A new generation of feminists learns to fear the radical right
Apr 17, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 30 • By JESSICA GAVORA
IT'S SATURDAY AFTERNOON at the Feminist Expo 2000, and generational change is in the air. Seven thousand women -- mostly young, mostly pierced, and mostly earnest -- have gathered in the cavernous main hall of Baltimore's Convention Center. Blue and purple coiffures nod in nervous anticipation of the festivities. Nose rings glint under the klieg lights. Chunky sandals on ungroomed legs rustle through the McDonald's trash that covers the floor.
They have come -- many of them on the dime of the universities, junior colleges, and high schools they attend -- to discover what unites them as American women. And they are about to be told by the likes of Eleanor Smeal, U.S. senator and would-be Gore veep Dianne Feinstein, and former senator Carol Moseley-Braun that what brings them together is not a common agenda but a common enemy: the "radical right."
Twenty-four hours earlier, the same crowd had endured an endless ceremony of tribute to the "foremothers" of the feminist movement. One young woman after another had stepped up to the microphone to recognize an elder for her tireless work in "challenging the patriarchy," "winning the right to Control Our Bodies in Health, Sports & Reproductive Rights," and "winning Lesbian and Gay rights." And one after another, the aging activists of the feminist left had shuffled onto the stage to take their bows.
The foremother of all foremothers, Betty Friedan, claimed to be happy that today's young women are blissfully ignorant of the fact that they are standing on the shoulders of she-giants. And Smeal seconded the emotion. "Am I angry that young women are taking for granted the rights we fought so hard for?" she yelled at her young audience. "No way. No how."
Still, Friedan and Smeal weren't taking any chances. Saturday's session, "Countering the Radical Right," was devoted to keeping the little sisters in the fold by dispelling dueling "media myths" that (a) the feminist movement is dead and (b) its enemies on the right are in a state of harmless disarray.
Not true, a parade of speakers assured their young charges. "The right wing has spent its vast resources very wisely in its campaign to curtail the rights of women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans-gendered people," said the Feminist Majority Foundation's Lorraine Sheinberg. Far from having retreated, said the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Urvashi Vaid, the forces of the right continue to wash over American politics in waves. One lady from Iran even likened American conservatives to the Islamic fundamentalists who terrorize her countrywomen.
To drive home the point to the MTV generation, a slickly produced video provided a history lesson. Over grainy shots of Ronald Reagan and a cross hoisted to obscure an American flag, actress/narrator Alfre Woodard described the evolution of a "powerful trinity" of money, right-wing politics, and God that has "spread like a malignancy" over the land.
In the beginning, Woodard intoned, there was Joseph Coors and Richard Scaife. They got together with Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie. They had the money. They had the desire. But they lacked "religious cover" for their unholy plot to rob women, people of color, children, and animals of their civil rights. They approached Jerry Falwell with the goal of "taking over at least one American political party." The Moral Majority was born.
And so it went. Undergraduates gasped in horror as the film described how Phyllis Schlafly and Beverly LaHaye were brought in to give the mission a "female facade." Right-wing universities -- behemoths like Liberty and Regent -- sprang up across the country, churning out foot soldiers of the right. Helms, Hatch, Hyde, Dornan, and Thurmond were enlisted to the cause. Pat Robertson teamed up with that "master of stealth tactics," Ralph Reed, and founded the Christian Coalition. By the end of the Reagan-Bush era, the film continued, "the radical right had a stranglehold on all branches of government."
Enter a president "more committed to women's rights than any other in history" -- Bill Clinton. But as the viewers braced themselves for a depiction of the vast right-wing conspiracy that had turned Clinton's middle-aged peccadilloes into an impeachable offense, the film instead took a dizzying detour. Carefully avoiding any grainy images of Ken Starr, any muffled cries of "sexual McCarthyism!" or uncomfortable explanations of the feminist movement's complicity in the president's defense, the film zeroed in on the reigning right-wing threat to women in America: Promise Keepers. "Self-denigration has been raised to a new level," it droned over shots of the women who support this religious movement calling on men to live up to their duties as husbands and fathers.
By the time the lights came up, there wasn't an unclenched fist in the house. A thunderous standing ovation greeted Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Don't let the religious rhetoric fool you, the Reverend Lynn exhorted the audience. The pieties of the right are not expressions of religious faith but a call to arms in the culture war. Religious rhetoric, Lynn implied, is responsible for the fact that "one-in-five abortion clinics suffered some kind of terrorism" in 1999. "When there is violence against Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena, the right cannot say they don't have blood on their hands," said Lynn, referring to the gay man killed in Wyoming last year and the transsexual depicted in the Oscar-winning film Boys Don't Cry.
By the time it ended on Sunday, feminists could justifiably declare Expo 2000 a success. Press coverage in the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post had been fawning. Attendance had nearly doubled from the 4,000 who came to the first Feminist Expo in 1996.
Most of all, as the aging foremothers of the women's movement watched their nubile acolytes boarding vans and buses back to Harvard, Yale, and Portland Community College, they knew that a new generation of feminists was at hand, raised under the blanket of liberty that they themselves had woven, and scared to death of the Bradley, Olin, and Scaife Foundations. Mission accomplished.
Jessica Gavora is a writer living in Washington, D.C.