Wednesday, July 25, 2012

2012 Conference of the National Organization for Women, Part III

Recently for my book Philadelphia NOW: The Glory Years, 1968-1982, I have read stacks minutes of NOW meetings on the national, state and local levels. Some of the very same issues are argued over and over again, often with each side brandishing the very same arguments. And so it goes with the question of mail-in ballots which (it appears) was first debated and defeated in 1973.

According to the conference minutes, Betty Friedan argued passionately against the resolution: “Finally, no mail ballots. You want to be able to have people see who they are and elect who they are on the basis of what they commit themselves to when your polices are made here.” The recorder may have mangled Friedan’s statement which as recorded is not a clearly expressed argument. Friedan appears to be saying that voting members should have the opportunity to hear candidates describe their positions and vision for NOW in person. A former NOW officer at the 2012 conference defended in-person voting on similar grounds arguing that those who are most committed and willing to travel to vote should be the ones who choose NOW’s leaders.

Former Philadelphia NOW officers Elizabeth Parziale and Barbara Mitchell reported that this was a divisive issue during their involvement in Philadelphia NOW in the 1970’s. Since participation in NOW conventions involved travel, according to Barbara Mitchell, delegates to national and state conferences were often chosen based on their ability to pay: “And so the people who had the money, who could go and wouldn’t have to charge Philadelphia NOW … It was easier to pick those people to be delegates than pick some person who didn’t have a car, who had to be driven.” There is clearly a compelling argument for not linking voting rights in national NOW to having the resources to travel. From the comments at the sessions on modernizing NOW’s structure, it appears that the idea of a mail or online ballot is an idea whose time has come.

While some issues such as the mail-in vs. in-person ballot continue to be contentious, there are some once bitterly fought issues which have resolved themselves over the course of time. A case in point is the value of regional vs. state structures. According to the minutes of the 1973 National NOW Conference, this was once a very contentious issue. Pennsylvania NOW members were among those who argued for the primacy of state organizations and “against having more superstructures above the state.” Pennsylvania NOW was one of the pioneering state organizations and its members were quick to realize the political utility of state organizations. The advocates of state organizations appeared to be primarily from the east coast. East Coast Regional Director Jacqui Ceballos “spoke for state organization. If the U.S. government is going to be changed...we have to build a feminist government, a counterpart to fight and change it. We [that is NOW as an organization] have to have a state government and a federal government.” At the 1973 Conference members voted by a narrow margin to retain regional structures.

As NOW became more involved in electoral politics in the middle and late 1979’s—largely as a consequence of the ERA campaign and state level attempts to chip away at abortion rights—the importance of state organizations became increasingly evident. The regional configurations corresponded to no political unit and therefore had no political utility and consequently faded in importance. At the 2012 conference there were many who wanted to eliminate the regional structure all together and there appeared to be an emerging consensus that voting for national board members should be held at national conferences rather than at the poorly attended regional conferences.

While NOW debates regional vs. state structures, in-person vs. mail-in ballots, it is also facing far more fundamental challenges from young activists in the Occupy Movement, seeking to create new models with a horizontal structure, decision-making by consensus, and no formal leadership. For those of us old enough to have been involved in the New Left and/or the Women’s Liberation movement of the of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the Occupy Movement with its anti-leadership ethos and reluctance to get involved in local politics has a familiar ring. We’ve been through this before. Many Women’s Liberation collectives in the early 1970’s also shared the Occupy Movement’s distrust of electoral politics and commitment to decision making by consensus, no matter how long it took.

The idea that social movements themselves should prefigure the societies they want to create was a very powerful concept in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, and it has re-surfaced in the Occupy Movement. NOW’s bureaucratic structure is generally seen as the antithesis of the Occupy Movement, but there has been a visionary strand in NOW, a legacy of NOW members who traced their roots to Women’s Liberation collectives. Toni Carabillo draws on this strand in her 1976 document, “Toward A Feminist Ethic,” written in the aftermath of the bitterly fought 1975 National NOW conference. The emphasis on democratic participation in the Occupy Movement of 2011 in many ways echoes Carabillo’s philosophy. Carabillo pledges that because the feminist movement is “composed almost exclusively of people who are weary of being led, subordinate, voiceless and powerless and of conforming to rules and courses of action we had no hand in devising [she will] never sacrifice principles of participatory democracy to the false idol of organizational efficiency.”

