Two and a half weeks ago, I was thrilled to open the annual conference of the National Organization for Women in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Albuquerque felt like the perfect place to meet up with activists and map out action plans to move the feminist agenda forward. Just a year ago, the women of Albuquerque formed an emergency coalition, Respect ABQ Women, to fight against a dangerous municipal anti-abortion ballot measure. Not only did they win, they won big — defeating the 20-week abortion ban by a 10 point margin. What a wonderful backdrop for celebrating our strength and mobilizing for the looming 2014 elections.
Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD) kicked off the conference as our keynote speaker. She spoke about her experiences as a young mother, and how important it was for her to have a network of family and friends she could rely on. For most women, that network is more or less ad hoc; that’s why Rep. Edwards is playing a key role in pressing for a Women’s Economic Agenda. That includes quality, affordable child care, paid sick days, paid extended family leave, and stronger enforcement of equal pay laws. Needless to say, the room was on its feet after her speech!
The theme of this year’s conference was “Faces of Feminism: Strength in Diversity,” a framework that arose out of a day-long Women of Color and Allies leadership meeting (hosted by NOW) in October 2013. We know that women’s rights are under attack as never before, and that it’s more important than ever to build — in many ways, rebuild — the women’s movement from the strength of diversity, inclusion and intersectionality. That means, among other things, that as we work together we must each recognize when to step up and when to step back, when to speak out and when to use one’s position to amplify a sister’s voice (or simply to have her back).
The plenary panels and workshops featured academicians, national leaders and grassroots organizers discussing their work for the rights of immigrant women, women of color, women in labor unions, lesbians and transgender women, younger women, women with disabilities, and women in other parts of the globe.
Our plenary session titled “Young Feminists at the Intersections,” where young feminists shared their experiences and challenges advocating for women and girls in high school, college and beyond, drew a particularly large crowd. Millennials who identify as feminists consider it a given that sexism, racism and homophobia have no place in today’s society, and that undoing those “-isms” requires understanding how they intersect. For example, many African American women experience sexism within a context of challenges not shared by their white sisters — resegregated and under-resourced schools; the school-to-prison pipeline; racial disparities in wealth and health outcomes.
Conversely, many women of color experience race-based discrimination within a context of unequal pay, gender role stereotyping, domestic violence and sexual assault. Intersectionality demands that we recognize each other’s unique struggles even as we stand on common ground, working toward a shared vision of mutual respect and shared responsibilities.
No NOW conference would be complete without a strong focus on grassroots organizing, and one of the most important things feminist can do in the next five months is elect more feminists to office. Right wing forces are practically salivating at the prospect of taking over the Senate in 2014, just as they took over the House in 2010 — never mind how out of touch they are with what voters actually want. We must bring more women’s rights supporters to both the Senate and the House, but that will only come from a combined effort.
Candidates must do their part — it isn’t enough to point out how bad the other candidate is. To succeed, candidates must reach out and engage women voters on the issues women care about: better wages, equal pay, affordable child care, access to health care and an end to the constant attacks on safe, legal, medically appropriate birth control and abortion care. Only those who are loud and proud in their support for women’s issues will get women to go out and vote for them.
As advocates, we’re going to do our part too. At the conference, NOW PAC hosted a working lunch with PAC advisors Patricia Ireland and Carol Moseley Braun as well as Rep. Michelle Lujan-Grisham (D. N.M.), Prof. Christine Sierra of the University of New Mexico, and Kimberly Peeler-Allen, founder of Higher Heights for America. From different perspectives, the overarching message was clear: we have work to do! From this moment to Election Day, activists will be knocking on doors, making phone calls, engaging with our friends, co-workers, families and neighbors, and telling everyone we know how high the stakes are this year.
I came away from the 2014 NOW conference, as I always seem to, inspired by the energy and dedication of the amazing leaders and activists who were there with us, re-energized for the fights ahead, and deeply grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this powerful movement.
If you missed the conference, stay tuned — we’ll be posting highlights on NOW’s Youtube channel soon. And mark your calendars now for June 19-21, 2015 when we’ll be in New Orleans and June 23-26, 2016 when we’ll be in Washington, D.C. celebrating our 50th anniversary.
Originally published on Terry O’Neill’s Huffington Post blog on 07/18/2014