Last fall sophomore Jeslyn Lemke realized Eastern Washington University lacked a club devoted to women’s rights. So she leapt into action and organized one.
It’s called the Forward Females Club.
And one day its members settled into the women’s studies lounge in Monroe Hall to discuss the definition of the word “feminist” itself.
It’s a conversation that continues in the Inland Northwest and around the world this week as women and men gather to celebrate International Women’s Day on Tuesday. That afternoon the day will be marked with an event sponsored by the Spokane Women’s Coalition. On Saturday, a conference called The Women’s Summit will take place at the Ridpath Hotel. It’s designed to connect and empower women of the Inland Northwest.
Whether the women attending these events define themselves as “feminists,” however, is another matter.
“One reason I was interested in starting a club was that I wasn’t hearing the word ‘feminism’ on our campus,” says Lemke. “I don’t think feminism itself is that rampant in eastern Washington.”
When the members of the Forward Females Club examined the word, the answers were vivid, politically incorrect, and tinged with the influence of Rush Limbaugh’s “femi-Nazi” slur.
But they may have hit the core reason young, college-aged women avoid it: Those who date, flirt with and love men think they don’t fit the image.
“Someone pointed out it’s kind of a stereotypical word,” Lemke recalls. “When someone says ‘feminist,’ you immediately think of a short-haired lesbian, someone who is out for women’s rights to the point that men have no rights. It’s a word that isn’t greatly respected in some places.”
It’s not the definition the club embraces, however.
“The women in the Forward Females Club attribute the word with pride and with honor and with pursuing women’s rights,” Lemke says.
College students at other Spokane campuses register mixed reactions.
Angela Pontarolo, a sophomore at Gonzaga University, thinks of gender conflict when she hears the word.
“I’m like the opposite of a feminist,” she says. “I never thought you have to represent your gender in such a strong way.
“I’ve grown up in an era when all those rights have already been established. I like continuing on with my life and not fighting about it with people.”
Her friend Dana Skoog, also a GU student, does consider herself a feminist. She has another definition.
“I think that a feminist is someone who believes in equality for everyone, no matter what their race, sexual orientation or gender,” Skoog wrote in a recent e-mail message.
On the Whitworth College campus, women’s studies instructor Monica Walters finds resistance to the term.
“Whitworth is a very specific group of women because it’s a small Christian college,” Walters says. “It’s not a random sample. At first blush, they say, ‘I don’t think I’m a feminist.’ “
But then Walters invites her students to start “peeling the onion.” She asks: Do they think it’s fair that women are paid 76 cents for every dollar that men make?
Do they think it’s fair that one out of every three women experiences domestic violence?
Do they think it’s fair that 70 percent of the world’s hungry are women and girls?
“The term feminist is somehow associated with a radical person who isn’t a working mother, a doctor, a scientist or a waitress,” says Walters, who also serves as executive director of the YWCA. “(But) when you boil it down to the issues that feminists care about, they say, ‘Yes, I think that’s true.’ “
Older women also have varying takes on the issue.
For former Spokane Mayor Sheri Barnard, the term has lost currency. “It doesn’t seem like that’s the word that fits women anymore,” she says.
Now, as women take over Washington state’s most powerful political positions, Barnard rarely hears women using the term. She thinks many still support women’s rights but have grown beyond that movement.
Now, she says, many women’s groups work for human rights in general, and for equality for all people.
As for Debra Barnes, organizer for The Women’s Summit, she sees women immersed in the sheer busyness of their days, their lives now enhanced and complicated by choices their mothers lacked.
“I’m going to define feminism as a person who wants to advance equality,” she says. “For me, it’s not a ‘yes-no’ question.”
However they define themselves, women will be invited to consider their lives this week.
International Women’s Day is Tuesday, and the Spokane Women’s Coalition has organized an observance that afternoon at the Woman’s Club of Spokane.
The event will include brief updates on international struggles affecting women, such as global health, the sex trade and the AIDS epidemic. It will also focus on the hope that encourages women for the future.
The second annual Bella Abzug Award will be presented to Dr. Kim Thorburn, chief health officer for the Spokane Regional Health District, for her outspoken advocacy on behalf of the community’s health.
“We loved Bella’s way of speaking out on unpopular things sometimes but never losing her sense of humor or her sense of self,” says Jan Polek, chair of the coalition.
On Saturday The Women’s Summit will follow a daylong conference format, with some creative deviations. Women will be asked to stand up and share their commitment in life.
They’ll network with one another. There will be workshops on topics such as goal-setting, public speaking and personal empowerment.
But women simply needing a break will have the option in the afternoon of shopping or scheduling a massage instead.
The day will also include a tea, complete with women wearing feather boas, ball caps and tiaras.
The day will also launch a new online women’s publication called BRoad, which covers the lives of women in the Inland Northwest.
“I have no idea what will happen at the summit,” Barnes says. “My expectation is that extraordinary things will happen, and it will have nothing to do with us.”
Barnes hopes women attend the event to network, find information that inspires them, meet mentors and take on new projects to improve the community. She and other organizers envision the event growing to become regional within five years and international within 10.
Her vision of the future expands her definition of the word “feminist” and not-so-coincidently mirrors the themes of the conference.
“I’m going to say the future of feminism is partnership and collaboration,” she says.
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