Feminism is an attitude rather than an activity, young women find

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

''The women's movement isn't relevant anymore,'' says Stephanie Freund, a graduate student in the master of business administration (MBA) program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Ms. Freund, who says she is strongly in favor of ''equal pay for equal abilities,'' echoes the attitude many in her generation seem to be taking toward feminism.

''They see feminism as battles that were fought and won long ago,'' says Liz Bird, editorial-page editor of the Daily Iowan, a paper supported by the University of Iowa. ''The average girl sees herself as equal to the boys, as not needing to prove that anymore,'' she says.

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University of Iowa Student Senate president Patty Maher, who is actively involved with the campus women's center, reports the same acceptance of equality on campus. ''Most, if not all, of the women on campus would identify with the issue of equality for women,'' she says, ''and many would call themselves feminists.''

But being a feminist is a quieter stance these days, according to Ms. Maher and other campus leaders contacted across the country. Feminism, for these young women, seems to be more of an attitude than an activity.

At the University of Wyoming, for example, there is an association of female law students - once the sort of group you'd expect to be a hotbed of feminist politics. ''But when I went to a meeting they held to organize activities,'' says Dee Pridgen, a Wyoming law professor, ''they decided to have a party for their spouses and start an aerobics class.''

''You give me a good reason to march, and I'll march,'' says Ms. Freund, the MBA candidate. ''But most of these (demonstrations) seem to just be marching for the sake of marching.''

Certainly, proponents of the Equal Rights Amendment had no trouble drumming up support among young women. Jennifer Jackman, a senior at Smith College who spent last year recruiting volunteers for the ERA from 26 East Coast campuses, says she found ''a basic acceptance of feminism - both the term and what it represents - at every college.''

But supporting the ERA does not necessarily equate with activism in the women's movement. Karen Schoettler, whose mother headed up the ERA campaign last year for the League of Women Voters - an amendment Karen supports - says she and many of her female peers are unwilling to join with feminist groups. ''We aren't as active, because we don't have to be,'' she says.

The progress that has been made in equal-rights legislation may be producing a blase attitude among the young toward the women's movement, spokesmen say. ''Young women today don't experience much discrimination,'' says Mary Jean Collins, national vice-president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). ''Even in sports - anyone over 28 is old enough to remember girls' sports in high school and college played without uniforms, proper equipment, or scholarships. Young women don't face these things today until they get out into the world and get that first job.''

Says the University of Iowa Student Senate president, ''It's hard not to take the gains for granted.''

Her mother's generation, on the other hand, appears to be anything but blase, and is getting more active in women's issues on a grass-roots level. Anne Hoover , national president of the Association of Junior Leagues, says: ''I see our organization, probably for the first time, really understanding the problems of women and showing more of a commitment to women and women's issues.''

Junior League chapters are devoting their volunteer time to maintaining social services for women, including homes for battered women, rape-crisis shelters, and women's resource centers, she says.

NOW's membership, meanwhile, has doubled in the last 10 years, and although statistics on the age of members are not kept, it is clear that the bulk of those did not come from college campuses. ''We don't aim our recruiting efforts at campuses,'' Ms. Collins says.

Ms. Hoover sees the rise of feminism among her peers in the Junior League as being closely linked with economics. ''Women are pouring into the job market and running smack into these instances of discrimination,'' she says. ''Or, they're getting divorced and having to face these issues alone.''

Feminism, according to the Junior League president, is an attitude born of experience - an attitude she says is expanding. ''The movement has taken on a wonderful feeling of all these women joining together,'' she says. ''It's finally taken on the whole spectrum of women.''

The idea that feminism is a byproduct of being in the work force strikes Ellen Conarton, a journalism major at George Washington University, as plausible. ''Two years ago,'' says the senior, ''I would have agreed with the idea that the battle for equality had been fought and won, and that feminists were just old, bitter women fighting things that didn't need to be fought.

''But the more I see of the real world,'' she says, ''the more I see that those battles haven't been won.''

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