NOW Activists Look to the Future at 1997 Conference

U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinneyU.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., the first African-American woman elected in a white majority congressional district, sports a patriotic rhinestone baseball cap as she thanks NOW activists for their hard work on her campaign. Photo by Beth Corbin.

by Melinda L. Shelton

NOW's 1997 national conference added even more fireworks to the Fourth of July celebration in Memphis, Tenn. Hundreds of delegates and activists from across the country, streamers waving wildly in a packed ballroom, vowed to make their vision of women's equality become reality as the new millennium approaches.

Throughout the three-day conference, July 4-6 at The Peabody Hotel, a strong message emerged: Take a visionary approach to achieving full economic, educational and political equality for women; don't be satisfied with the status quo; and never take "no" for an answer.

Conference-goers attended scores of workshops on issues as diverse as women's health, ending violence in the home and the workplace, fighting radical right wing groups like the Promise Keepers, defending reproductive rights and electing more feminists to office.

Activists even boot-scootin' boogied in a feminist country music workshop hosted by Nashville's Kathy Austin, a NOW/PAC board member, and NOW Vice President-Executive Kim Gandy, whose rejuvenated Southern accent got thicker by the day.

"We're here to celebrate on behalf of all of the women standing up, speaking out, fighting back and winning progress for women," NOW President Patricia Ireland told cheering activists. "There's a widespread perception that these are the toughest of times for the feminist movement, and indeed for all progressive movements and causes. And certainly no one denies that we've suffered some very real setbacks.

"However, these are also the most compelling of times for a dramatic push forward to stop the reactionary charge of the radical right. We must fight to defend the gains we've made, and this is the time to take the offensive. We must take a visionary, not a reactionary, approach to our work to make NOW even stronger and more effective than we've ever been."

Pledge to Elect 2,000 Feminists

In a dramatic show of unity, conference delegates voted by acclamation to elect the uncontested "Sisters United for NOW" slate to lead NOW into the 21st Century. Re-elected were Ireland as President, Gandy as Vice President-Executive and Karen Johnson as Vice President-Membership. Elizabeth Toledo, former California NOW State Coordinator, replaces Rosemary Dempsey, who had served the two terms permitted by NOW's bylaws, as Vice President-Action.

With resolutions, in caucuses and issue hearings, and during hallway discussions, participants determined to take action for women's rights. They vowed to join forces with poverty and immigrant rights groups to fight a conservative movement bent on exclusion over inclusion. They pledged to elect 2,000 feminist candidates to offices across the country as part of NOW's Victory 2000 campaign. And they made a solemn promise to expose the real agenda of the Promise Keepers, a male-supremacist group with an ultra-conservative political agenda cloaked in religious, pro-family rhetoric.

Gandy warned that work such as exposing the hidden agenda of the media-savvy Promise Keepers and expanding NOW's Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign to make women safe on campuses as well as on the job "won't be easy and won t be popular."

"NOW is always willing to be out there taking on causes that are unpopular, willing to say things and do things even when they make people uncomfortable," Gandy said, her comments drawing cheers. "As long as people are comfortable with injustice, nothing will change. It's our job to make people uncomfortable, to make positive change happen."

Moseley-Braun, McKinney, Baldwin Inspire Delegates

U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-BraunU.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-ILL., the first African-American woman elected to the Senate, flashes her signature smile as she lauds NOW activists for never being "confused" about the issues. Photo by Beth Corbin.

To chants of "Carol Moseley-Braun, go on and on," the Democratic U.S. Senator from Illinois took center stage and said that without NOW's support in 1992, her own election and the political momentum that swept many other women into office could not have taken place.

"When others were looking at poll numbers, NOW looked at the content of my candidacy and decided to support me," Moseley-Braun said, grinning broadly. "For your consistency, your commitment and your activists, I thank you."

