The Magazine


Feb 19, 1996, Vol. 1, No. 22 • By CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS
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HELEN REDDY WARBLED her signature song "I Am Woman" in lieu of the national anthem as .3,000 of her gender gathered in Washington to join Gloria Steinem, Molly Yard, Bella Abzug, and Patricia Ireland at "Feminist Expo "96 for Women's Empowerment."

Reddy's appearance was not the only unintentional comedy of the Expo. There was Steinem, always good for a laugh, calling for the overthrow of the "jock- ocracy" by cutting the military budget 50 percent immediately: "We don't have enemies anymore," she declared, except, perhaps, for jocks. Lest Steinem seem too militaristic, Frances Fox Piven of the City University of New York later assured the audience that "the 50 percent cut in the military was just the first stage toward total demilitarization!"

And so it went, seemingly just another gathering of the kind of feminists who believe that women are under siege in our "heteropatriarchal" society. At one session, a middle-aged woman stood up and told the audience that when she was a medical student at Wayne State University in the 1960s, she had been forced to sign an agreement promising she would nev- er get married and would never have children. The younger women in the audience were enraged but not surprised at this example of patriarchal injustice. Steinem, who was at the podium, shouted, "This woman deserves a national medal! . . . I think it would be great if you considered writing a book. I would be happy to help you to find a publisher!"

I later asked this woman if she still had a copy of the agreement she had bee n forced to sign. No, she said quickly. "My house was burned down twice, once b y an enraged ex-husband. I lost everything." Was there anyone at Wayne State wh o might have a copy? "No," she said. "The man who forced me to si gn the form is dead. The medical school does not have a copy because when bureaucra- cies change, they purge all the records. You will never find it. Don't even try."

Several women on the "Let's Change the Rules!" panel called for abolishing college entrance tests because examinations like the SATs are sexist, classist, racist -- and, as one participant observed, "tests impact negatively on self- esteem." A group called FairTest reported significant progress in its fight against the Educational Testing Service. Professor Ronnie Steinberg from Temple University offered herself as proof that patriarchal tests are useless for measuring women's intelligence: "I did very poorly on the SAT and even worse on the GREs, and I am a professor of Women's Studies!"

Offcially, Expo "96 was intended to celebrate feminist achievement and "[ visualize] a feminist future for the new millennium." The more immediate vision the organizers have in mind is defeating Republicans in the 1996 elections. When one participant plaintively objected to the unprecedented dearth of lesbian workshops, a speaker gently explained that it was her understanding that lesbian workshops would have been a distraction: "What I was told by the people who were organizers is that the primary purpose of this conference is political. It's to articulate the women's agenda for the 1996 election. It's to get out the vote."

In a sense, Expo '96 was a gigantic workshop on how the 299 sponsoring feminist tax-exempt "non-profits" could remain nonpartisan while putting the resources of their organizations to work for the Democratic party. President Clinton sent a welcoming letter to the conference participants in which he alluded to the role the Expo '96 feminists were expected to play in November. Repeating the word "empowerment" four times in a single page, Clinton praised the conference's attention to "voter mobilization."

One victory was already chalked up. Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), claimed that in the recent Oregon Senate election won by Democrat Ron Wyden, her group deployed "five hundred volunteers . . . trained in sophisticated voter recruitment." The NARAL volunteers did not merely make sure people were registered, they made up to five follow-up calls to make sure people sent in their ballots. According to Michelman, the Democrats won support from between 20,000 and 25,000 pro-choice Republican and independent women her group had influenced.