Friday, July 9, 2010

Thoughts on the 2010 NOW conference and the future of the feminist movement

The National Organization for Women conference was an upbeat experience this year. As far as I could determine, the wounds from last year’s bitterly contested election have healed—or so it appeared. At the end of last year’s conference I was really depressed and thought the defeat of the candidate I supported was a major setback for the organization.

What a difference a year makes. The sky has not fallen. The new team led by Terry O’Neill is doing a good job and the defeat of the team I supported no longer seems like a major tragedy. There’s a lesson here, I suppose.

The speakers at the plenary sessions were inspirational and the workshops filled with useful information and lively discussion. But I had hoped for more hard strategic thinking about the future of the feminist movement. What should be our priorities? How do we frame our message in a more effective way? What alliances should we build?

I attended the plenary session "State of the Women's Movement: Feminism Today and Tomorrow” seeking answers to these questions. The first speaker, renowned scientist and president of Wellesley College Kim Bottomly, had a compelling personal story. When she began her academic studies, she entered a scientific world devoid of women. She has dedicated her life to changing that world. Her focus was on helping individual women to advance—critically important but not directly relevant to building a feminist movement.

The next speaker, Professor of Communications and media critic Susan Douglas. described the dangers of “Enlightened Sexism”---the title of her new book. Enlightened sexists acknowledge the gains feminists have made, but make the specious claim that full equality has been achieved. Since sexism is a thing of the past, we can all lighten up and spend our time on shopping for make-up, sexy clothes and other girly pursuits. Douglas made a powerful case that much unfinished business remains and ended her presentation with a call to action but it wasn’t at all clear what that would involve.

She was followed by former Senator and Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, an engaging speaker who focused on the lessons of her 2004 Presidential campaign—not so much on the direction of the feminist movement. She argued that gender trumps race. Not so sure I agree with this, but I am sure we need to get beyond this hierarchy of oppression.

The last speaker, journalist and syndicated columnist Amy Goodman , spoke passionately about the need for independent media “which covers power, not covers for power”-- but not much about the future of the feminist movement.

I got a lot more insight about the "State of the Women's Movement: Feminism Today and Tomorrow" at the next day’s plenary, “Lifting Every Voice: Women of Color and Empowerment.” The speakers addressed the issue of priorities for the women’s movement and modeled a way of talking about race/gender/class which does not rank forms of oppression but analyzes the ways women from different racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups experience gender discrimination.

The first speaker was Irasema Garza , president of Legal Momentum, the women's legal defense and education fund which advocates for immigrant women and for poor women. Garza stated that the public discussion of immigration often ignores the special problems of immigrant women. Also, millions of women have not been in position to take advantage of the legal guarantees which have allowed more privileged women to advance. Garza argued that at this stage issues affecting low-income women, who are disproportionately women of color, must be the priorities of the feminist movement.

Kilolo Kijakazi, program officer in the Economic Opportunity and Assets Program at The Ford Foundation, gave us a sense of the dimensions of the problem and the enormous amount of work we must do to remedy economic injustice. She argued that inequitable public policies are primarily responsible for the wealth gap for people of color—especially women of color. She noted that African-Americans largely missed out on some of the biggest wealth-building opportunities of the past century, as they had limited access to government-encouraged homeownership programs such as the Homestead Act, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, and the GI Bill after World War II.

Dr. Paula A. Johnson, executive director of the Connors Center for Women's Health and Gender Biology and associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, noted that there is still much to be done in health care reform and that many women, particularly women of color, will not be able to access health care because they can’t afford the premiums. She also noted that research into women’s health is still inadequate and that we don’t know how race/ethnicity intersects with gender in understanding women’s health needs.

Andrea Cabral, sheriff of Suffolk County, Mass., and the first Black American female sheriff in Massachusetts history argued for viewing violence a against women as a public health issue. Her approach was similar to Johnson’s in that she focused on the ways women’s experience of domestic violence varied in terms of race/ ethnicity, sexuality, socio-economic class and citizenship status.

This plenary session provided a very useful model for how we have to prioritize and frame issues. But I was disappointed there were no women labor leaders on this (or any other) panel. Garza does have a stint at the Department of Labor on her resume but somewhat to my surprise she did not mention the importance of the labor movement as a means for addressing the issue of women in poverty. We must build alliances with feminists in the labor movement and with organizations such as the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) .

I think the leadership of NOW (past and present) supports the agenda for which Garza, Kijakazi, Johnson, and Cabral advocate, but if NOW as an organization is to effectively support this agenda, it must revitalize its grass roots.

I’m not worried about the future of the feminist movement. See the transcript of Katie Couric’s interview with Gloria Steinem and Jehmu Greene, "Feminism is Alive and Well ... Even Sarah Palin Wants to Be One.” The feminist movement consists of a multitude of organizations focusing on a wide range of issues. And there are all those committed feminists who may not be part of the organized movement but challenge sexism in their daily lives.

But I am worried about the future of NOW. I’ve been going to national NOW conferences for some time now and the faces of the older members are the same from year to year. The younger conference attendees for the most part change every year. There is deep loyalty to the organization among the older members; younger members do not appear to be developing the same sense of loyalty. They may have a powerful connection to the feminist movement, but not necessarily to any particular organization.

So why don’t they stay? One reason is that young people move around a lot. Several members told me they thought the model of virtually autonomous geographically based chapters needs to be rethought. There are some thriving chapters, but far too many chapters which have shrunk to a president for life and an ever-dwindling mailing list.

I was not surprised when my resolution to introduce term limits for officers of state and local organizations failed. Although NOW has instituted term limits for national officers and national board members, many state organizations and local chapters do not have term limits policies and officers have held their positions for decades.

