ALBANY, N.Y.–Perhaps the nicest thing about attending the National Organization for Women’s 40th birthday event last weekend was that I didn’t have to pack a lot of fancy party clothes–the dress code was strictly old feminist. The mindset was of the same vintage. Though there was a “summit” for young feminists on Friday before the conference got under way in earnest (and I do mean earnest), most of the 700 women in attendance were no spring chickens. They were joined at the Crowne Plaza by a handful of hen-pecked, middle-age men, always touchingly eager to demonstrate their ardent sympathy.
Whereas younger feminists on college campuses are flocking to Eve Ensler’s hot-ticket play “The Vagina Monologues”–not mentioned over the course of the weekend, as far as I could tell, though Ms. Ensler is a past recipient of NOW’s coveted Woman of Courage Award–the exhibitors this year featured less frivolous fare: There was a stand for the socialist People’s Weekly World (successor of the Daily Worker), a midwifery booth (how I wish I hadn’t peered so closely at the frontal photo of a squatting woman welcoming a child into the world!) and a vendor of lesbian-themed quilts. New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney was the highest-ranking office-holder present. One might have thought that Sen. Hillary Clinton would show up–after all, Albany is her state capital–but she never did. Her office claimed that she had a scheduling conflict. I envy her.
Some gals are young at 40. Not NOW. It’s not that NOW is less radical than younger organizations–she isn’t. Every resolution was relentlessly hammered out until there was no possible way that LGBT people (LGBT stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) could feel excluded; there was an “equal marriage” pretend-wedding reception with punch and cake. A resolution calling for an “independent” investigation of 9/11–you know, because all the other 9/11 investigations weren’t truly “independent”–was adopted.
Still, NOW felt just a bit tired. Whatever you think of the feminist movement–and I happen to deplore most of it–the women who got it started were forces of nature, interesting people with strong personalities. They seemed to be riding the wave of history (or “herstory,” as they called it). But now that the wave has crested, the current crop of NOW leaders seem less colorful than their foremothers. The issues are not new. I heard no interesting discussions, not one word of disagreement. In place of argument, there was only dogmatic insistence on inclusivity.
The quality of the “breakout sessions” radiated tiredness. The panelists were often ill-prepared, their presentations disjointed. A session on Wal-Mart drew about 40 angry women and one angry man in a purple NOW T-shirt and matching shorts. I gleaned the startling information that the “merchant of shame”–i.e., Wal-Mart–“seeks to dominate the retail industry through customer acquisition.” That did sound nefarious! Wal-Mart’s health-insurance policies and pay scale were condemned, of course. And plans were begun to test its policy on the morning-after pill (a matter of ideological, if not actual, interest to many women at the conference). Later I asked a young woman sporting an “I Prefer Girls” button if Wal-Mart might be a good issue to bring new blood into NOW. She thought not. Young and less affluent women, she explained, rely on Wal-Mart’s low prices.
For me, the most memorable session was the one entitled “Feminist Media Reform.” Although two NOW employees spoke, along with Kathy Bonk, a well-known feminist media specialist, the star of the session was Bree Williamson, who plays Jessica on the ABC daytime soap opera “One Life to Live.” (She has also guest-starred on a Toronto-based show called “Mutant X.”) Ms. Williamson, who went all pouty-face when somebody noted that TV heroines tend to be blue-eyed blondes, had a message: Write letters to producers telling them what you want to see. Talk about empowerment! If viewers of “One Life” start to see Jessica battling the patriarchy, they’ll know why. But one panelist implicitly questioned the effectiveness of such campaigns, lamenting that NOW failed to save Geena Davis’s series “Commander in Chief.” I don’t know what it means that I heard more about an imaginary female president than about Hillary during the course of the weekend.
Among the session’s audience members was Maretta Short, a stout woman active in “women of color issues” and the producer of a feminist radio show. She asked whether there is information on national TV-watching habits; she was referred by an audience member to the Nielsen ratings. “Who is this Mr. Nielsen?” Ms. Short demanded in all seriousness. “How do I find him?”
Such was the weekend’s time-warp dimension. And it’s hardly surprising given the decades that have passed since its inception. NOW is to young women today as the suffragettes must have been to NOW founders–deserving of respect, but oh so old. NOW’s irrelevance was further emphasized by a film celebrating its “40 fearless years.” It honored past presidents with recognizable names like Betty Friedan and Molly Yard. Each new face on the screen generated wild applause. Nostalgia is to be expected at a birthday party, but what of the future? Eleanor Smeal, another former NOW president, gave a rousing speech insisting that the “best is yet to be.” Looking ahead, Ms. Smeal called for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Yes, that Equal Rights Amendment, the one Phyllis Schlafly defeated in 1982.
Even the music hasn’t changed. The folk singer Sally Rapp made an appearance. According to the NOW program, Ms. Rapp has been acclaimed as “Dylanesque” by “Gay Today” magazine; the late Bella Abzug even did a guest vocal spot on one of her CDs from the 1990s. Ms. Rapp performed a song about a woman named Rose, said to be the “first abortion fatality” after 1977 cutoff of Medicaid-funded abortions. The sight of NOW’s leaders–including former president Karen de Crow, with her leonine white mane–dancing to Ms. Rapp’s chorus line, “We’re Marching With Molly Yard,” was a caution for us all about growing old gracefully.
Once upon a time, NOW wielded a great deal of influence too. A member of the Veteran Feminists of America, a NOW offshoot, spoke of the days in the 1960s when NOW could call the New York Times and, instead of requesting a meeting with top brass, simply dictate the time and place–and know that reporters would show up. Those days are gone. The reason may be that there are now many other organizations with similar agendas. But some of the decline is simply that there is no new blood there. One of the founders, a former holy terror, who was instrumental in the creation of Catholics for a Free Choice, currently devotes herself to animal rights. “Help the animals,” she stood up to say, apropos of nothing, after one of the sessions.
It is hard to say how big NOW’s influence is today. The organization currently claims 500,000 members. But who knows? Muriel Fox, a NOW founder, admitted at the meeting that the organization fudged its numbers upward when dealing with the press in the early days.
The weekend ended with a march for “equal marriage.” I chose to get a bite to eat at Quizno’s instead. How did it go? I later asked a white-haired NOW member. “Great,” she said. “But I’m glad it was only two blocks.”