Problem of Rape on Campus Tackled Anew by Activists


TWENTY years after the last cycle of activism opened doors into the workplace for women and gave them reproductive choices, a new breed of feminism is emerging on campuses. Last year, the National Organization for Women had a march for women's equality that drew at least 200,000 students from 400 college campuses. The Syracuse University Women's Center coordinated a rally with seven other colleges to protest rape. And at Brown University in Rhode Island women resorted to writing the names of alleged rapists on bathroom walls. This kind of activism is occurring at a time when many colleges and universities are dealing with the issue of so-called date, or acquaintance, rape.

According to Bernice Sandler, executive director of the Project on the Status and Education of Women at the Association of American Colleges, studies show that a high percentage of women on campus are likely to be raped by someone they know.

But college and university judicial processes usually are not set up to handle felonies, says Ms. Sandler, ``so rape is often in the same category as vandalism and playing a stereo too loud.''

At Brown University, the writing in the bathroom got started because students felt the judicial process there was inadequate, says Jenn David, class of '91, a member of the Brown University disciplinary committee.

Students were angry because women were not supported when they came for help, and were discouraged from seeking strong disciplinary resolutions against sexual offenders, she says.

The writing on the walls ``was more of a dialogue, with statements of anger and anguish, not just a list of names,'' says Ms. David. The incident received national attention when a few male students whose names were on the wall protested that they were innocent. The walls and doors have been repainted.

But David feels the actions brought results. ``Finally the administration is listening to our demands, or our `concerns,' as they prefer to call them,'' she says.

The university began looking into changing its procedures last summer, even before the publicity, says Mark Nickel, a university spokesman. Brown has made sexual assault a separate category of offense, created the position of ombudsman for women's issues, and appointed a coordinator for programs addressing harassment.

Some observers say campus activism is growing for other reasons as well. Political activism in general has been growing, with students demonstrating over conditions in South Africa and Latin America. Women in general are more educated about feminist issues.

Women's studies programs have grown steadily since the first one was established in 1970, according to Caryn McTighe Musil, executive director of the National Women's Studies Association. Between 1988 and 1990 they grew by 20 percent, she says. And there are more women college presidents than ever before.

One major event that was influential in sparking activism was a 1989 United States Supreme Court abortion decision (Webster v. Reproductive Health Services Company) which gave states the right to impose sharp restrictions on abortion.

Molly Yard, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), says: ``A whole group of women became conscious following Roe v. Wade,'' the Supreme Court's Jan. 22, 1973, decision that removed restrictions on abortions in the first three months of pregancy. ``They never thought there was a problem.''

Ms. Musil says, ``I think the single most important influence was Webster,'' referring to the court's July 3, 1989, ruling, which enables states to restrict access to abortions, especially for low-income women. ``Young women who grew up thinking that the key battles were won were suddenly presented with a world that threatened things they thought were inviolable,'' says Musil.

David and other present-day feminists acknowledge the gains their mothers' generation won for them. ``I never had to deal with larger issues of sexism like my mother had to,'' she says. ``I know that I can go to Harvard Law School and have other women accompany me. We've opened up channels of success. But there is still oppression that exists for working-class women and minorities.''

NOW is planning to have a conference for young feminists in February. ``We're working hard to bring women into the fold,'' says spokeswoman Gabrielle Lang. ``We're directly targeting them; they have to pick up the mantle.''

This movement is still small, however. At Radcliffe College here, several dozen students gathered recently to remember the 14 women engineering students were killed a year ago in Montreal, and to find ways to cope with the threat of violence in their lives.

Male and female students - looking similar to their 1970s predecessors with long hair and torn jeans - filled the room, and many talked about how isolated they feel on campus.

Says Ms. Friedman: ``We're trying to redefine feminism for ourselves - at least my friends and I are - from what our generation says it is. They say it's dead.''

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