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Stepping Out of Big Sister’s Shadow : FEMINIST FATALE Voices From the ‘Twentysomething’ Generation Explorethe Future of the Women’s Movement<i> By Paula Kamen (Primus/Donald I. Fine: $21.95, cloth, $10.95, paper; 393 pp.) </i>

<i> Austin, a Santa Monica-based writer, contributes to the Times and the Village Voice. </i>

In the 1970s, young feminists of the baby-boomer generation charged the wilderness, bravely chanting, “Sisterhood is powerful!” Today, according to Paula Kamen, a journalist in her 20s, young feminists of the baby-bust generation stay home, whispering, “Is sisterhood even possible?”

Yes, it is, says Kamen. And in the 1990s, a whisper may be better than a scream. This is just one of the interesting, surprising assertions in “Feminist Fatale.” A broad portrait of today’s women’s movement, this book fashions 236 interviews and the author’s own experiences into a disturbing, hopeful vision of ‘90s feminism--a “kinder, gentler activism.” Why activists should be kinder and gentler, in today’s explosive social climate, is left for pundits to argue. Kamen’s book will set many older feminists’ teeth on edge and show us our own faces in a weirdly distorted mirror; yet it is an honest, well-documented image of familiar issues from a singularly intelligent point of view. Feminism has been harmed by its own successes, argues Kamen. The stridence and intensity of the most powerful ‘70s feminists at once empowered them to break new ground and weakened them by reducing the number of women willing to identify with their radicalism. Today, only 18% of Kamen’s sample call themselves feminists; yet most of them agree with the classic policies of legally mandated reproductive rights, equal pay for equal work, adequate child care and parental leave at childbirth. All of them abhor acquaintance rape and agree that sexism exists, thought they do not agree on how to fight it. “No one has figured out a way to legislate attitudes,” Kamen writes.

Most women work; the glass ceiling has risen and many middle-class women now bump against it in their 30s rather than in their teens. They marry later; perhaps, in these straitened times, they live with their parents. Whether their husbands encourage them to work is not as much of an issue when families need two incomes just to pay the rent. The old issues may seem less compelling to women in their teens and 20s.

Then why is consciousness-raising still such an issue? Kamen sensibly paraphrases Gloria Steinem: The problems have not been solved, just, in many cases, deferred. Young women shouldn’t wait for bad experiences to radicalize them; yet it’s very difficult to make this obvious to young women raised on MTV.

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Kamen criticizes the politics of older feminists; it seems that the target of rebellion has now switched from Dad to Mom--another paradoxical success of feminism. With a few exceptions--such as Ms. Magazine, which encourages the contributions of younger women--most of the established feminist publications, educational and political organizations now lie in the hands of female power brokers who, according to Kamen, do not take younger women seriously, thus placing a stranglehold on progress.

How can baby buster feminists reach “self-identity” when they are swallowed by the baby boomers’ looming shadows?

“Feminist Fatale” contains cogent discussions of women of color; women’s health issues; the effect of years of Republican politics on the women’s movement. Despite glitches in its writing--material is presented in TV-length “sound bites” which sometimes lapse in grammar--this is a thoughtful book by a promising, provocative writer. Paula Kamen has done her homework and has had the courage to back up her point of view. She has achieved her stated goal, “to get readers to ask some new questions.” It would be terrific if other intelligent women in their 20s would quit waiting for their bad experiences to radicalize them, step away from the older women’s looming shadows, and do the same.


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