A Reflective NOW Looks to the Future
| July 25, 2008
Jehmu Greene, a legendary grass roots organizer, plans next to “look laser-like at organizing young women.
“Don’t believe the hype: they are not apathetic,” she said. They volunteer in higher numbers than any other demographic group and will make up a large part of the electorate in the future. “They have technology at their fingertips and can move more people in minutes than we can in years.”
Greene spoke last weekend at the national NOW convention, one that was subdued rather than boisterous, in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s primary defeat by Barack Obama. Some NOW delegates wore Hillary tee-shirts. There was minimal talk of Obama and loud cheers whenever someone mentioned Clinton.
There was, however, rapt attention to NOW President Kim Gandy when she disclosed a 45-minute telephone conversation with Obama, which he initiated on the eve of the NOW convention
The NOW political action committee, also headed by Gandy, has not endorsed a general election presidential candidate and did not take up the issue last weekend. In the past, the NOW PAC has endorsed only four candidates in the primaries: Shirley Chisholm, Carol Mosely Braun, Walter Mondale and Hillary Clinton. Its only general election endorsement was for Mondale, who selected Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate in 1984.
Gandy said that a general election endorsement this year would require an exhaustive consultative process with NOW leaders. That has not been undertaken, she said, “to let the strong feelings [after the Clinton primary loss] relax a bit. But you shouldn’t assume that we won’t do that.”
Rather than politicking, there was an intense focus on issues that will be decisive in the next presidential term, not the least reproductive rights and healthcare. But some speakers looked forward, building on lessons learned from 2008, to a future that holds both promise and peril.
Greene was one such speaker. She won national fame in 2004 for increasing youth turnout, arriving then at Rock the Vote when it had 1,500 members and moving it to a million-member group before she left. This year, she had worked hard for Clinton and was her surrogate in many states.
“We increased [women’s] turnout by 200 percent in the [Democratic] primaries—gosh, we came really close to nominating Hillary,” she said.
The campaigning “changed my entire perspective,” she said, and made her recognize some tough realities: women are only 16 percent of members of Congress, 24 percent of statewide elected officials and 23 percent of state legislators. “So we have many mountains left to scale.”
While inspired by the record turnout, “I also was disheartened when I saw young women vilify Senator Clinton and vilify being a feminist.”
She told the NOW activists “we have to roll up our sleeves and embrace technology and find new ways to educate these young voters.
“They don’t join membership organizations but they do Face Book organizing,” she said. She proved her point about the gender generation gap when she asked the crowd of 300 at the NOW convention how many of them had a Face Book account and only about a dozen hands went up.
NOW may figure out how to find these young women on-line but the challenge “is to get them off-line and get them into the streets.” Few of the young women may identify themselves as feminists “but they will, after they get out of school and get their first job or when they realize they’re losing access to reproductive rights,” said Greene.
Gandy got the call from Obama at home last week on the eve of his trip to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe. She said he asked her to “pass along his regards to the membership of NOW,” which got a minor ripple of applause.
She called it a wide-ranging conversation. She drew on thoughts from a book chapter she had just finished on what the next president needs to do for the country—and for women.
Her priorities for the next president:
- economic equality for women, in educational opportunity, ending job and educational segregation, promoting women into careers with “stairs” versus dead-ends, and provision of high-quality child care so women can pursue those options;
- elimination of poverty, including recognition that low-income women and their children often are left out of stimulus plans, and steps to ensure that “everyone in this country has the means to lift herself and her family out of poverty”;
- universal single-payer health care insurance, including such key coverage components as birth control and emergency contraception, as well as elder care and long-term health care;
- ending violence against women, not just in the United States but globally, including working to end honor killings and the use of rape as a part of war;
- ending discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation (including equal marriage rights);
- changing societal attitudes and stereotypes including “soft hate speech” on the airwaves and in classrooms that demeans women and girls and makes them targets.
Elizabeth Joyce, a former president of Montgomery County NOW in Maryland, listened closely to Gandy’s recounting of the Obama call. “That was terrific,” she said, but added, “I sense a real hesitancy to come out [in support of Obama].”
Holly Joseph, treasurer for the Montgomery NOW chapter, agreed. Recently, she and another NOW volunteer were recruiting backers for paid family leave when she got a question “on what’s your position on Obama. I said that since Hillary had endorsed Obama,” she assumed NOW would as well. She was shocked when her NOW colleague sharply disagreed, saying “no way.”
Adrienne Ellis, a federal worker and graduate school student in social work, was an Obama backer from the outset, “making myself an oddity here,” but she holds out hope and faith “in the American public. It is ludicrous to go from Hillary to [GOP probable nominee John] McCain.”
Jane Sloan, a media librarian at Rutgers University, who organized a film festival for the conference drawn from “Reel Women,” her directory of contemporary feature films, just joined NOW. “It is so distressing to see how race and gender played out in the campaign,” she said. “And I don’t think the Democratic Party recognizes the extent of identity politics.”
Vanessa Volz, staff attorney for a Rhode Island disability rights nonprofit, had backed both Hillary and Obama but has found that many of her Clinton friends say they’ll sit it out rather than vote for Obama. They justify their inaction by arguing that their states would vote Democratic anyway.
“I think a conference like this is really important. It energizes the activists and others out there—and it’s useful just to talk to each other,” said Volz. The lack of a NOW endorsement for Obama at this time, she said, isn’t “that big of a deal.”