lot of other things to do," said Marissa.

"Guys don't expect you to be as ambitious and outgoing as I am," said Ebele.

>FINDING CONFIDENCE

However, the major obstacle facing women nowadays, as voiced in the discussions, was not the problems faced in relationships with males. All the girls agreed that the idea of boys being intimidated by them was no deterrent to succeeding in leadership roles, in school or in sports. Women's major obstacle? Themselves.

"I think women have a big problem with their own insecurities and what they think people expect from them," said Jill Greenberg, a senior at the Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts. "Sometimes, the biggest difference between men and women is that women are their own worst enemy -- to be successful, you have to know what you want, but you also have to realize that you're trying to make yourself happy, you're not trying to prove something to somebody."

Courtney Douds added that the "double standard" is also an obstacle for women. "You don't want to come across as too strict -- but you don't want to be too soft and then be seen as a pushover. It's such a hard line to walk," she said.

>CAREER AND FAMILY?

Another hard line to walk for women these days seems to be the desire for both career and family. As discussions drifted toward the girls' futures, the debate about having a full-time job and having a family heated up. To some, the warnings found in "The Feminine Mystique" seemed to be unconsciously taken into account, while others declared that a new era meant that women could have it both ways.

"I could never see myself being satisfied with staying home," said Caroline Billet.

"With my personality, I have to be out doing something -- you can't make a direct change by staying at home, and that's what I want to do," said Ebele Ifedigbo.

"For me personally, I would not have a problem [being a stay-at-home mom]. I want to raise my kids. I want to be with them every day when they come home from school -- I think that you can manage your time and figure it out and make it work for you," said Maria Comaratta who plans on going to medical school and becoming a doctor.

This idea, of staying at home to raise your kids and still being independent and successful, is perhaps the biggest testament to the women's movement of the 1970s. Non-discrimination laws now make it illegal for an employer to fire a woman because she is pregnant or planning to become pregnant.

>KEEPING YOUR NAME

Another remnant of the 1970s was the idea of a woman keeping her last name. Following the idea that once a woman is married, she does not become the property of her husband, some women during that era chose to keep their maiden names.

Many of the girls interviewed seemed to like the idea of keeping their last names.

"I've always been known as Marissa Coleman. I honestly think that we should not have to change our names. This is who we are. We do not belong to anybody else just because we get married," said Marissa.

However, Courtney, Maria, Jill and Shannon, in a discussion at The News, all agreed that it depends on the last name. If his last name sounds better with yours, then why not change it, and vice versa for keeping your last name.

"I think I would probably [change my last name]," said Maria Comaratta.

The attitude toward name changing, especially in the discussion between Courtney, Maria, Jill and Shannon at The News, seemed to symbolize the general attitude toward feminism. Today's feminist may not fit the stereotype. She may "sex it up" for a date, as Courtney put it. She may split the check with you. She may plan on becoming a big-time lawyer, or a stay-at-home mom who works a few days a week.

As Maria Comaratta said: "I don't feel that I wouldn't be able to achieve a goal because I'm a woman. I just don't see any limitations."

Maria Forti is a senior at City Honors.

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