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.

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