As chapter and state organizations are the training grounds for new national officers, we can’t clog the pipeline by allowing officers to hang on to their positions forever.

NOW of course is not the only organization whose members react negatively to any suggestion for doing things differently from past practice. Too often folks with progressive values turn into the most hard-bitten conservatives when it comes to organizational change.

When I suggested a modest change in the formula for representation on the PA state board—currently a chapter with 50 members has the same number of representatives as chapter with 300 members—I got the response, “We’ve been doing this for 40 years.” End of discussion.

At the same session where I introduced my sure-to-fail term limits resolution a young woman introduced a resolution to allow members to vote by mail for national officers and by-laws changes as many members cannot afford travel expenses and thus cannot cast their vote in person.

A veteran member (in what the young women experienced as a patronizing, supercilious manner) immediately shot her down with: “This is out of order because it would require a by-laws change.” (It’s not clear if this was in fact the case.) After the session, a few older members encouraged her to hang in there and try again, but I worry she may not come back. It seemed it was not so much the failure of her resolution that bothered her but the dismissive reaction.

And so it goes—-the old guard vs. the young Turks. Of course many of the older members (especially those active on the national level) are very much concerned about building new leadership and making the organization more diverse and more responsive to younger members.

Does it matter whether NOW continues to survive and thrive? NOW is the only multi–issue, multi-strategy feminist organization which operates on the local, state and national levels. It has a proud history and I hope a vibrant future.


  1. So often the gathering of experts (plenary speakers at NOW or those outlining "directions for the future" at professional conferences) is dedicated to detailing problems without including much in the way of strategies and tactics for addressing them. Do you think, Karen, that maybe national meetings aren't able to accommodate that task? Would smaller venues be better at providing direction to the national, so that rather than lots of plenary addresses there could be more...hmmm, action workshops and reports back to the large group at the yearly conferences? The notion of term limits, more fluid definition of chapters, and mail-in or electronic voting all sound so reasonable that I wonder (as an on and off again NOW member without any of your depth of experience) if the overarching issue is one you've alluded to before, a kind of calcified insistence from some on preserving the movement as it's always been. I think you're right in your current and earlier observation that younger persons haven't any reason to cultivate loyalty to the group if their contributions aren't carefully considered. There's a value, of course, to having seasoned members with decades of mistakes and gains under their belts, but no less benefit in having new members with energy and vision who aren't trapped in the way things have always been done. Thanks for the thoughtful and evocative post.

  2. Having attended the same conference, I must explain that the term limit resolution didn't "fail"; it never got out of the issues hearing, and wasn't brought to the floor for a vote. That's because, as I understand it, there are limits to what national can dictate to state or local chapters about how these entities operate and run their elections. Sorry, I don't hav etime now to comment further, but will add to this soon.
    Susan Woodland

  3. Reni, Thanks so much for your always thoughtful comments on my blog. I promise to return the favor if you set up a blog. You write so well and you’re always on line!
    I think you’d enjoy it.

  4. Susan you’re right it never got out of committee—even in the amended watered-down version which simply said chapters should be encouraged to develop term limits policies.

    I share your reservations about term limits in electoral politics, but in private organizations which desperately need to provide leadership opportunities for young people, we can’t afford to clog the pipeline. These state and local organizations are the training ground for future national leaders.

  5. I used to consider myself a pro-Feminist male, but it's exactly this kind of use of language, that turned me skeptical if not yet totally cynical.
    But there's certainly no shortage of this kind of linguistic double dealing in lots political organizations (no matter what gender or ethnicity).
    As our society evolves I think it's inevitable that most women will become more powerful than most men, because in an advanced society most work will demand the kind of informational/behaviorial skills that women excell at. We already are beginning to see this in the Men vs. Women ratios in upper education.

    If women's organizations can't develop honorable leadership skills then institutions that do (military, some corporate, etc.) will inevitably marginalize those with inferior technique. It's not my narrative it's Darwin's.
    That this might be so is indicated by the number of public celebrities who declare themselves NOT to be feminist, while at the same time vigorously asserting themselves as much as any activist.
    But this is actually a HARD problem, getting organisations to have their behavior be consistent with their rhetoric. Males have struggled with these issues for centuries and eons, I'm glad that women get to push that boulder up the mountain too.
    The question then becomes: Are feminists going to become more responsible/accountable or are males simply going to become more sophisticated at deception?

  6. Karen, I always appreciate your thoughts and support of young women (as well as women of color) leading the movement. How I wish we would have had time to sit down for coffee and really chat. Another time.

    Thank you for this run-down of the conference.

    I agree with you that one issue we must take up ASAP (again) is non-geographic virtual chapters.

    Shifting focus, but still related to your theme, I had a very thought provoking conversation with a 70s feminist on the shuttle back to the airport. She commented to me that she thought older feminists had done a wonderful job transmitting political feminism to the next generation of activists, but had come up short on cultural feminism. Specifically she felt that older feminists had impressed hierarchy upon younger feminists. She claimed that liberating herself from hierarchy in the early NOW days was one of the most powerful personal transformations she had, and that it had greatly informed her work. I wonder what you would have to say about this.

  7. Erin,
    Would love to talk to you about all this. Did you get the email about coming to Philly for a joint happy hour with NOW and the CLUW young women’s committee? If you didn’t get it, I’ll resend.

  8. I have been engaged in an epic battle with Microsoft Outlook for one year now. Given that the reward of one small win may be a conversation and meeting up with NOW and the CLUW young women's committee in Philly, I will pull out all the stops as quickly as possible!