And like the Occupy movement, Carabillo framed economic justice issues in terms of the 99% against the 1%. She argued for building “coalitions not only with all the dispossessed in our society--the women, minorities, the poor. the aged--but also with the disenchanted--those members of the middle class of our society who have in the past been manipulated into being angry with all those below them on the economic ladder, when their anger and hostility should be redirected up-ward to the top 1% who should be carrying far more of the economic burdens of this society .”

NOW has tried to balance the visionary strand in Carabillo’s work with the practical, nuts and bolts politics approach usually associated with NOW. Will it strike the right balance for a new generation of feminist activists? NOW will celebrate is fiftieth birthday on 2016. I believe it is critically important to have a diverse, inter-generational, multi-issue, multi-tactical feminist organization, but acknowledge that no one organization can meet all needs, effectively address all issues. Perhaps it is time for young feminists to start developing their own organizations which speak directly to young women. From my conversations with young feminists, I get the impression that increasing numbers of young feminists are eager to form their own national organization. If they do so, I hope that they will also maintain their connections with intergenerational organizations such as NOW.

Whatever NOW’s fortunes, the feminist movement is growing. The global feminist movement is the story of the 21st century. And if there ever was any doubt about the need for a U.S. feminist movement, the battle over inclusion of abortion and contraception rights in the Affordable Health Care Act has demonstrated the need is as urgent as ever. Whatever the future of NOW, the feminist movement is not going away.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

2012 Conference of the National Organization for Women, Part II

Prior to the 2012 conference, NOW’s grassroots leaders received an email from Patricia Ireland, past President of National NOW and Co-chair of the National NOW Advisory Committee , requesting their response to a survey about “strengthening NOW to meet the opportunities and challenges of the 21st Century.” Ireland noted that “NOW's structure has not been addressed comprehensively since the 1970s. Think how the world around us has changed since then! NOW, too, must change.” Respondents were asked to identify what they considered the strengths and weaknesses of NOW, and if they thought there was “something in NOW's structure which holds the organization back.”

At the 2012 conference there was a series of workshops labeled "Modernizing NOW’s Structure.” I attended four out of five of these sessions and was surprised that the workshops were relatively well-attended. People usually join organizations because they feel passionately about issues, not because they are intrigued by organizational structure and have an intense interest in by-laws development.

The group was comprised almost entirely of white women and disproportionately of older women; many of the attendees at these sessions were current or former officers of chapter or state organizations, and so probably had more of an investment in NOW than most conference-goers. NOW has yet to create a similar investment in the organization on the part of a diverse group of younger members.

In the “Modernizing NOW’s Structure” workshops, generational differences did emerge—-most notably on the importance of technology as a tool for feminist organizing. Unfortunately, as there were so few women of color at these workshops, it wasn’t clear if there were racial/ethnic differences in how members perceived NOW’s structure.

One suggestion which came up over and over at the sessions on structure was that NOW should move to webinars rather than face to face meetings. Often young feminists lead very pressured lives as they juggle work, school and family responsibilities; traveling long distances to attend state board meetings is not an option. Also, NOW’s geographically based model makes it more difficult for many young feminists to move into national leadership positions, as they are much less likely to stay in one place long enough to become a state president—-the usual path to national leadership.

It has proven extraordinarily difficult for veteran members to change the way they have been operating for decades. When some members of Pennsylvania NOW wanted to include a call-in portion of the state board meeting, there was intense resistance. One veteran member said that she had traveled around the state of Pennsylvania for forty years to attend state board meetings, and if she could do it, then younger members should be able to do so as well. NOW is of course not the only organization whose members react negatively to any suggestion for doing things differently from past practice. Too often those with progressive values turn into the most hard-bitten conservatives when it comes to organizational change.

