NOW Celebrates Activism with Election Year Flair

by Diane Minor

Activist Bella Abzug  Photo by Beth Corbin.

 From three standing ovations for Bella Abzug to the neon NOW sign flashing as chapter leaders pledged some $30,000 to the NOW PACs' 1996 electoral work, NOW's 30th Anniversary National Conference June 28-30 in Las Vegas was a celebration of global political activism.

 In the first major speech at a conference that began a dialogue on the new mission statement for NOW, Abzug said feminism's global goal must be "more than bringing women into existing structures." She called these structures a "global casino" and a "male megalomania that continues to spend our money and deny us a dividend from the end of the cold war."

 "This is the moment in history to tear down those patriarchal structures and create the political and economic transformation that will bring Beijing home," Abzug said, referring to last year's U.N. World Conference on Women.

 "Some call this eco-feminism, some call it spiritual, some call it radical feminism, but I call it possible," she said.

A Harsh World Order

The real "new world order," as former President Bush called it, promotes corporate profits at the expense of the world's women and children, said Angela Sanbrano, a leading social justice advocate who also gave one of the first major conference speeches.

 "If corporations paid taxes in the 1990s at the same rate as they did in the 50s, two-thirds of the deficit would disappear overnight," she said. "Instead, corporations are trying to make profits and governments are trying to balance their budgets on the backs of women."

 Sanbrano ended her speech with a rallying cry she delivered in Spanish and English: "Long live women! Long live NOW!

Stemming Anti-ERA Campaigns

In a plenary session on affirmative action, California NOW Coordinator Elizabeth Toledo said women and people of color this year are facing "the equivalent of an anti-ERA campaign in California and all across this country."

 Through a deceptively-titled ballot measure in California, stealth legislation in Congress and similar efforts in other states, right-wing extremists are proposing to end all affirmative action in government hiring, education and contracts. Toledo says the defensive work activists are doing now may, ironically, lay the groundwork for a proactive constitutional equality strategy.

 "Let this be the last time we spend $5 million to get people to say we won't let politicians eliminate our protections from discrimination," Toledo said. "Let it be the first time people say yes to an equality amendment."

Divert and Distract

NOW President Patricia Ireland also focused on election-year politics in a keynote that was the first of five conference presentations carried on C-SPAN.

 "A Congress that cannot get the federal budget balanced in seven years thinks that poor women should get their financial lives in order in two years," she said.

 The various attacks on women -- proposals to cut welfare, end affirmative action and outlaw abortion -- are "designed to divert and distract us from the real problems of this country, the widening wage and wealth gaps," Ireland said.

 She vowed that NOW activists will wrestle Congress from the "religious political extremists who have it in a vice grip." Echoing a comment from the Rev. Jesse Jackson that she joked was "so good I thought it was my own," Ireland also called President Clinton "our option this year, not our answer."

 President Clinton earned an endorsement from another key speaker, Claudia Crown Ades, who also received a 1996 NOW Woman of Courage Award for testifying before Congress about her own D&X abortion. Ades said she spoke out after hearing "lies on C-SPAN" from extremists in Congress who make it sound like women have late-term abortions "whimsically."

 President Clinton at least "listened," while Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole "equated the procedure with infanticide," Ades said. "Tolerance, Mr. Dole, is an action, not a word," she said, referring to Dole's support for adding a preamble on tolerance on abortion to the Republican party platform.

No Fooling Around

President Clinton didn't fare so well in a free, birthday-present-to-NOW performance by lesbian comedian Judy Carter. A longtime NOW supporter, Carter said she will do benefits with local NOW chapters when her new book, The Homo Handbook, is published by Simon and Schuster this fall.

 "President Clinton says he's against gay marriages," she said. "I didn't even know he's for hetero marriages, the way he behaves. There's one to give us marital advice."

 Another lesbian and gay rights activist, Mandy Carter, who is working to defeat Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., said she and other people of color are not fooled by the Christian Coalition's latest moves.

 "The Christian Coalition is not a friend of people of color, never has been and never will be," she said. "The Christian Coalition trying to give us money in the wake of the church burnings is the same Christian Coalition meeting in Washington that wants to end affirmative action, support English only and get rid of multiculturalism."

Acting Globally

Scandals over famous label clothing produced by subcontractors who beat employees, deny fair wages and employ children was the focus of another speech carried on C-SPAN.

 "Who are the faces behind these labels? All over the world they're mostly women. In this country they're Latina and Asian women," said Katie Quan, the first Chinese-American woman to lead the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees.

 Quan challenged NOW activists to use their "consumer power" to force companies to be accountable for their production practices. "In 1985, those of us who attended the Nairobi women's conference brought home the popular slogan, `Think globally, act locally' " Quan said. "In the 90s, it's more appropriate to say, `Think globally, act globally.' "

Ending Female Genital Mutilation

The fourth speaker to address global women's issues was another NOW 1996 Woman of Courage Award recipient, Mimi Ramsey, founder of FORWARD International, a group that opposes female genital mutilation (FGM).

 Ramsey still gets highly emotional when she describes the way she herself was mutilated at age six, and many NOW activists said her speech moved them to tears.

 But that doesn't stop her from telling her story to five or six other immigrant women each day, sometimes cloaking herself in Muslim garb to convince parents to spare their daughters. The fact that someone recently destroyed her car in retaliation for her activism doesn't stop Ramsey, either.

 "Even if it costs my life, until FGM is eradicated from this earth, I'm not going to stop. No one's going to stop me," Ramsey said to thunderous applause.

 First generation immigrants to the U.S. are forcing the gruesome procedure upon girls of preschool age, she said. Ramsey called on NOW activists to press for stronger laws and vigorous prosecution of violators on the state and national levels.

"We don't want it here, not in our adopted country, the U.S.," Ramsey said. "This new law is going to save our children because immigrants like me respect the law of this country. We don't want to break the law."

 In addition to Ramsey and Ades, the other Woman of Courage Award Recipient was Rachel Bauchman, a 17 year old who also faces a backlash as she fights religious intolerance in her Salt Lake City, Utah, high school (see May 1996 NNT).

 Bauchman says some people insist that her parents must be forcing her into taking a stand. "They can't fathom that a 17-year-old woman could possibly have a mind and will of her own and make a judgment in a matter this complex," she said.

 Bauchman announced her own plans to run for President in the year 2020.

 She was followed to the stage by long-time NOW friends, BETTY, an all-woman group who gave activists a sneak preview of their evening performance by singing "America," only with the lyrics, "God shed her grace on thee . . . and crown thy good with sisterhood from sea to shining sea."

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