Finding feminism that fits

Special to The Times

"I'm a feminist, but ... I'm pro-life. I'm in a sorority. I'm Catholic. I get bikini waxes and I love to shop. I wear thong underwear. I've never taken a women's studies class. I've never experienced discrimination."

That line, "I'm a feminist, but ...," is something Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, the authors of the soon-to-be-published "Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism," hear often. Now they'd like to change the "but" to an "and."

"In 'Grassroots,' we're trying to show women they have a stake in their community regardless of who they are," says Baumgardner, talking one recent afternoon over a cappuccino at Bluestockings, a feminist bookstore on Manhattan's Lower East Side where books are organized into categories such as Global Capitalism, Bisexuality, Erotica, Black Liberation, Activist Art and Stupid White Men, and evening events include women's poetry jams, a lesbian knitting circle, a postelection political slam and a party for New York's radical 'zines.

"Grassroots" is "feminism for everybody, activism for everybody," continues Baumgardner. "You can be a sorority girl who's on a cheerleading scholarship at the University of Tennessee and wants to get married."

As self-described "Third Wave feminists" -- both she and Richards were born in 1970 -- "we have eaten, or absorbed, a lot of feminist theory," she says. Now it's time to "take their rhetoric and make it reality, make it digestible."

First Wave feminists, explains Richards, were "the suffragettes. The Second Wave was about the Equal Rights Amendment, about full legal, social, political and economic equality. It was about access. 'Why can't we have female astronauts?' "

For Third Wavers, "feminism is like fluoride, it's in the water," both women are fond of saying. They feel it's time for this generation to spread the goals and values of First and Second Wavers to women of color, to poor women, to gay women, to women with disabilities.

"You don't have to play feminist martyr," they write in "Grassroots," which will be published this month. That's a role they see as thankless and one that "serves to marginalize feminists and feminism."

While we're at it, let's rethink the language of feminism, they suggest. The word "choice" should be expanded beyond abortion and into affordable gynecological services, into women going to doctors because they want to get pregnant, into the realities of sexually transmitted diseases.

"Grassroots" is the second book Baumgardner and Richards have written together. They met in the early '90s when both were working at Ms. magazine and wrote their first book, "Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future," in 2000, "to acknowledge the feminism and activism that we saw among our peers every day."

Contrary to popular opinion, they say, their generation is not a bunch of slackers, too self-absorbed to worry about other people.

While on a book tour for "Manifesta," they were often approached by young women, asking, "What can I do?" "Grassroots" offers specific suggestions that move beyond what they call the Generic Three: check writing, contacting political representatives and volunteering. Chapters in the new book include "Why the World Needs Another Advice Book," "Rebels With Causes," "The Activist at Work."

The writing is informal and anecdotal. Baumgardner and Richards recount how they worked on better recycling in their communities. A Dow Jones & Co. employee they learned of lobbied for the company to include contraceptives in its medical plan. Another woman persuaded the Loews theater chain to donate tickets to a battered women's shelter so that the residents could go to the movies.

'Do little steps'

For playwright-activist Eve Ensler, author of "The Vagina Monologues" and "The Good Body," " 'Grassroots' is a great inroad to try on activism. Go for it, see what it feels like, do little steps. Is this a great analytical thesis? No. Is this plunging the depths of postfeminism deconstructivism? No. Is this going to get young women out and doing something to make the world better? Yes."

Plus, Ensler says, there's this myth that before you can be an activist you "first have to get your life perfect, then you can go out and make the world better. I think wherever you are, now's the time to be an activist. You don't have to have a million dollars, you don't have to be a person who's free of contradictions."

Or, as Richards puts it, "You can wear makeup and still hate the makeup ads."

"Both of us grew up with feminist mothers, radicalized by reading 'The Women's Room' and Ms. magazine," Richards recalls. As a child, she lived in Williamsport, Pa. Her mother, a schoolteacher who now works for an AT&T; retraining program, left her father two months before she was born.

"My mother was a rebel," Richards says. "We'd have tofu; we'd have the lesbians in town over to dinner. I'd wonder, 'Why can't we be friends with the doctors in town?' "

Less than comfortable with the label "feminist," or most any label for that matter, Richards adds that she "was a feminist by default. I was always the first girl starting a sports team."

Waves of negotiation

By contrast, Baumgardner grew up in Fargo, N.D. "My mother was married to a doctor, she had three kids," she says. "I was very embarrassed by her feminism. She would come play folk music at my school. She wasn't baking cookies. Now I realize it was her trying to negotiate having an identity."

As young women, both Baumgardner and Richards tried on what they thought was feminism and found it didn't quite fit.

For the Second Wave generation, "part of rebelling against our parents was becoming feminist," says Gloria Steinem, who knows Baumgardner and Richards. "Our task was to realize our mothers' fate was not their fault. This generation has a different task. If their mothers were feminists, their task is to become themselves as individuals and understand that this is a fulfillment of their mothers. The whole point is for each of us to be our unique selves."

Which is precisely the language Baumgardner and Richards use when talking about their young sons. Richards' son is 16 months old, and she's in a committed relationship with his father. "They're in love and own a home together," says Baumgardner, whose own relationship with her 2-month-old son's father is "unconventional. We're co-parenting."

Baumgardner is working on a book on bisexuality; she is openly bisexual and was for a time involved with Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. Richards' next book is "Opting In: The Case for Motherhood and Feminism."

Richards laughs at the idea that people figured there'd be "no trucks, no blue" in her son's life. Yet another stereotype ascribed to feminists.

Nevertheless, "I still find myself having to check myself, my own biases, my own limitations," she says. Reading a bedtime story, she has to catch herself before calling the giraffes or lions "he." "Animals are always male; why is that?" she asks.

"Except cats," Baumgardner says, laughing. "They're always 'she.' "

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