Albany, N.Y.–After “40 fearless years,” as the National Organization billed its birthday celebration, it simply must be said: the old girl isn’t as spry as she used to be. The gathering in Albany was more backward than forward looking, though you can’t blame an old lady for treasuring the past. But NOW’s overtures towards the future seemed more half-hearted than the organization’s celebration of the glory days.
Although NOW is in no way more conservative than newer organizations (NOW is as out there on LBGT that’s lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender, if you don’t know the lingo, issues as any organization in America), the old womyn definitely seems just a bit on the grandmotherly side these days. For example, there were exhibition booths hosted by the Socialist Workers Party, a midwives group, and other pass causes, while (as my perceptive colleague IWF Allison Kasic noted) there was not even a passing mention of Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues, all the rage among young feminists on campus. (Not that NOW isn’t fixated on female bodily parts did I really need actress and “shero” Tyne Daly’s description of her own nipples? I tell you, gentle reader, I did not.)
Another glaring absence: Hillary Clinton, the highest ranking woman pol on the Democratic side and a possible first female president, who passed on attending. I was told by a NOW officer that Hillary had been “very graceful” (maybe she meant gracious?) in wiggling out, I mean in saying that she had a scheduling conflict, of the event. Perhaps the opportunity to address around 700 women wasn’t enough to lure her to the capital of her district. Still, even though Senator Clinton’s moderate stand on the war may be worrisome to NOW, I’d have expected, even in absentia, more of a Hillary presence, at least a few references from the podium to her. I saw only one Hillary T-shirt, and that was a 2000 remnant that the wearer had gotten at a closeout sale. New York Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, a longtime NOW stalwart, was the highest-ranking political figure there.
A well-put-together video on NOW’s history captured the glory days in sound and images, the film celebrated “40 fearless years,” and all past NOW presidents were honored. This was the first convention since the deaths of former presidents Betty Friedan and Molly Yard, who were also honored in the printed program. Actress Tyne Daly, moderator, was “between concepts” her hair, white for “Judging Amy,” the TV series in which she played a social worker, was dark. She was also between coherent speaking concepts. Tyne was all over the place, offering such pithy remarks as these: “We used to bleed but we didn’t die,” and, “Even the Christian God can’t do it without us-he had to get a woman.” Nuff said about poor old Tyne. A Woman of Courage award was given to Dr. Susan Wood, who resigned her position at the FDA in 2005 to protest the FDA’s withholding of the so-called Plan B “morning after” contraception, and Sandy Rapp, a folk singer entertained us. Ms. Rapp’s performance was the most retro moment of the weekend: The sight of Karen DeCrow, a former NOW president with a mane of white hair, dancing to the chorus lines, “We’re marching with Molly Yard,” was a caution to us all: After a certain age, we can’t wear our hair the way Joanie Baez did in the 1960s. We ended up this plenary session with NOW birthday cake and a chance to look at the silent auction items. If you wanted a Geraldine Ferraro T-shirt that had actually belonged to former NOW President Patricia Ireland, this was your big chance to bid. We adjourned for a piece of NOW birthday cake.
One of the questions that recurred to me over the weekend was: Why does NOW seem so out of the loop? At a “breakout session” entitled “NOW and Then: A Retrospective,” which featured several NOW founders, Delores Alexander, a white-haired lady in a wheelchair, recalled the heady days when the fledgling organization was lobbying to get the New York Times to stop listing job by sex (a good cause, by the way, though NOW was already involved in a number of more radical causes). We were able to call the New York Times and say not could we have a meeting but that we wanted one and here was the date. The meeting was promptly granted.
Although NOW has good relations with the press and tends to get favorable coverage (though none of the major dailies bothered with this weekend’s anniversary), I can’t quite see it wielding this kind of dictatorial power today. The only answers I could come up with for NOW’s lackluster present were that there are now so many organizations with a feminist agenda, that there must be a certain degree of fatigue at NOW– reflected in panel members who seemed to have composed their thought s for the event on the plane to Albany– and a tendency to look back at the glory days when, well, they could call the New York Times and demand a meeting. What is NOW’s goal for the future? Along with the usual issues on that side of the aisle, one goal remains the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was defeated in 1972 (thanks to a campaign by Phyllis Schlafly, whose name still gets boos at a NOW event). The ERA? In an era when women outnumber men at U. S. colleges and young women have unprecedented opportunities? This IS your grandmother’s NOW.
