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Feminine Mystique 

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I'm looking at an old section of newspaper that I saved from 1974. It's from The Washington Post: five full pages devoted to "The American Woman," with such articles as "Families in Flux," "Bias in Bosses" and "One Man's Guide to Liberation."

Lots of newsprint devoted to the women's movement. We don't see as much of that anymore. I've got a million of these yellowed pages of paper. I was coming of age in the late '60s, and feminism was of the utmost importance to me. There is no question that feminism is still of the utmost importance to me. I was "radical" then, but, if anything, I'm even more radical now — after marriage, motherhood, divorce, career changes and the perspective of midlife.

But what of the rest of the country? Where did feminism go?

When I went back to the University of Richmond law school in the '90s, my young classmates spoke the word with much embarrassment: "I'm not a feminist, but I believe in women's rights." When I watch television shows that assess the state of women today, all I hear is statistics about how many of us have become doctors or lawyers. I don't hear anything about the number of high-school girls who are having casual sex, or the number of elderly women who are living in poverty, or the number of women who are struggling to care for family members with no support, or the number of military or political wives who gave their lives for their patriotic husbands only to be forgotten.

How did this happen? How did my valued file of literature become fish-wrappers?

A few patterns that have emerged. For one thing, every new generation forgets the angst of the previous generation. Much of this is as it should be — normal human development that spurs younger folks to invent a new world and devalue the old. We see it with the civil rights movement of blacks. We see it with gay rights: one generation hiding in the closet, the next behaving in-your-face ("I'm here and I'm queer!"), the next dissing that old flamboyance. We see it with disability rights, one generation thanking the community for minimal acceptance, the next defiantly crawling up the Capitol steps, the next disavowing the constructed concept of "disability" as an insulting myth altogether.

Another thing that happened was that someone invented "women's studies programs" at our universities. Back in the day, there was no such thing. Then academia found a place for women who loved to read and write and speak and talk. Books and curriculum were published; departments were created; a new vocabulary was introduced. Some great ideas were expressed, but I think the expression became confined to a smaller number of people in a cerebral environment.

The women out there in the city or suburbs became more abstracted and discussed as ivory-tower classroom concepts. Even the word feminism was starting to become abandoned as women produced an increasing number of theses, dissertations and journal articles, seen by no one other than Ivy League colleagues. Writing for grades, glory and professional advancement overshadowed the original real-life struggles of the suffragettes and the new wave feminists.

So what exactly is feminism? This fearful word is not as easily defined as some might think. Oh, of course, to some people this is easy: It's "equality" or "equal rights" or "choices." Not so fast. If your "choice" is to be a madam, are you actually a feminist? Damage to women is, if not your stock in trade, certainly a whole lot of unintended consequence to your chosen profession. If men are seen as overly aggressive and competitive, is "equality" what we want? If women are the caregivers of the young and the elderly, and if women are derivatively dependent on men as a result, can women ever hope to achieve "equal rights"?

You can find an almost infinite supply of feminist definitions, categories and subsets: radical feminists, cultural feminists, lesbian feminists, the list goes on and on. The definition that I like, however, is one that I came up with in the '70s. Feminism is a movement which asks only one question: "What is good for women?" A feminist doesn't ask, "What is good for me?" but rather, what is good for the collective class known as "women." Thus, the so-called liberated strippers, warmongers and Mommie Dearests need not apply.

So who are the real feminists today? Are they the academicians? The highly visible and rich Katie Courics? Are they the sexually free musicians and models of our time? Are they the outspoken Hillary Clintons and Condoleezza Rices?

I suggest that the true feminists are fairly hidden in the swirling underworld of our culture. I suggest that the cities and suburbs are teeming with unseen, unnoticed women, who are struggling with eternal, daily, unrecognized challenges, such as making ends meet for a family, caring for the young and old.

These women are proud and do not beg. They wonder how their early dreams got buried. They wonder why they are still poor, why men their age regard them as too old, why adolescents regard them as "just somebody's mother." They are women who have given all they have to give and still keep giving, only to be regarded by the GNP and the Social Security system and the U.S. Census Bureau as nonworking, nonproductive, and, yes, nonexistent drags on the respectable taxpayers of the world.

These are women who may not have any time left over to read newspapers, to read the new academic journals or even to think about how they got where they are, but many of them are the true feminists of this modern world, and I salute them. S

Bonnie Atwood is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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