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National NOW Times >> Fall 2002 >> Article

Fabulous Feminists Inspire Activists at NOW Conference

by Lisa Bennett, Communications Director

Longtime activists, new members, young feminists and those previously shy of politics came together June 21- 23, 2002, for the National NOW Conference in St. Paul, Minn. Women and men traveled from all over the United States to be part of "Linking Arms in Dangerous Times," which was the theme of the conference.

Attendees give a standing ovation to one of the many moving conference speakers.
Attendees give a standing ovation to one of the many moving conference speakers. Photo by Lisa Bennett

Congresswoman Betty McCollum of Minnesota welcomed conference attendees and set the tone for a series of strong, rousing speeches that made it clear that feminists' actions in the next few years may be our most critical yet.

The crisis of leadership in the U.S. was a major topic over the weekend. Feminists discussed the Bush administration's "war" on terrorism, its opportunistic advancement of the right-wing agenda, their disregard for international law and the attacks on our civil liberties. Other topics of earnest discussion included saving Title IX equal educational opportunities, welfare reform that would truly help the poor, workplace issues, the Roman Catholic hierarchy's role in covering up sexual abuse by clergy and much more.

Women of Vision

In one of the last public appearances before her untimely death in September, Rep. Patsy Mink, D-Hawaii, received a Woman of Vision Award for her leadership in passing Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This honor marked the 30th anniversary of the landmark law, which prohibits sex discrimination in all educational institutions receiving federal funds. With Title IX under attack by the Bush administration, Mink's inspiring words and call to action brought the audience to its feet.

Eleanor Smeal, founder and president of the Feminist Majority, spoke passionately about the situation in Afghanistan and the continued threats to women's safety. NOW honored Smeal with its first-ever Woman of Vision award for her 30 years of feminist leadership, including being the first political scientist to recognize the importance of the "gender gap," her fight to bring RU-486 to the U.S. and thereby change the terms of the abortion debate, and her early recognition of the Taliban's deadly oppression of Afghan women and her determination to stop it.

Politics and the Media

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., elicited thunderous applause with her comments on the need for more women in Congress — particularly younger women, who will have the opportunity to establish the seniority necessary to get important legislation introduced and passed. Sanchez, a power-lifter, brought peals of laughter in describing her introduction to the then-male-only Congressional Gym, and in describing the reaction of some colleagues to the fact that her younger sister, Linda Sanchez, would likely join her in the House next year. (And she did!)

At NOW's third Political Institute, organized by the NOW Political Action Committees, sessions focused on skills needed to run election campaigns. Some of the participants are already running for office this year! The NOW PAC also held an auction Saturday night, raising over $12,000 for the 2002 elections. The top item of the night was a beautifully framed and signed copy of California Rep. Barbara Lee's moving statement to the U.S. House on Sept. 14, 2001, urging military restraint in response to the events of Sept. 11.

Presiding over her first national conference as NOW President, Kim Gandy gave the keynote speech on Saturday afternoon. She spoke movingly of whether her two young daughters will have the same reproductive freedom many women have taken for granted these last 30 years, and drew stark parallels between the aims of the Bush administration and the determination of our movement to seek equality and justice for all. Gandy urged activists to "change their lives" and devote time this year to helping elect feminist candidates in key states, to prevent the balance of power in Congress from shifting even further toward the right wing.

The media's depiction of women and girls is always a hot topic at NOW gatherings, and this year two young women editors spoke. Ana Grossman, age 14, and Emma Peters-Axtell, age 15, are childhood friends and worked together as members of the Girls Editorial Board for New Moon, the Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams. They spoke of the need for the feminist movement, and their work toward positive, inclusive images of girls in the media.

NOW Takes On Wal-Mart

NOW also announced a new "Merchant of Shame" in its Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign. In addition to refusing to distribute Preven, the "morning after" pill, Wal-Mart faces more lawsuits than any other U.S. company, including allegations of sex discrimination in pay, promotions and compensation; wage abuses; exclusion of contraceptive coverage in insurance plans; violations of child labor laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act; and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Hundreds of activists rode school buses to a local Wal-Mart in St. Paul, where they demonstrated outside the store. Participants handed out flyers to customers and the protest made the local news both in print and on TV. Rousing the crowd before the noontime action were Beverly Watts, president of the International Association of Official Human Rights Agencies, who described IAOHRA's work to prevent civil rights abuses (including a recent judgment against Wal-Mart) and urged activists to connect with agencies in their communities, and Susan Phillips, international vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, who described her union's work against sweatshop practices and union-busting by large retailers and inspired participants to take action on behalf of working women. Olga Vives, Action Vice-President, led chants and cheers as more than 300 activists picketed and protested at Wal-Mart.

Firefighter and Factory Worker Honored

NOW honored two Women of Courage at the conference this year. Captain Brenda Berkman is known to some NOW members from her October photograph in NOW's 2001 calendar of Feminist Image posters. But many of us know Berkman as a long-time leader for women firefighters in New York City and nationwide. Her lawsuit more than 20 years ago opened the New York City fire department to women for the first time, and she was an early responder on September 11. Berkman's touching and powerful speech was introduced by a short film in which she appears: "Women of Ground Zero," produced by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Another Woman of Courage, Jo Dee Flockhart, endured 11 years at a job where verbal and physical abuse were common. In a step that encouraged working women everywhere, Flockhart filed suit against the Iowa Beef Processors for fostering a hostile work environment. In December 2001, after years of litigation and persistence, the court finally ruled in her favor and awarded substantial damages against the company. Flockhart read a poem she had written during the trial for her lawyers, NOW board member Ronnie Podolefsky and former NOW board member and NOW LDEF president, Roxanne Conlin.

The final day was spent debating and passing resolutions setting NOW's policy and agenda for the coming year. Included were resolutions addressing judicial nominees, Title IX, reducing poverty in the U.S., Afghan women and girls, accessibility at NOW conferences, consideration of NOW's organizational structure, sexual abuse cover-ups by the Catholic hierarchy, including transgender language in hate crime legislation, promoting childcare and more. The conference was not able to reach all of the resolutions brought by activists; those remaining were referred to the National Board for action.

Make plans now for next year's conference, July 11-13 at the Doubletree Hotel in Arlington, Va. (just 10 minutes from the U.S. Capitol). Don't miss the excitement of learning, debating, dancing, discussing and connecting with feminists from across the U.S.

Hundreds of activists participated in a protest outside the local St. Paul, Minn., Wal-Mart after NOW named the corporation its latest Merchant of Shame.
Hundreds of activists participated in a protest outside the local St. Paul, Minn., Wal-Mart after NOW named the corporation its latest Merchant of Shame. Photo by Lisa Bennett

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