This past weekend I attended the 2016 NOW conference, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of NOW’s contributions to the feminist movement. The changes in the status of women in my lifetime have been enormous and some have become so much a part of the air we breathe that we no longer perceive the extent of the changes.
I was a participant on a panel “Documenting our History and Digitizing NOW Chapter Archives” and am happy to report that many of our members are involved in the effort to document feminist history on the grassroots level. The feminist movement of the late 1960’s and 70’s is largely remembered in terms of national leaders such as Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Eleanor Smeal, but it would never have changed so many hearts and minds, would never have transformed our society without the efforts of so many women in local communities working tirelessly for gender justice.
NOW shares credit with many other feminist organizations (as well as a loose network of feminist bookstores, coffee houses, and consciousness raising groups) for the dramatic changes in hearts and minds, but NOW was the main engine behind the victories in state and national legislatures and in the courts.
NOW has had an extraordinarily successful first 50 years, but will NOW have another 50 years? When I wrote my history of Feminism in Philadelphia, I ended my book with my thoughts on the future:
It’s not clear to what extent NOW’s veteran members are willing to make changes to adapt to the interests, needs and priorities of a new generation. However, even if NOW makes some of the recently proposed procedural changes, it still has a problem not easily addressed—the disaffection of many young activists with hierarchically organized groups with clear leadership structures. Also, generational tensions are intertwined with race/class tensions. The founding generation, now over 65 is part of a demographic cohort which is largely white; feminists under 25 are part of a demographic cohort which is far more racially/ethnically diverse. If NOW is to look like America, it must figure out how to reach this younger, more diverse group, now commonly referred to as the millennial generation.
A good friend of mine, a long time NOW member and chapter president, said, “I think NOW leaders should announce that NOW is disbanding. We have accomplished a great deal. Now we can declare victory and make room for new feminist organizations.” (I think she was joking—but not sure.) However, it’s not so easy to start a new national organization. One of the great strengths of NOW is its structure operating on all levels of government. This has enabled the organization to function effectively in the political arena, and was certainly a major factor in the legislative victories of the 1970’s and beyond.
I sure don’t want to see NOW disappear, but it does need to change. Over the years, members have raised questions about NOW’s requirement that members be physically present at the national conventions to vote for officers. Just recently procedures changed so that elections for board members are no longer made at the regional level but at national conferences, further consolidating power at the national level. This effectively disenfranchises those who lack the financial resources to travel to national conventions and gives a tremendous advantage to those who live near the convention site.
Historically, board members who decide the location of the convention have at times tried to get a site favorable to their preferred candidates. Mail or email voting would minimize the impact of the conference’s location and would shift power away from national board members; not surprisingly, it has been resisted by those in power. From Feminism in Philadelphia:
This issue has been raised over and over again in NOW’s history. At the 1973 National NOW Conference, a mail ballot for officers and at large board members was defeated. 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.”Former Philadelphia NOW officers Elizabeth Parziale and Barbara Mitchell reported that this was an 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.” There is clearly a compelling argument for not linking voting rights in national NOW to having the resources to travel.
The recorder may have mangled Friedan’s statement, which as recorded, is not a clearly expressed argument. She appears to be saying that to cast an informed vote, members must 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 and further argued that those who are most committed and willing to travel should be the ones who choose NOW’s leaders.
This issue was raised once again at the 2016 NOW conference by members who want to see an email or mail-in ballot in place by the 2017 convention which will elect new officers. The objections to an email or mail-in ballot echoed those made at previous conferences:
It would be too expensiveUnderlying all these objections was the sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit theme that an email or mail-in ballot would be a radical move that would fundamentally change the nature of the organization.
It would make it easier for NOW to be taken over by an organized force.
Leaders should be elected by the activists [presumably defined as those who attend NOW conferences]
Leaders should be elected by those who have had the opportunity to hear candidates present their platform in-person at national conferences.
The proponents of change effectively answered these arguments and officers of PA NOW, Caryn Hunt and Michele Hamilton, also offered a compromise proposal that would reduce the costs of a mail-in ballot: NOW members would be notified by mail that they had the option of voting electronically through the NOW website. Instead of sending mail-in ballots to all members, NOW would provide the opportunity for members to opt-in. This proposal was rejected, as was the original language. It was clear that the majority of those present at the plenary session were not interested in any changes to NOW’s method of electing officers.
Caryn Hunt argued that concerns about costs and security had to be weighed against the need for inclusion. She (and others) made the case that NOW activists are not limited to those who attend national conferences; she knows many committed activists in her state who do not have the resources to attend national conferences or whose health and/or family obligations preclude their attendance. PA NOW executive board member Susan Woodland noted that “to assume that only the people sitting in this room are activists is insulting to activists.”
To my amazement, in response to the argument that it is undemocratic to require a person to attend the conference in order to vote as it excludes many active members, one member insisted “that every NOW member has the right to attend this conference.” A right that a member can’t afford to exercise isn’t much of a right!
Amanda Schroeder, a union activist from Oregon, asked us to look around the room filled with largely white, middle class, older women and noted that this group was not representative of the overall membership of NOW and certainly not representative of women in the United States. She also stated that her union used a mail-in ballot for election of officers and had had no problems with fraud or breaches of security.
I grant that there are NOW members with legitimate concerns about costs and security issues but for others their opposition appears to stem primarily from fear of change. Michele Hamilton noted the irony: “NOW has a long history of advocating for voting rights everywhere but in its own procedures for electing officers.”
Unfortunately, not everyone who wanted to speak to the issue had an opportunity. Two of our Philadelphia NOW officers, Krishna Rami and Steve Paul—young people of color from immigrant families--were next in line to speak when the chair ended debate. These are exactly the young people NOW is on record as wanting to recruit and I would very much have liked the members to have heard their perspective.
In Philadelphia NOW we have worked very hard to build a diverse chapter and we want to ensure that our new members have a vote and a voice in our national organization. Our members need to see themselves as part of a national project, and conversely the national organization must incorporate their insights and perspectives—a two-way street. Caryn Hunt and Michele Hamilton intend to bring up the issue of an email or mail-in ballot again at the next conference: “We’ll keep bringing it up every year until we win.” Time and demographics are on their side.
I hope that NOW incorporates the perspectives of Caryn Hunt and Michele Hamilton (and others) and that, as a consequence of doing so, celebrates its 100th anniversary!