Saturday, July 07, 2012

2012 Conference of the National Organization for Women, Part I

I have been attending NOW conferences regularly for the past ten years. I believe the first was in 2001, the year I became Philadelphia NOW chapter President. At that point I felt an obligation to attend. I recall that at every one of these conferences NOW was engaged in soul-searching—how can we attract more young women, more women of color? The soul-searching continues.

If attendance at national NOW conferences is any indication, NOW has been more successful at attracting young women than women of color (of all ages). It seems that every year the number of women of color at national conferences is smaller. I checked my perception against that of other regular NOW conference attendees and they confirmed my perception. (Of course these are subjective recollections. I have no hard data to back this up.)

The number of young feminists at national conferences appears to have remained relatively constant over the past decade, but the faces change. While many older members tend to attend national conferences faithfully year after year, this is much less likely to be the case with younger members. NOW members in their sixties, seventies, and eighties have been involved in the organization for over three/four decades and they generally are intensely loyal to it; with younger members, identification with NOW is much less powerful. They are not necessarily convinced that membership in NOW is essential to the feminist project. If NOW is to survive and thrive it must build a diverse cadre of young feminists deeply committed to the organization.

One of the most powerful presentations at the conference was “Young Feminists Organizing.” NOW's young, dynamic Action Vice President Erin Matson opened the session with a tribute to young feminists: “Younger women are leading the feminist movement--online and in the streets.” She acknowledged the tremendous achievements of an older generation of feminists, but the suggestion was clear—-it’s time for generational change.

Sandra Fluke

The first panelist was Sandra Fluke, the young woman who has become a feminist rock star thanks to Rush Limbaugh’s response to her congressional testimony on access to contraception. Fluke thanked NOW for “having my back the past few months.” Like Matson, she focused on the contributions of young feminists: “Young feminists are on the move. If some were under the illusion that they were living in a post-feminist world, they have awakened from that.” Fluke suggested that NOW use the language of “gender equality” when trying to reach young people. She noted that younger women are concerned that stereotypes about masculinity may be oppressive to the young men in their lives—their brothers, partners and friends—and that young women and men might be more easily reached by using the language of gender equality. Fluke may be onto something here. I recall some of my Women’s Studies students at Community College of Philadelphia expressing a similar point.

Krystal Ball

The next speaker, former congressional candidate and MSNBC political commenter Krystal Ball, was introduced as the woman who made in it safe for the Facebook generation to run for office. Ball had forcefully pushed back against an attempt to use sexually explicit Facebook photos as a means of derailing her candidacy. Ball’s speech focused on young feminists’ response to Republican attacks on reproductive rights, including her campaign to boycott Rush Limbaugh because of his scurrilous attacks on Sandra Fluke. Ball stressed that the next battle will be against Republican governors who want to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid. As with many young feminists, Ball’s feminism is intertwined with a wide range of social justice issues.

Tamika Mallory

The third speaker, Tamika Mallory, discussed issues such as wage inequality and violence against women in the context of their impact on women of color. Mallory is the national executive director of one of the nation's leading civil rights organizations, National Action Network, founded by Reverend Al Sharpton. Just 31 years old, she is the youngest national executive director in the group's history. Mallory focused on voting rights issues, which she characterized as the major civil rights issue of the 21st century--one more battle we thought we had won in the 1960’s which we are fighting all over again.

For many young feminists, their feminism is intertwined with wide range of social justice issues. Of course many older feminists recognize the interconnections, but young feminists have often placed greater emphasis on the way gender justice is intertwined with issues of race, class and sexuality. It’s perhaps a testimony to the gains that women have made that young feminists can do this. In my book on second wave feminism, FEMINISM IN PHILADELPHIA: THE GLORY YEARS, 1968-1982, founding member Lillian Ciarrochi argued “NOW was established to end sexism against women … The focus had to be women, women.” She was making an argument similar to that made by many in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s--that it was necessary to focus laser-like on civil rights for African-Americans and not get distracted by other issues. She now sees the feminist movement as at different stage: “Now I think the other issues are all intertwined. We’ve always known that but we had to focus [on sexism] in that way, in the early 70s. If we hadn’t we wouldn’t have gotten as much done. It’s the same with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.”

Many younger feminists have taken Women’s Studies courses organized around the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality and their approach to feminist organizing reflects this. Although NOW has evolved in its approach and for some time has focused on these interconnections, not all feminists and social movement historians have recognized the extent to which NOW has embraced a more complex, inclusive approach to gender justice.

NOW’s leadership is committed to an inclusive vision but has yet to figure out how to make the organization more attractive to a diverse group of young feminists and to women of color of all ages. The organization is currently involved in major effort to revamp its structure. I attended a series of workshop on “ Modernizing NOW” and had plenty of time to think about what structural changes would make NOW more attractive to a diverse group of young people. I got what I thought was a brilliant new idea—-NOW should become involved in the global feminist movement. When I shared my idea informally with others, I discovered that many people were thinking along the exact same lines, suggesting this is an idea whose time has come.

NOW is a national organization with a domestic agenda. When NOW was founded in 1966 there was no visible global feminist movement. Much has changed in 46 years, including the capacity to connect with feminist organizations around the globe. NOW’s programming at national conferences reflects this. Among the workshops were several which placed feminist issues in global context: “Sex Trafficking - A Growing Criminal Industry that Harms Women, Children”; “Women Workers of the World: Unite to Fight for Our Dignity and Our Rights!” and the plenary session with Eve Ensler, founder of V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls.

However, NOW has no organizational connections with the global feminist movement. It’s not at all clear how such connections could be forged. It’s not like there is one over-arching global feminist organization with which NOW could affiliate. But if we were to figure out how to do this I think NOW would be a lot more attractive to a diverse group of women. Many recent immigrants—-from Africa and the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia—have a global perspective and a reconfigured NOW with an international dimension might be more attractive to such women. Also younger women whose education is increasingly international in orientation—-e.g., all those study abroad programs—-might be more receptive to a feminist organization directly involved in the global feminist movement. This is an issue the committee charged with recommendations to “modernize” NOW’s structure should seriously consider.

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