March 26, 2003: On the Campus

Beyond bra burning
Students explore the meaning of “feminism”

By Melissa Harvis Renny ’03

Illustration: ANDREA ARROYO

Last month the Organization of Women Leaders (OWL) planned a “Pleasure Workshop” — an informal gathering of women to talk about sexual fantasy, orgasm, and pleasure. The workshop, presented by CAKE, a New York-based group, was intended to provide a forum where women could talk about the positive aspects of sex and sexuality.

“When we do have open forums and public discussion about sex, we often focus on the negative side: assault, date rape, harassment, etc.,” says OWL president Jess Brondo ’04. “So I thought it would be beneficial and much needed to bring CAKE to campus to discuss how sex can be a positive thing and discuss specifically the female sexual culture.”

More than 200 people signed up to attend the workshop. It was cancelled because of inclement weather, but not before reflecting an ongoing campus debate about feminism.

Some members of OWL organized a protest against CAKE’s presence, calling CAKE an “obscene and professedly pornographic organization.” The CAKE debate coincided with a campus production of Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues, which also drew criticism. “Events like CAKE and The Vagina Monologues are not the most effective at bringing feminist concerns to light,” says Alicia Clermont ’03, one of the protest organizers. “Raising awareness of violence against women, promoting a healthy view of female sexuality, and denouncing the objectification of women can be accomplished in more constructive ways than treating women’s body parts in vulgar and insensitive ways.”

Since OWL’s inception in 2000 as an organization devoted to “rewriting the definition of feminism,” many students have questioned what that definition should be. OWL has attempted to answer this by offering women a chance to hear a diverse group of professional women, including Valerie Ackerman, executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Association, and Patricia Ireland, former president of the National Organization for Women. OWL also endorses “Take Back the Night,” an annual march against sexual violence toward women.

OWL has embraced a type of feminism that combines female sexuality with power. Last year it sold T-shirts proclaiming: “We’re not just Hooters” across the front, in an attempt to “reclaim one of the most prominent symbols of women’s objectification,” according to a letter from OWL’s officers in the Daily Princetonian. OWL also ran an ad campaign supporting a new view of feminism. On one poster a supermodel says, “In our sexy dresses and don’t-mess-with-me shoes, we’re ready to come out of the closet as the absolutely fabulous females we know we are.”

“There has been a lot of suggestion that the way to respond to images of female objectification is to reclaim them,” says Nancy Ippolito ’03, a cofounder of OWL. “There is no reason why women can’t be well rounded, in the sense of being intelligent, athletic, spiritual, and sexy.”

This version of feminism has come under fire by many students, most notably in the conservative Princeton Tory, in an issue entitled “Killing Feminism: OWL sabotages the women’s movement.” In that issue, Jennifer Carter ’03 leveled an attack on OWL’s T-shirt campaign, and claimed that “OWL’s goal of removing the moral stigma associated with lewd dress and behavior is a far cry from ‘social, political, and economic equality.’”

Even though many women on campus do not feel that OWL is for them, OWL is the strongest feminist organization on campus. With an e-mail list of more than 800 students, and a budget that can afford to pay for presentations by outside groups, OWL programs tend to dominate campus feminism.

According to professor Deborah Nord, the director of the Program in the Study of Women and Gender, the debate surrounding OWL and campus feminism indicates a resurgence of feminist consciousness on campus. Other signs of this resurgence, according to Nord, include an increased number of students enrolled in women’s and gender studies courses and a greater number of women seeking certificates in women’s studies.

Nord does not agree with all of OWL’s views, but she believes that much of the renewed campus debate on feminism can be attributed to OWL and its efforts.

“To me the most important contribution OWL has made is the legitimization of debate about feminism on campus,” Nord says. “They have made feminism a serious issue, inspired disagreement and discussion, and are unafraid to embrace feminism, even if it is of their own particular stripe.”

Melissa Harvis Renny ’03 is an English major from Linwood, New Jersey. She can be reached at




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