Face of feminism in 2004
Abortion rights are paramount at Sunday's march on Washington.
At 6:00 a.m. Sunday, Stav Birnbaum, a 32-year-old website developer in New York, will hop in her dad's Subaru and drive to Washington for something that hasn't happened here in 12 years: a big march for women's rights.Skip to next paragraph
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She will come alone, but not for lack of looking for companions. Two friends had already booked trips elsewhere. Another has midterms. If there were a greater sense of urgency about the issues - most centrally, the right to abortion - wouldn't they have dropped everything and marched? "Definitely," Ms. Birnbaum says. "But it's not like abortion is going to be illegal tomorrow, which is why some people don't see it as so important."
For every young woman who shrugs, there are others packing buses and cars and planes and heading to Washington. March organizers predict hundreds of thousands of people will attend, and they point to the hundreds of buses from college campuses as a sign that young women - the ones born well after 1973, when abortion was legalized - are engaged.
The march's primary goal is to raise alarm over the steady erosion of reproductive rights in the last decade - and the possibility that the right to abortion could vanish altogether if President Bush is reelected and can replace crucial Supreme Court justices.
But just as important, organizers say, is the effort to mobilize the next generation of leaders at a time when "feminism" has evolved far from its radical '60s roots.
"The world is so different now," says Sara Evans, a historian of the women's movement at the University of Minnesota.
"The people who started this wave of feminism came of age in a world that was before Roe v. Wade [which legalized abortion] and when married women couldn't get credit in their own names, when medical and law schools routinely had quotas for women of about 5 percent, when want ads openly discriminated against women."
Those barriers have come down; parts of feminism have merged into the mainstream, such as the expectation that most women will work and have families, that men will take a greater role in raising children, that society is more careful about using language that explicitly excludes women.
The next generation of women leaders will face surges from two directions, Ms. Evans says. One is the focus of Sunday's march: stanching the curtailment of women's reproductive rights in the US and globally. The other centers on the work-family crunch, "that the world is telling you you should be able to do anything you want, but the reality is that you may pay a heavy price," says Evans.
For most of the young women taking part in Sunday's march, family life lies in the future; thus, reproductive rights take center stage, far ahead of the hot new social issue, gay marriage, which does not strike as fundamentally at the heart of most young women's lives as does access to reproductive health services.
"On college campuses, what really resonates is conversation about emergency contraceptives, and access to those," says Katy Quissell, a campus organizer for the group Feminist Majority. "These are young women becoming sexually active for the first time, hearing about friends who have had condoms break or been sexually assaulted."