National NOW has tried to introduce a new model for chapters—-virtual chapters which would enable a group that might be geographically dispersed but with common interests and shared history to form an official chapter. This concept met with fierce resistance from some veteran NOW members. Currently, members who have not joined a local chapter are counted as at-large members of the state organization where they reside. National NOW sends a portion of member’s dues to chapters or in the case of at-large members to the state organization. Some state organizations were concerned that the existence of virtual chapters would mean a decrease in their rebates from national NOW, and as a result they lobbied against virtual chapters. Although the resolution passed, nothing has yet been done to implement it, no doubt largely due to the resistance of veteran members.

Fear that virtual chapters would erode the funding base of state affiliates was not the only reason for resistance to virtual chapters. Certainly, virtual chapters would not be as effective politically. Political representation is geographically based; we vote where we live. For NOW to continue to be politically effective—-both in terms of lobbying elected officials and electing feminist candidates--NOW needs state and local affiliates. The challenge is to maintain the geographically based structures but at same time build new opportunities for involvement and leadership development for young feminists. Some geographically based chapters are thriving, but far too many have shrunk to a president for life and an ever-dwindling mailing list.

In 2010, I introduced a resolution to institute term limits for officers of state and local organizations. Although NOW has instituted term limits for national officers and national board members, many state organizations and local chapters do not have them, and officers have sometimes held their positions for decades. As chapter and state organizations are the training grounds for new national officers, the national organization can’t afford to clog the pipeline by allowing officers to hang on to their positions forever.

At the same 2010 conference 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, 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.” After the session, a few older members encouraged her to hang in there and try again, but I worried she might not come back. It seemed it was not so much the failure of her resolution that bothered her but the dismissive reaction.

Perhaps the most controversial idea raised at the 2012 workshops was that of voting for officers by mail ballot. Currently one must be physically present to vote at the conventions at which national officers are elected. This gives a tremendous advantage to those who live near the convention site; consequently, board members who decide the location of the convention frequently try to get a site favorable to their preferred candidates. Also, in-person voting shuts out low-income women and younger women who often lack both time and money for long distance travel.

This is an issue which has been raised over and over again in NOW’s history. But from the comments at the sessions on modernizing NOW’s structure, it appears that the idea of a mail-in or online ballot is an idea whose time has come.

More on the proposal for mail-in ballots in Part III

Friday, July 6, 2012

2012 Conference of the National Organization for Women, Part I

I have been attending NOW conferences regularly for the past ten years. I believe the first was in 2001, the year I became Philadelphia NOW chapter President. At that point I felt an obligation to attend. I recall that at every one of these conferences NOW was engaged in soul-searching—how can we attract more young women, more women of color? The soul-searching continues.

If attendance at national NOW conferences is any indication, NOW has been more successful at attracting young women than women of color (of all ages). It seems that every year the number of women of color at national conferences is smaller. I checked my perception against that of other regular NOW conference attendees and they confirmed my perception. (Of course these are subjective recollections. I have no hard data to back this up.)

The number of young feminists at national conferences appears to have remained relatively constant over the past decade, but the faces change. While many older members tend to attend national conferences faithfully year after year, this is much less likely to be the case with younger members. NOW members in their sixties, seventies, and eighties have been involved in the organization for over three/four decades and they generally are intensely loyal to it; with younger members, identification with NOW is much less powerful. They are not necessarily convinced that membership in NOW is essential to the feminist project. If NOW is to survive and thrive it must build a diverse cadre of young feminists deeply committed to the organization.

One of the most powerful presentations at the conference was “Young Feminists Organizing.” NOW's young, dynamic Action Vice President Erin Matson opened the session with a tribute to young feminists: “Younger women are leading the feminist movement--online and in the streets.” She acknowledged the tremendous achievements of an older generation of feminists, but the suggestion was clear—-it’s time for generational change.

Sandra Fluke

The first panelist was Sandra Fluke, the young woman who has become a feminist rock star thanks to Rush Limbaugh’s response to her congressional testimony on access to contraception. Fluke thanked NOW for “having my back the past few months.” Like Matson, she focused on the contributions of young feminists: “Young feminists are on the move. If some were under the illusion that they were living in a post-feminist world, they have awakened from that.” Fluke suggested that NOW use the language of “gender equality” when trying to reach young people. She noted that younger women are concerned that stereotypes about masculinity may be oppressive to the young men in their lives—their brothers, partners and friends—and that young women and men might be more easily reached by using the language of gender equality. Fluke may be onto something here. I recall some of my Women’s Studies students at Community College of Philadelphia expressing a similar point.

