What's so scary about feminism?

'Consciousness raising' just means honest discussion about our behavior and our choices.

The other day at work, some colleagues and I were discussing a chain restaurant known for its scantily clad waitresses. I was taken aback for a moment. "They have the best sports bar in my area," one person said. "I hear they have great Buffalo wings," said another.

It was a moment of disconnect. "But how can anyone go to places like that?" I asked. "What about the objectification of women's bodies?"

The what of the who?

My colleagues, many of them young enough to be my offspring, gave me puzzled, bemused looks.

"This is one of those feminist things, isn't it?" someone asked.

"Yes, I'm a feminist. Yes, I did consciousness raising," I said.

"What's consciousness raising?"

It was my turn to be startled. Hasn't everyone at least heard about consciousness raising? A quick survey of the people in my office revealed that no one, male or female, under the age of 30 had even heard of what in my day was so common we called it "CR."

One colleague, smart and Harvard educated, said, "Are you talking about feminism, or are you talking about the reeducation the North Koreans did?"

I tried to explain. I felt as if I was talking about butter-churning or cloth diapers. How could I describe these little groups of women who met once a week in the 1960s and 1970s, just to talk about their lives, their assumptions, their feelings as women? In my CR group, I remember one woman announced, with some chagrin, that she had thrown out all her clothes and bought a completely new wardrobe for college. We all agreed that she might have overdone her need to please.

Did CR change my life? Yes, no doubt. But then again, nearly everything changed my life when I was young.

My group met in the spring of 1976. Since I was a student living on the campus of a public college, some of the topics we discussed didn't really resonate with me. I had no spouse or boyfriend to pick up after. I couldn't contribute much about raising children or about my career choices or about putting anyone but myself first.

But, still - in its essence, CR did exactly what it was intended to do - it raised my slumbering consciousness about all sorts of things: the kinds of clothes women choose to wear, how we see our bodies, what we seek in our lives, and how much we care about how others see us. It made me think about my choice of a major in elementary education, about my cheerleading days in high school, about my relationships with guys. It made me think about my obsession with dieting. I didn't become strident; I didn't turn into a man-hater, but I did open my eyes. Eventually, I dropped my major, which I had picked mainly because my mother had been a kindergarten teacher. I read authors like Susan Brownmiller and Betty Friedan. I announced that I would never have children.

Fast-forward to today. The children I swore I wouldn't have are almost full-fledged adults. I have a job I love. I'm confident in most situations.

Some people would say that life is different now, that no young woman needs her consciousness raised in 2006. Except that today's "Seventeen" magazine looks a whole lot like it always did - shopping, hair, and, on a recent cover, a promo to the story, "Flirt Your Way Into His Heart."

The young women in my workplace see themselves, no doubt, as equal to the men. But when they get pregnant and have babies, guess what happens? They're still the ones who drop out of the workforce, or work part time, or, more rarely, go back to work full time but are overwhelmed with guilt. I sure don't see that same angst in men too often.

Maybe it's time for me to set up a little consciousness-raising group with the women in my office. We could talk about TV shows that emphasize bone-thin models and makeovers, about what it's like to raise children, about how we see our lives playing out.

Would they show up, or would they see this as an attempt to indoctrinate them? No one in my office these days calls herself a feminist, after all. I wonder if they would support an Equal Rights Amendment.

Debra Bruno is a newspaper editor in Washington.

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