Distance learning

This summer, four students from Rollins College traveled 1,100 miles to attend a summer camp in New York City. That may seem an unlikely place to find a summer camp (and a long distance to travel for such a thing), but this wasn't a typical camp experience. It was a week-long intensive session for students interested in learning about feminist activism.

The students were sent by the Rollins Office of Multicultural Affairs in an effort to combat apathy toward activism in general and feminism in particular. Mahjabeen Rafiuddin, director of the office, says there is a core group of feminists on the Rollins campus, but it's rather small. She thought that if some of them learned more about feminist activism in practice, they could bring new ideas back to campus and perhaps mobilize some of their peers.

"It is very challenging to recruit students or faculty who don't tend to be apathetic toward feminism, or any diversity- related causes," Rafiuddin says. "Our country as a whole is so divided in many ways."

Feminist Summer Camp, put on twice a year by feminist activists and writers Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner, is something of a boot camp for budding activists. It's open to both men and women and keeps a rigorous schedule: Participants meet with progressive leaders and feminist organizations, such as the Feminist Press publishing house and the reproductive-rights organization National Advocates for Pregnant Women. Attendees learn to fund raise, promote feminist causes and network with others on issues such as discrimination, reproductive rights, human rights and more.

A healthy dose of activism is something that Florida needs, according to Rollins senior Shannon Frey, who attended the camp. She's one of about 15 women's studies minors at Rollins College (the school doesn't offer the major). Though the student body is almost 60 percent female, she says the feminist presence on campus is very small.

"At Rollins, I got the impression that there really weren't that many feminists anymore," she says.

Frey says it's not like the Rollins student body reacts negatively to the idea of feminism — rather, it doesn't react at all. "The biggest problem at Rollins is apathy," she says. "There are people who just don't care. If people disagree with us, we're not going to hear about it."

This isn't something unique to Rollins College. Kelly Thibert, president of the National Organization for Women (or NOW) campus action network at the University of Central Florida, says it can be hard to rouse support for feminism anywhere these days. "When you bring up the term feminism, people kind of get kind of scared," she says. "They don't know what it is. They're unwilling to learn or they just have that stereotype, and they don't want anything to do with it."

One of the problems is that not many people have a good understanding of what feminism really is. The first wave of feminism culminated in 1920, when women earned the right to vote. The second wave occurred in the '60s and '70s and focused on reproductive rights and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which still needs three more states to ratify it before it can become an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The third wave of feminism, happening now, doesn't have one overarching issue — instead, feminists rally around a number of different causes, including (but not limited to) reproductive rights, domestic violence, sexual assault and global women's issues. The wide array of concerns means that it can be difficult for people to grasp: There doesn't seem to be an elevator pitch for modern feminism, so to speak.

Another obstacle is that many people don't believe there's a need for feminist activism anymore. In a country where women are CEOs and Supreme Court justices the very notion of feminism seems kind of retro and unnecessary. Those are the arguments made by some politicians every time the Equal Rights Amendment bill comes up in the Florida legislature. The state is one of 15 that has yet to ratify the measure. In 2007, Florida's then-House Speaker Marco Rubio refused to even send the ERA bill to committee.

Barbara DeVane, lobbyist for the state of Florida's chapter of NOW, has been pressing the Florida legislature to pass the amendment since 1973. "You don't have guaranteed protection of women's equality until you put it in the United States Constitution," she says. "It is needed, because anything that's just in the law and not in the Constitution can be wiped out at a moment's notice by the legislature, by the people in power."

DeVane, who's in her late 60s, says it's crucial that the feminist movement recruit young people if it's going to stay alive, especially in a state like Florida where the number of people over 65 has grown by nearly 5 percent in the last decade. But she says it can be hard to get people to care because the battles to be fought are often seemingly small ones. She cites a recent bill that would have required women in Florida seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound first. DeVane and other activists pressured Gov. Charlie Crist to reject the bill, and he vetoed the measure in June. She says these are the kinds of matters all feminist activists need to watch.

"They say, ‘Oh, that's not so bad,'" she says. "The worse a bill is, the easier it is to mobilize the forces against it, and to get people excited. But when they start watering down things and start chipping away a little bit this year, a little bit next year, a little bit the next, until the whole thing falls in -— it's harder to organize people around that."

Kelly Thibert, of the UCF chapter of NOW, thinks organizing would be easier if there was better connectivity between feminist organizations at all different levels — college, local, state and national.

"Everybody feels like their organizations are so small, and … they have limited person power to do what they want to do, to accomplish," she says. "If we saw how many people were out there trying to get the same message out, then it wouldn't be so difficult."

Which is exactly why, for students like Frey, feminist summer camp was such a valuable experience.

"It made me realize, there are so many people working on this stuff," she says. "It made me feel calm, like I didn't have to take it on myself."

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