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National NOW Times >> Fall 2003 >> Article

Activists Mobilize, Strategize at the 2003 NOW Conference

by Kim Burrow, Communications Intern

Mobilize! Vote! Change!

That was the rallying cry of the nearly 1,000 activists who traveled across the country to come to the National NOW conference, July 11-13 in Arlington, Va., vowing to dedicate their time, money and votes to defeating George W. Bush, and to a new campaign that will mobilize women voters over the next 15 months.

Activists packed the hotel ballroom to watch and listen to NOW's presidential candidates forum. Left to right: Carol Moseley Braun, Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton.
Activists packed the hotel ballroom to watch and listen to NOW's presidential candidates forum. Left to right: Carol Moseley Braun, Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Al Sharpton. Photo by Leonard Tengco

Conference organizers and attendees alike agreed that this year is a crucial time for women's rights. "This year's conference theme, the Drive For Equality, sums up our commitment to keep changing our laws, our government and our society until women have true equality--for ourselves, our sisters, our mothers, our daughters and our granddaughters," said NOW President Kim Gandy.

Launching The Drive For Equality

With two branches of our federal government controlled by ultraconservatives, and the Supreme Court precariously balanced, women's rights are in greater peril than they have been in over a decade. At the 2003 National Conference, NOW activists committed to fight back by launching a new campaign to preserve women's rights through massive grassroots registration and mobilization of women voters.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton share a laugh in the midst of serious political discussion at the NOW Conference.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton share a laugh in the midst of serious political discussion at the NOW Conference. Photo by Leonard Tengco
NOW's Drive For Equality will use the organization's volunteer base to mobilize a political force of women voters that will win the 2004 election, and then continue to work on issues and win elections for years to come.

Gandy urged NOW activists to mobilize for the 2004 elections and outlined a plan of action to make the campaign a success. "The Drive for Equality brings our organizing to a new level. Years of progress are riding on our success." Gandy promised. "This one is for keeps."

NOW members left the conference determined to dramatically increase the number and skill level of grassroots activists, build a stronger infrastructure for communication and action, and organize women community by community, campus by campus.

Presidential Candidates Take the Stage

Addressing a standing-room only crowd, four presidential candidates enthusiastically debated the full range of women's issues at a presidential candidates' forum Friday evening. Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, Gov. Howard Dean, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Rev. Al Sharpton made commitments to honor women's rights and to promote economic justice for women and their families.

Candidates answered questions from a panel of journalists as well as those submitted in advance by NOW members. Moderating the forum was comedian Elayne Boosler, who has exhibited her political wit on television shows, including Politically Incorrect and Crossfire. Boosler kept the candidates on their toes and the forum moving along swiftly. Sitting on the panel were the legendary Helen Thomas, the "dean of the White House press corps" who is currently writing for Hearst newspapers, Eleanor Clift, contributing editor at Newsweek and a member of The McLaughlin Group, and Kathy Gambrell, White House reporter with United Press International.

The candidates tried to outdo each other in their dedication to preserve reproductive rights, ensure civil rights for all, combat violence against women and achieve economic equity. All had harsh words for the present administration and its record in Iraq.

Unable to attend the event in person, Sen. John Kerry sent greetings to the conference, saying he marched at his sister's side as an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. Sen. John Edwards' wife, attorney Elizabeth Edwards, greeted attendees after the forum.

NOW leaders praised the four candidates who participated in the forum and chided those who did not attend. "They missed a stunning opportunity to get their faces and platforms in front of feminists from across the nation," Gandy said. "If they want the women's vote—which we know will provide the winning margin for the 2004 primaries—NOW's presidential candidates' forum should have been at the top of their lists."

"I was so proud to be a NOW member," said one NOW activist after the forum. "We did an amazing, professional job. The conference was one of the best of the ten I have attended."

Rebecca Walker and Diverse Panel Discuss Feminist Leadership

NOW activists heard inspiring words from Rebecca Walker, author, activist and co-founder of the Third Wave Foundation. Her speech, entitled "Revisioning the Battlefield: New Leadership in Difficult Times," urged activists to bring new ideas and leadership to the forefront of the movement in order to overcome the current state of political affairs.

