Growing up in Washington state during the '70s, Courtney Love didn't care much for the women's-movement rallies her mother attended. "I'd wonder why nobody on these marches was wearing heels," she has said. But with its days of flat shoes and fiery protest behind it, feminism is clearly more attractive to Love now. Earlier this year, the angry rocker turned Versace model and movie star showed up at the Ms. Foundation's 25th-anniversary bash at Caroline's Comedy Club in New York City. A busy celebrity, she couldn't stay long. Springing up to leave midway through the event, she announced, "Can you believe it? Here I am with Gloria Steinem, and now I'm off to dinner with Milos Forman!"
The Ms. party was one of many in a hectic season of feminist nightlife in Manhattan. In April came Show, a living work of art by Vanessa Beecroft designed to humanize media images of female beauty and thus somehow invest women with power. The invitees gathered in the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan to view 15 bikini-clad models staring into space atop their high heels. But the glitziest affair in recent months was a reading of The Vagina Monologues, a performance piece about female private parts by Eve Ensler that attracted Uma Thurman, Winona Ryder and Calista Flockhart, among others. The actresses had come to raise money to fight domestic violence, but the cause seemed lost amid the event's giddy theatrics. Featured were Marisa Tomei on the subject of pubic hair (sample line: "You cannot love a vagina unless you love hair"); Glenn Close offering an homage to an obscene word for female genitalia; and, finally, the playwright delivering three solid minutes of orgasmic moaning. The Village Voice called it "the most important and outrageous feminist event" of the past 30 years.
Fashion spectacle, paparazzi-jammed galas, mindless sex talk--is this what the road map to greater female empowerment has become? If feminism is, as Gloria Steinem has said for decades, "a revolution and not a public relations movement," why has it come to feel so much like spin?
Steinem isn't the person to answer that question. The doyen of second-wave feminism startled many in March when she penned an op-ed piece for the New York Times arguing that the allegations of a sexual dalliance between the President and a 21-year-old intern were nothing to get worked up about. If the stories were true (and she believed they were), then Clinton was guilty of nothing more than frat boyishness, Steinem wrote. Backlash author Susan Faludi also made excuses for the President, writing in the Nation that along with other powers, women have gained "the power to forgive men." And in the places where you would expect feminist indignation to be thriving--the elite liberal colleges of the Northeast--TIME found in numerous interviews that it isn't. On the Clinton sex scandal, Barnard College senior Rebecca Spence says, "As a self-defined feminist, I should be outraged, but I'm not."
Conservatives have an easy explanation for these forgiving attitudes toward the President's private treatment of women. They say Clinton-loving feminists, as if following the how-to-catch-a-man Rules manual, have chosen to overlook the faults of a man who has been their best provider. Ideals be damned for the President who vetoed the ban on partial-birth abortions.