From July 21-23, 2006, I ventured up to Albany, New York with IWF senior editor Charlotte Hays to attend the 40th anniversary celebration of the National Organization for Women. As a conservative going to a progressive feminist conference, I expected to come home with some interesting stories. The ladies of NOW did not disappoint. Here are some highlights:

What is Feminism?

The first breakout workshop I attended tackled an important, yet basic question, “what is the definition of “feminism?” The woman seated next to me suggested a near-dictionary definition of the term: feminism is belief in the theory that women are equal with men in political, social, and economic realms. One woman objected that feminism is “about equal rights, not being equal.”

That is a reasonable starting point, but the debate didn’t stay reasonable for long. The next woman to speak objected that the dictionary definition lacked emotion. Feminism, she said, is “about passion.” It was downhill from there.

One feminist was proud to show her man-hating colors, saying, “I think we’re better than men,” to a hearty amount of applause. Another participant asserted that feminism is “about undermining a certain construction of gender– masculinity, femininity, etc.”

The definition of feminism kept expanding until it included everything progressive, excluding anyone who didn’t subscribe to leftist politics from the definition of feminist. One girl was honest enough to lay it out explicitly: people who like President Bush or vote Republican can’t be feminists.

Feminist Fashion

At a conference where t-shirts, pants and sneakers were the norm, I had low expectations for a workshop on feminism and fashion. For the most part it was ho hum feminist bickering. To wear high heels or not to wear high heels, that is the question! My ears did perk up momentarily when a lady in the back asked, “Has anyone ever thought of using high heels as a weapon? Because I’ve done it and it’s great!” Probably best to avoid her for the rest of the conference. I’m already on crutches; I don’t need a bloody Manolo Blahnik sticking into my back.

Towards the end of the workshop the discussion shifted to men’s clothing. Men’s clothing is apparently becoming more “sizist,” or discriminatory on the basis of weight, size, and shape. Instead of expressing concern over this form of “discrimination,” the feminists embraced it. One woman was glad men were finally having trouble buying clothes because she “always has trouble” and if she has to suffer “men should too!” This dangerous attitude was echoed in several comments throughout the conference–instead of improving a situation for all sexes, it’s better to make men suffer in an effort to level the playing field. Sounds an awful lot like Title IX enforcement, doesn’t it? If you can’t get enough women to join a team just cut men’s teams! The feminists don’t care about injustice so long as the results are “equal.”

Ani DiFranco Makes Everyone Cry (Well, Everyone But Me)

Remember the old footage of crowds of teenage girls storming the tour bus of the Beatles and the sheer fanaticism it conjures? Replace teenage girls with progressive feminists and the Beatles with a painful feminist singer/songwriter/poet extraordinaire and you’ve got the scene from the Young Feminist Summit award ceremony. Introduced as “one of the most inspiring and fearless woman of our time,” Ani DiFranco took home the “Woman of Courage” award. Ani, crying throughout her speech, used the opportunity to announce that she is at the “epicenter of her womanhood.” For the readers who don’t speak feminist, that means she’s twelve weeks pregnant.

To celebrate the moment, Ani read an original poem. I wish I could relay what the poem was about, but truth be told, Ani lost me somewhere between the “patriarchy causing war,” a bomb dropping in Hiroshima, and the streets of Manhattan. When DiFranco finished, NOW president Kim Gandy thanked Ani for her courage and pointed out that there wasn’t “a dry eye in the house.” Hogwash, I thought. That poem didn’t even make sense! But I looked around and there really were people crying. How anyone could make sense of such a poem, let alone be moved to tears, baffles me.

This was just the first of many crying episodes throughout the conference. Kim Gandy would cry during two more presentations when Tyne Daly (Lacy from Cagney and Lacy!) spoke and when Gandy received a surprise award during the NOW birthday party.

“Thanks, guys!” and Other Things NOT to Say at a Feminist Conference

What happens when you call a pack of progressive feminists “guys”? They’ll nearly heckle you offstage, of course!

Brian Collins of Oglivy and Mather apparently missed that memo. When he accepted his award for creating the Dove “Real Beauty” campaign (a series of advertisements using images of everyday woman rather than models) he naively referred to the crowd as “guys,” twice. Not a smart move. On both occasions, Collins was met with a series of feminist hecklers: “We aren’t guys! Girls! Women!” Sensing the hostility, Collins apologized and relinquished the microphone with amazing speed. Collins’ female partner on the “Real Beauty” campaign also garnered boos and shouts of “Girls!” when she ended her speech with, “Thank you, guys!” That’s the kind of treatment award recipients received. Good luck if NOW considers you an enemy.

