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

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the conference, Karen. I haven't been to one in years, so it's good to be able to keep up.

    On term limits, I like the idea for chapter presidents, but I wouldn't want to see it include treasurers. Finding someone with accounting skills is hard enough, finding a new person every couple of years would be very tough.

    On mail-in or internet ballots, I've always favored that. How one can talk about making an organization inclusive and diverse while requiring its members to jump through such hoops in order to vote is beyond me. I don't see how it could be changed, though, since the very people who gain disproportionate power over the organization (the Conference attendees) are the one who would have to vote to surrender that power.

    Looking forward to part III,
    Bill in NJ

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  2. Bill,
    A good point about the difficulty of getting votes for change. It will only happen if enough new people come to the conferences to vote for change.

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  3. It is irresponsible to force members to show up to vote. Time & money are tight and we should not be forced to use time, money, & fuel to have our say. Voting should be made easier, not harder.

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  4. Hi Karen, Your point about virtual chapters' lacking local political effectiveness is an important one. I wonder if the organization can be imagined as having multiple goals, with some affecting all chapters (geographic and virtual) and others specific to the type of chapter? We witnessed in the recent Abington-Holy Redeemer merger failure the power of social media-based organizing even for a "local" issue.

    It seems a stunning conflict of interest to maintain the current voting structure. I wonder if there is any way within (or at least not in opposition to) the bylaws that the members can make their voices heard? It's really a calcified parochialism that makes people travel hundreds of miles to exercise their franchise, and it's (as you've long noted) an impediment to organizational and leadership development. Take care, Reni

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