1995 NOW Conference Focuses on Organizing for Women's Equality, Women's Lives
by Melinda Shelton
NOW President Patricia Ireland, NOW Action Vice President
Rosemary Dempsey and National Secretary Karen Johnson are joined by U.S.
Secretary of Indian Affairs Ada Deer, National Rainbow Coalition Chair,
Angela Jordan Davis, Mexican/American Legal Defense and Education Fund
Regional Counsel Georgian Verdugo, Shannon Faulkner and Ohio state and
local activists in calling for an end to violence against women.
National Organization for Women leaders and members during the 1995 National Conference July 21-23 issued an urgent call to action to counter dangerous attacks against women's rights and the rising tide of racism and sexism fueled by right-wing conservatives.
As their suffragist sisters did before them, more than 700 NOW activists marched through the streets of Columbus, Ohio, and vowed to defeat the enemies of women's rights using the right to vote won 75 years ago. NOW President Patricia Ireland urged participants to emulate their foresisters' courage and determination.
"Women's vote: use it or lose it!" Ireland told the enthusiastic crowd at the July 22 rally on the Ohio Statehouse lawn. "All of our rights hang in the balance, and we must organize, organize, organize and use our power at the ballot box in 1996 to defeat the politicians and right-wingers who would like nothing more than to turn back the clock 75 years.
"Affirmative action is under attack. Welfare cuts threaten to rip away the safety net for women and children. Violence Against Women Act funding is threatened at a time when women are bleeding and frightened in the middle of the night with no where to go because shelters aren't being adequately funded. The rights we have spent decades gaining could be yanked away by those who are threatened by our equality. We cannot and will not let that happen," she said.
A large number of young feminists and many first-time national conference attendees carried the mobilization fervor into workshops, issues hearings and plenaries. Topics ranged from defending affirmative action to fighting the Christian right and conservative threats, chapter building and promoting lesbian and gay rights.
Several key resolutions were passed, including resolutions to intensify grassroots efforts to elect women and feminist- friendly candidates, to obtain Constitutional equality for women by the year 2002, and to preserve affirmative action programs across the country.
At the rally, ten-year-old Merari Ortiz, with the Philadelphia-based welfare rights group Children for the Future Revolution, reiterated Ireland's call to action. The young activist issued an emotional warning on behalf of all poor people: "We will be seen, we will be heard, and we will not sit back and do nothing" as Congress guts welfare programs "that will take food from the mouths of babies." Ortiz received one of two NOW "Women of Courage" awards presented during the conference.
Other rally and conference speakers included Assistant U.S. Secretary for Indian Affairs Ada Deer, National Rainbow Coalition Chair Angela Jordan Davis, Columbus abortion clinic director Alice Malin, Georgina Verdugo with the Mexican/American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Deborah Seltzer with the Ohio Coalition on Sexual Assault, and Shannon Faulkner, who this fall could become the first female cadet at The Citadel military institute.
Activist enthusiasm swelled during a Saturday afternoon plenary that included keynote addresses and the showing of two videos, "Legislating a Tragedy," produced by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, and footage of the historic April 9, 1995, Rally for Women's Lives in Washington, D.C.
Viki Wilson and Tammy Watts relayed their painful stories of late-term abortions in the video, "Legislating a Tragedy." Both women experienced the trauma of seeing their planned pregnancies end in tragedy with the aborting of their severely deformed fetuses. The documentary emphasizes the medical need for the rarely used "D and X" procedure banned in Ohio and threatened by Congress.
Ireland said during her keynote address that the erosion of abortion rights is but one of many challenges facing NOW today.
"The question of power and control are at the heart of the current attacks on women and on women's rights, especially the attacks on abortion rights and affirmative action," Ireland said. "We can measure our progress by the strength of the opposition."
Ireland said that in addition to staging nonviolent protests and organizing, NOW activists should also "confuse the enemy" with an offense that includes humor.
"I do believe that in this struggle for power one of the underrated and very potent tactics in our repertoire must be humor," Ireland said. "It throws our enemies off balance when we go against the stereotype of the dour, humorless feminist and instead seem to be following Cyndi Lauper's view that 'Girls just want to have fun.'
"Of course feminists have a sense of humor. If we didn't, we probably would have blown something up by now. And what do pompous men in power hate more than to be laughed at?"
NOW interns Becca Kornfeld, Brennan Ames, Sandy Alexander,
Melanie Hochberg (front), Genna Goldberg and Elyse Beffa combined work
with fun at the NOW Conference. Interns who attended but are not
pictured include, Sharon Hollon, Jena Recer, Anna Haas, Jill Kantor, Dorie
Clark, Sam Smith and Lori Goldberg.
Ireland cautioned, however, that threats to programs that benefit women "are no laughing matter."
NOW will challenge anti-woman politicians and candidates beginning with a nationwide "Wilson Watch," Ireland said. NOW activists will protest at every presidential campaign stop California governor and presidential-hopeful Pete Wilson makes in retaliation for his plans to eliminate affirmative action programs in his state.
"I want us to make it so clear that taking a position against affirmative action means the end of your chance to hold elected office in this country," Ireland told the cheering audience. "We want to make every politician see the bad example of what happens when you cross the women and the people of color in this country."
Ireland also invited activists to "thumb our noses at Newt Gingrich and I want us to say not only are we NOT going back, we are going forward with the women's equality amendment because we ARE going to put women in the Constitution. People ask if this is the time for an ERA. When was the need ever more apparent than now, when our rights are in jeopardy?"
Recruiting more women candidates is another priority, Ireland said. "The Year of the Woman in 1992 didn't come about spontaneously or by accident," she said, acknowledging the efforts of Ellie Smeal and others who recruited women for office. "It was well-planned, and by the year 2002 I want us to fill up the pipeline with women candidates because we know women and women's rights supporters do make a difference in public office."
Like Ireland, Verdugo urged the activists to embrace the true concept of affirmative action "and go out into our communities and clear up the myths that are out there. Affirmative action is a practical step to provide equal opportunity in employment, business and education, and to reach out to that diverse pool of talent that has been historically under-represented."
Davis, who also addressed the plenary, said today's attacks against affirmative action, people of color, women, and poor people show "we are, unfortunately, living in one of the most dangerous and frightening periods of our history; a period of extreme hatred and intolerance" that has created "a climate of intolerance that goes beyond rhetoric. It materializes with welfare cuts to put people on the streets and take crumbs from the poor."
"If progressive-thinking people of good will come together as a coalition and work together, plan together and organize together, we can win. Women, African Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, the handicapped, the poor -- we are the majority," Davis said.
Faulkner, who received a "Woman of Courage" award, also stressed the need for cooperation to overcome adversity. While she has received much support in her efforts to break The Citadel's 153-year, all-male tradition, she also has suffered exclusion, threats of violence, vandalism to her parents' South Carolina home, and public harassment, all of which have made her stronger, she said.
"The day I walked into The Citadel the earth did not open up and The Citadel was not dragged into the depths of hell," Faulkner said. "It will survive and it will be better because of this."
This year's conference also had its lighter moments. Comic Karen Williams entertained members at a lively, competitive PAC auction that Friday night, and "disappear fear," an alternative rock band, performed a Saturday night benefit concert/dance.
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