Moseley-Braun, who faces a tough re-election in 98, praised NOW's steadfastness on issues that other organizations avoid. "NOW has been consistent over time because you have never been confused about where you want to get to," she said. ". . . NOW has never been confused [on the issues], from the Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign to your unwavering support of freedom of choice, to your consistent position on welfare and welfare reform, to your advocacy against violence against women."

U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., who arrived amidst cheers and whistles of support, agreed that making change happen involves risk. "My whole life in politics has been about moving outside of the comfort zone," McKinney said.

During her 1996 re-election campaign in a newly drawn, predominantly white district, McKinney was advised to move her campaign headquarters at 2600 Rainbow Way from "the second poorest district to the second richest district in Georgia" because her campaign staff feared that much-needed white volunteers would not "venture across the tracks."

McKinney said costs and conviction made her stay put, and "pretty soon you would not have known that 2600 Rainbow Way is on the other side of the tracks because barriers were broken down as a result of folks being so committed to the cause, to winning."

Speaker Tammy Baldwin, the first open lesbian elected to the Wisconsin legislature, reiterated the conference's visionary theme by using her state election and her current campaign for a congressional seat, with NOW's support, as proof that "what some people said was impossible can become possible.

"Conceiving of what is possible, of what we are capable of, and just ignoring those naysayers and getting out there is winning," Baldwin, a Democrat, told a packed plenary. "Imagine and dream . . . and never take no for an answer."

Women of Courage Honored

Judy Mione, Patricia Ireland, Pamela MartensTwo plaintiffs in a major sexual harassment and discrimination lawsuit against Wall Street brokerage firm Smith Barney, Judy Mione and Pamela Martens, receive 1997 Women of Courage Awards from NOW President Patricia Ireland. Photo by Beth Corbin.

NOW activists also saluted the courage of dozens of women who have fought against sexual bias, harassment and assault in the workplace.

NOW's "Women of Courage" awards were presented to Pamela Martens and Judy Mione on behalf of the 26 women who have filed a class-action suit against Wall Street behemoth Smith Barney. Charges from women brokers and sales assistants include sexual and verbal harassment, discrimination, intimidation and demotions.

Smith Barney was named NOW's first "Merchant of Shame" in the Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign, followed by Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing.

Also honored were women who filed a private lawsuit and hundreds of other women named in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit against Mitsubishi alleging widespread sexual harassment at its automobile manufacturing plant in Normal, Ill.

Rosemary Dempsey, who led demonstrations against Mitsubishi at its shareholders meeting last summer in Tokyo, said the women at that company including 29 who have filed a private lawsuit, "can't stand with us today because they are under a gag order and because they still are being harassed, physically assaulted and threatened."

Women from Dyersburg, Tenn., were honored for fighting back against abuse by then-judge David Lanier. Lanier had forced them to perform sex acts, groped and intimidated them in the courtroom or in his chambers, and threatened to take custody of their children. Only a handful of the dozens of women harassed and assaulted by Lanier braved serious community backlash to file charges and assist in an FBI investigation.

"The women in Dyersburg offered their appreciation for the support NOW has given them, when we met them on the steps of the Supreme Court and in our amicus brief," Karen Johnson said, in presenting the award.

Tribute to National Officer

A surprise "Woman of Courage" award was given to Dempsey, who left the Action Center in early August after two terms as Vice President-Action. In a tribute, Ireland praised Dempsey's activist zeal, dedication to NOW and her indomitable spirit.

"Through dozens and dozens of mass marches, zap actions, pickets, rallies, literally hundreds of speeches, hundreds of thousands of miles on the road organizing unprecedented events and inspiring incredible numbers of campus activists, Rosemary has never ceased," Ireland said. "We in the Action Center will miss her smile and optimism."

Tears welling, Dempsey thanked standing, cheering activists in an uncharacteristically brief address: "We've got to keep challenging ourselves, being bold, not thinking like anything other than the visionary, revolutionary activists that we are. That's what we have to communicate, that's what we have to do, that's what we are about."

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