As noted, with a few exceptions, the panelists at the “breakout sessions” seemed to be speaking off the cuff. They seemed as if they’d been doing this for forty years, even the ones who weren’t on the “NOW and Then” panel. However, the star of the “Feminist Media Reform” breakout session was a young whippersnapper, Bree Williamson, who plays Vicky or Jessica (I forget which, and, come to think of it, she may play two characters, or maybe one character brought back from the dead, or whatever) on daytime TV’s “One Life to Live.” Kathy Bonk, a longtime feminist leader and director of the Communication Consortium Media Center, and Yolanda Hippenstele, outreach director for Free Press, made some cogent points (they seemed to have prepared, or perhaps they give the talk often) about media ownership and government policy, but mostly feminist media reform seems to be writing letters to editors and producers. (I guess this is what happens when you can no longer dictate meeting times to the New York Times?) Bree Williamson went on at length about how producers really read these letters. Actually, she did make an excellent point about how portrayals of people on TV are influenced and are influential?if, for example, abortion is unflatteringly shown, she said it’s important to write letters. Her show is watched by religious people in red America, and she urged us to write letters demanding new story lines for her character. So if the Midwestern housewife tunes into Vicky, or is it Jessica? struggling to make a living in a patriarchy dominated world, thank the forty or so women who attended this breakout session.
One of my other sessions was on Wal-Mart, which plays the role of demon that Standard Oil used to. The degree of anger towards the merchandising giant astounded me, as did the naiíve point of view. The session was titled “The Human Cost of Low Prices,” and the handout portrayed Wal-Mart as a company that wants to make a profit-shocking! One of the speakers, Sally Kim, a student who is against sweatshops, seemed to think that the sweatshop had developed in the United States and that “we” had exported it around the world. The panelists also talked about Wal-Mart’s health insurance policies and pay standards, neither of which I am an expert on, even after the session. What interested me was the degree of hatred and the mobilization against Wal-Mart. On the final day of the conference, I asked a younger woman wearing an “I Prefer Girls” button if she felt that Wal-Mart was the ideal issue around which NOW might build new support and enthusiasm. She was dubious. She said that because so many young and less affluent women depend on Wal-Mart’s prices, this might not be feasible.
One of the sessions I attended was interesting–not because it was well-presented but because of the tenor. It was on “Making Nancy Pelosi the Next Speaker of the House,” and the anticipated mood was euphoria. But Janet Canterbury, a member of NOW’s national board and NOW PAC, gave a rambling race-by-race assessment of the situation and says she expects the Democrats to “squeak by” with 17, the minimum required to retake the House of Representatives. One NOW official said that pundits are confused because on a macro level, things are bad for the Republican Party and George Bush but that this doesn’t necessarily transfer to the micro level. I had expected them to be measuring the curtains, if that’s not a sexist way of putting, for congressional offices, but the atmosphere was more subdued.
The wedding cake at the “wedding party for equality” in support of gay marriage was definitely tastier than the NOW birthday cake. One of the men I had thought was some brow-beaten husband of a NOW woman turned out to be half a celebrated same-sex pair, not that that means he isn’t brow-beaten. A husband (excuse me, partner) in a mixed-sex couple who’d come to express solidarity definitely looked brow-beaten, as did all the guys, many of them touchingly eager to show their feminist viewpoints, at the conference. All NOW officials at the wedding party wore colored taffeta veils, and people were asked to share experiences with as being part an LGBT couple or supportive of their quest for legal marriage. Never comfortable with “sharing,” I felt this might be my cue to exit.
The last business of the conference was the passage of resolutions. Whatever they pay NOW President Kim Gandy, it’s not enough for being the parliamentarian at this session. Each resolution had to be painfully hammered out so that it was friendly towards women of color, LGBT people, and people with disabilities. Not surprisingly, NOW passed resolutions in favor of in-store access to birth control, engaging in global women?s rights, in support of national health insurance. My own personal favorite was a call for an independent investigation of 9/11. Gandy noted that another organization had already called for such an investigation but stressed that NOW will not join its call to theirs until it is sure that the other organization has the appropriate stand on LGBT issues.