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A wink of rebellion

JUST before 10 on a rainy Saturday morning, my son and I carried boxes of flyers, buttons, bumperstickers, petitions, signs, pens, tape, and thumbtacks into the local mall. We were the first shift at an information table sponsored by the National Organization for Women. For a group sometimes criticized as not really representing all women, such tables provide friendly contact with people outside our membership. A table, chairs, and a bulletin board waited for us in the center of the mall. We tacked posters to the board, taped our banner to the table, put out piles of stuff, and sat down. My son worked on ``Dungeons and Dragons''; I watched the shoppers passing by. Most did pass us by. Mall rules state that the shoppers must initiate conversation.

There weren't many people in the mall that early. They moved past warily, glancing at the banner and the fliers. Young couples reasserted roles with minor variations on a basic script: They looked at the table; the man cracked a joke; the woman indicated by smiles, sideways glances, and toss of her hair that she's not a man-hater, nor does she want to be a man, and she'd never join a group like that.

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Teen-aged girls in twos and threes gave the table a more lingering once-over but did so with an air I remember well from high school. They move in the social circles, not the political ones. Lots of pregnant women and babies went by. I made a special point of smiling at them. I pushed the bridge of my glasses with my left hand, my wedding band conspicuous.

What did these people who looked and looked away think about us? Young women take for granted rights we fought for not too long ago - including expanded career opportunities and access to credit - as if they couldn't be taken away. And there are so many issues still: pay equity; improved day care; teen pregnancy; health care; problems of the elderly; racism.

A Yale student wrote in a news column that she and her peers don't want to be identified with the women's movement. They take equality for granted. To call themselves ``feminists'' would be to admit that life isn't fair. I wanted to jump up and shake these women in the mall, make them see that our society still isn't what it could be. No, life isn't fair.

My stewing was interrupted when a young woman dawdled by the table. Her friend said, ``You don't need that.'' Her jaw set, she moved closer and picked up a flier. He walked away. She browsed a little more, signed a petition, winked at me, and strolled over to the bench where her friend waited, looking disgruntled.

The mall got busier toward noon, and people stopped at the table in flurries, men and women of all ages, with and without children. Most said nothing to me beyond ``Hi.'' I wanted to talk issues. Where were the local conservatives? I had lots of data with me, had practiced noninflammatory replies to accusations of being anti-family, anti-church, anti-men.

THE people who stopped, however, typically agreed with us already and were too busy to become activists. One said she was so tired of fighting the same battles. ``So am I,'' I said, ``but we can't stop now.'' ``Yes, well, I'm so tired,'' she said as she left. Watching her go, I came close to despair. Maybe we should all quit, and let those who want to take away all we've gained do it. Maybe that's what it will take to make the new batch of activists.

A woman with two boys (about 3 and 5) stopped to sign the petition. She held on to one, the other held on to her; a two-headed dragon toy was hanging off her purse strap. There was a distraction and I never heard the answer to her older child's question: ``Why are you doing this, Mommy?'' Why, indeed? My son has never asked me that, and at that point I wasn't sure what I would answer if he did.

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The relief crew arrived, but I came back four hours later to close down. The people stopping at the table hadn't changed over the day, and we wondered just who we were reaching. Then I remembered the young woman who broke the pas de deux of the couples.

That's why I'm doing this, if my son should ever ask. I'm doing it for that woman and her wink, for anyone we might inspire to a small rebellion by our presence. I'm doing it for the children, so they can grow up in a life that's a little more fair and can wonder why we ever had to fight. I'm doing it for myself, so my own road will get a little easier as an older woman in the future. And I'm doing it for all those who are too tired to fight anymore. I hope I never get that tired.

When we carried the boxes back to my car at 4:30, the sun was bright and the air was fresh. Loading the car, we must have looked like shoppers.

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