"We have been in horrendous times before and the one thing we know for sure about horrendous times is that they call for ordinary people to mount stunning, inconceivable responses -- today is no different," said Walker. "Our survival demands that we respond to the current crisis with genius."

Following Walker's speech, California NOW President Megan Seely moderated an intergenerational panel on leadership in the 21st century. "The forum is meant to explore the vision of the organization today and build the movement for tomorrow," said Seely. Panelists shared their personal experiences and encouraged the empowerment of a new generation of feminists to take on leadership roles.

Barbara Lee, Woman of Courage

NOW presented Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., with a Woman of Courage Award for her support of women's rights, civil liberties and peace. In 2001, Lee cast the lone vote against authorizing George W. Bush to use any force necessary against accused terrorists after Sept. 11, 2001. Following her powerful speech on the house floor, Lee received death threats and needed 24-hour Capitol Police protection.

Accepting the Woman of Courage Award, Lee said that her opposition to Bush was a moral reaction. She also proclaimed that women must take a stand to construct a more equal world. "I have fire in every bit of my body to make sure there is liberty and justice for all and that this country lives up to that creed," said Lee. "We have a long way to go, but we are going to fight until that is true."

At the same session, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., welcomed conference attendees to the area and demonstrated their strong support for feminist issues.

Norton spoke about the Bush administration's attempts to reverse women's rights and the necessity to mobilize for a new president in 2004. "What we have won during NOW's extraordinary 37 years will not stay won without organizing over and over again the base that benefits from your work," said Norton. "The power is in the grassroots."

Van Hollen also spoke about the vital need for new leadership in the U.S.: "I am confident that if we put our minds and feet to work walking the streets of this country, we can take back this country and we can succeed in taking back the White House."

Important Issues on the Agenda

NOW activists participated in a wide array of workshops at the July gathering that informed, empowered and inspired them to fight for social justice.

Leaders from NOW and the Feminist Majority conducted a particularly important workshop entitled "Back to the Streets--Save Women's Lives: March For Freedom of Choice." NOW, the Feminist Majority, Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America are joining forces to preserve reproductive freedom. In the workshop, leaders from each organization laid out a plan of action to create the largest pro-choice march in over a decade. For more information on the March, click here.

Other workshops receiving rave reviews from attendees included those addressing affirmative action, caregiving, Latinas in America, religious perspectives on war, sexual violence in African American communities and workshops on how to use the Internet for organizing.

The NOW Political Action Committees sponsored the fourth annual Political Institute, which played an integral role in kicking off the Drive for Equality. The weekend-long series of Political Institute workshops focused on getting more feminists elected by mobilizing the next generation through voter registration, getting voters to the polls and voicing feminist concerns through the media.

Ann Lewis, former President Bill Clinton's communications director, jazzed activists at the Political Institute lunch. Fielding questions on issues ranging from voter's rights to getting out the feminist vote, Lewis shaped a powerful political discussion.

Lewis not only addressed the problems with the current administration and its attacks on women and children, she also motivated attendees to create change. She stressed the power of grassroots organizing among everyday women to transform the political atmosphere. "If we are going to change the direction of this country, women have to lead the way," said Lewis.

Raising Money for Political Action

Elayne Boosler also took on the role of auctioneer at the NOW Political Action Committee (PAC) auction. Boosler helped raise money for feminist candidates while using political humor to keep the audience entertained. Activists bid on items such as a tour of Miami, Fla. with Janet Reno, a signed Annie Leibowitz limited edition print, and a rare, signed Guerrilla Girls print.

NOW PAC also held a silent auction, due to the large number of items generously donated for the live auction. Silent auction items included a copy of Betty Friedan's "Second Stage," inscribed to Eleanor Smeal, and a framed rubbing of the beautiful quote on Emma Goldman's tombstone.

Getting Down to Business

The business side of this year's conference focused on the structure of NOW. Delegates at the conference voted on six proposed bylaw amendments, half of which passed. For the language of these new bylaw amendments see the box above.

Conference attendees left the hotel on Sunday afternoon energized and prepared to do some serious organizing through November 2004.

The 2004 National NOW Conference will take place in Las Vegas on July 16-18, 2004. Get more information at

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