Krystal Ball

The next speaker, former congressional candidate and MSNBC political commenter Krystal Ball, was introduced as the woman who made in it safe for the Facebook generation to run for office. Ball had forcefully pushed back against an attempt to use sexually explicit Facebook photos as a means of derailing her candidacy. Ball’s speech focused on young feminists’ response to Republican attacks on reproductive rights, including her campaign to boycott Rush Limbaugh because of his scurrilous attacks on Sandra Fluke. Ball stressed that the next battle will be against Republican governors who want to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid. As with many young feminists, Ball’s feminism is intertwined with a wide range of social justice issues.

Tamika Mallory

The third speaker, Tamika Mallory, discussed issues such as wage inequality and violence against women in the context of their impact on women of color. Mallory is the national executive director of one of the nation's leading civil rights organizations, National Action Network, founded by Reverend Al Sharpton. Just 31 years old, she is the youngest national executive director in the group's history. Mallory focused on voting rights issues, which she characterized as the major civil rights issue of the 21st century--one more battle we thought we had won in the 1960’s which we are fighting all over again.

For many young feminists, their feminism is intertwined with wide range of social justice issues. Of course many older feminists recognize the interconnections, but young feminists have often placed greater emphasis on the way gender justice is intertwined with issues of race, class and sexuality. It’s perhaps a testimony to the gains that women have made that young feminists can do this. In my book on second wave feminism, FEMINISM IN PHILADELPHIA: THE GLORY YEARS, 1968-1982, founding member Lillian Ciarrochi argued “NOW was established to end sexism against women … The focus had to be women, women.” She was making an argument similar to that made by many in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s--that it was necessary to focus laser-like on civil rights for African-Americans and not get distracted by other issues. She now sees the feminist movement as at different stage: “Now I think the other issues are all intertwined. We’ve always known that but we had to focus [on sexism] in that way, in the early 70s. If we hadn’t we wouldn’t have gotten as much done. It’s the same with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.”

Many younger feminists have taken Women’s Studies courses organized around the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality and their approach to feminist organizing reflects this. Although NOW has evolved in its approach and for some time has focused on these interconnections, not all feminists and social movement historians have recognized the extent to which NOW has embraced a more complex, inclusive approach to gender justice.

NOW’s leadership is committed to an inclusive vision but has yet to figure out how to make the organization more attractive to a diverse group of young feminists and to women of color of all ages. The organization is currently involved in major effort to revamp its structure. I attended a series of workshop on “ Modernizing NOW” and had plenty of time to think about what structural changes would make NOW more attractive to a diverse group of young people. I got what I thought was a brilliant new idea—-NOW should become involved in the global feminist movement. When I shared my idea informally with others, I discovered that many people were thinking along the exact same lines, suggesting this is an idea whose time has come.

NOW is a national organization with a domestic agenda. When NOW was founded in 1966 there was no visible global feminist movement. Much has changed in 46 years, including the capacity to connect with feminist organizations around the globe. NOW’s programming at national conferences reflects this. Among the workshops were several which placed feminist issues in global context: “Sex Trafficking - A Growing Criminal Industry that Harms Women, Children”; “Women Workers of the World: Unite to Fight for Our Dignity and Our Rights!” and the plenary session with Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls.

However, NOW has no organizational connections with the global feminist movement. It’s not at all clear how such connections could be forged. It’s not like there is one over-arching global feminist organization with which NOW could affiliate. But if we were to figure out how to do this I think NOW would be a lot more attractive to a diverse group of women. Many recent immigrants—-from Africa and the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia—have a global perspective and a reconfigured NOW with an international dimension might be more attractive to such women. Also younger women whose education is increasingly international in orientation—-e.g., all those study abroad programs—-might be more receptive to a feminist organization directly involved in the global feminist movement. This is an issue the committee charged with recommendations to “modernize” NOW’s structure should seriously consider.