Face of feminism in 2004

Abortion rights are paramount at Sunday's march on Washington.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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 wave

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."

Some of the young women preparing for Sunday's march laugh at the old notions of feminism - the combat-boot-wearing, non-shaving man-haters who probably never existed in large numbers but nevertheless fulfill a popular stereotype. Outside the National Press Club this week before a march press conference, attractive young women handed out march fliers and sported T-shirts that announced "This is what a feminist looks like."

For many of the women involved, it's not about looks, it's about the future of humanity - male and female, across the globe.

"To me, feminism extends beyond equality and even beyond gender," says Heather Bradley, who is majoring in women's studies and Latin American studies at George Washington University. "It's also about family planning globally, and LGBTQ rights," she adds, using the acronym for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgendered people, and those questioning their sexuality.

But even at her college, located in the heart of Washington, D.C., Ms. Bradley admits "we haven't moved beyond" slamming feminists. "Among men here, 'feminist' is still a dirty word. It makes most of them feel a little insecure."

Sara Johnson, a medical student at the University of California in San Diego, will fly out to join a contingent of about 500 medical students representing the next generation of abortion providers. Ms. Johnson isn't sure if she will perform abortions as part of her eventual practice, but she's considering it.

Johnson also notes that even in that elite, educated world of medical school, there is no sense of urgency among most students who support abortion rights that those rights are being curtailed or could even be overturned. "Many of the students consider themselves pro-choice, but they think the issue is settled and don't need to worry," she says.

View of the 'old guard'

Such talk drives Ginger Purdy, a 60-something women's rights activist in San Antonio, Texas, right up the wall. But she acknowledges that analysis is correct. She will be among the many women coming to Washington who experienced first-hand life before Roe v. Wade and have the scars to prove it.

"I had an illegal abortion in my first marriage," she says. "My mother in law is the one who sent me to Houston for an illegal abortion. No one in their right mind thinks it's just peachy good."

One important point of evolution in the 31 years since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade is the change in the way abortion is discussed. Some feminists used to speak of a fetus as a mere mass of tissue that needed to be removed like one's tonsils. One book published in 1975 was called "Abortion is a Blessing" - a characterization no one expects to hear this Sunday. Abortion used to be described as a good thing; it helped keep the population down and kept children from being born into bad circumstances.

The advent of technology that vividly shows fetal development from its earliest stages has contributed to the change in public perceptions. Since the Clinton years, the women's rights mantra has been that abortion must be "safe, legal, and rare." But march organizers this weekend are hopeful that they can move beyond the language of defense and give lawmakers, the White House, and the Supreme Court pause as they carry the issue forward.

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