Toeing the Party Line

You might assume that progressive feminists frown upon the “the religious right,” “the radical right,” and, well, anyone who isn’t a progressive feminist. What you may not know is that the preferred method for denouncing such groups is through spontaneous outbursts. My personal favorite: A women speaking in a breakout session expressed concern that the current Social Security system discriminates against housewives, who do not earn any Social Security benefits while they are out of the workforce. This elicited a shout, “The right wing only wants you to stay at home if you’re wealthy” Applause and laughter. “And if you’re white!” More applause and laughter.

Feminist Sing-along Time

Have you ever had an annoying song stuck in your head, say, Ashlee Simpson, and you think, “How on earth did this happen…I don’t even like Ashlee Simpson.” This is miserable! Well, don’t complain. At least not until you’ve got feminist folk songs stuck in your head with lyrics like “Get your laws of me/I’m not your property” and “We were marching with Molly Yard.”  Until that happens, you have no idea how bad it can be.

“We are [a Dysfunctional] Family”

NOW’s birthday celebration ended with “We are Family” blasting over the loud speakers. If NOW is a family, it’s the most dysfunctional family I’ve seen in a long time.  There was a clear generational divide between the cranky old women (see below) and the few young feminists who attended the conference. Despite talking up their young feminist task force considerably, NOW seemed incapable of including young women in their conference and organization.

My observations of a generational divide were vindicated on the last day of the conference. As I entered the hotel for the last time, I was greeted by Chris, a young feminist with short hair who sported an “I prefer girls” button on her lapel. Chris asked me to write my thoughts on a big piece of paper spread across the hotel lobby’s floor.  She wanted feedback from young feminists about the conference.

After a few minutes talking to Chris, it was clear that there was in fact a great deal of animosity between the old and new guard. Chris felt “voiceless” at the Young Feminist Summit, NOW’s one-day attempt at passing the torch to a feminist future. For the most part, the presenters at the YFS were not young, cranky old women dominated the debate in the workshops, and the old people seemed to talk down to the younger generation. Chris says this amounted to young feminists being silenced and alienated in the part of the conference that was ironically intended for them.

Chris wasn’t the only young person complaining. A quick look at the youthful feedback on the large paper revealed that young feminists had an overwhelmingly negative experience. They thought the workshops were poorly planned, the old women were rude, and the light topics covered during the YFS (such as music and fashion) insulted their intelligence.

Many young feminists left after the first day. Barely any were left by the third day of the conference. They left early and, according to Chris and her feedback sheet, they left disgusted.

Conspiracy Theories Abound

By the third day of the conference, I had all the evidence I needed to conclude that NOW was out of touch with reality. I didn’t need more evidence, but I certainly got it.

As I killed time listening to my MP3 player waiting for the final session of the conference to begin, a woman bedecked in a strange combination of purple leggings, a purple turtleneck, and a blue tie-dye dress approached me. If the outfit didn’t catch my attention, her straggly half orange/half gray hair did. This was bound to be an entertaining conversation.

Turns out this lady wanted to sell me on a resolution up for debate after the lunch break. I wasn’t a voting member, but she was nice enough to explain the situation anyway. The 2000 and 2004 elections were stolen by Republicans. If NOW doesn’t pass a 9/11 resolution calling for a truly independent investigation of the 9/11 attacks (the 9/11 commission doesn’t count!) then the 2008 election will be stolen too. A handful of neo-conservatives including Karl Rove and Richard Pearl created a plan in the late nineties to take over the world. The government knew about 9/11 in advance, but let it happen so they could put that plan into action. I could go on, but it hurts too much.

I thought surely someone would debate this conspiracy theory quack. NOW couldn’t possibly be thatcrazy. Boy, was I wrong. The 9/11 resolution passed with only a few minutes of debate. Keep in mind wo things: 1) other resolutions were debated for hours and 2) the debate on the 9/11 resolution was over the grammar of the resolution, not the crazy conspiracy theories contained there in. NOW really is that crazy.

The National Organization for Cranky Old Women

I lost count of how many times a cranky old lady would interrupt a presenter or attendee to shout, “Speak up! I can’t hear you!” Others had more lengthy rants: “Why don’t we have a microphone? We had a microphone yesterday! Send someone to get a microphone!” Interruptions, complaints, and spontaneous negative outbursts were the norm for conference dialogue. After awhile you learn to tune it out. The crowd was largely cranky, rude, and obnoxious.

In my first workshop a particularly feisty old lady smacked the back of my chair and shouted, “Move your chair! I can’t see!” My chair was part of a normal row, I was on crutches, and she didn’t say please. But you can bet that I moved my chair very quickly because, let’s face it, I was terrified of this lady.

Washington, D.C. based NOWers even heckled the flight attendants on the flight from Albany to D.C. (ironic since so almost every presenter cited the end to discrimination against stewardesses as a major victory for NOW). “Don’t worry,” I told the flight attendant. “It’s not you. They’ve been complaining non-stop for three days.” They are just unhappy people.

Allison Kasic is director of campus programs at the Independent Women’s Forum