Lawyer and political organizer Terry O’Neill won the Presidency of the National Organization for Women (NOW) by a slim margin — a mere eight votes — by promising to “restore NOW’s revenue stream,” “reverse our membership losses,” and “revitalize our message.” Those goals, of course, acknowledge the facts that the premier feminist organization has been struggling to regain relevance and the feminist myths that undergird the organization are passé. During the campaign for the NOW presidency, both candidates stressed the “need to energize” and rebuild its ranks.
The election pitted O’Neill, a 56-year-old white activist, against Latifa Lyles, NOW’s 33-year-old black vice president for membership. Lyles’ supporters stressed the “generational shift in the country” and the need for NOW to project a “new image of youth and diversity” in order to attract younger members and reinvigorate the feminist movement. Lyles emphasized the need for a new “profile” and lamented “antiquated” ideas about feminism. O’Neill declared, “Even with a friend in the White House, it’s going to take a well-organized, grassroots movement to advance our agenda.”
The press described the match up between O’Neill and Lyles as pitting the “old guard” against the “new turks.” While there is certainly that dimension to O’Neill’s victory, I think the selection of O’Neill is significant for another reason.
O’Neill, who worked on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, ran against Lyles, an Obama supporter, bringing to the forefront the rancorous divisions in the Democrat party. The narrow victory of O’Neill over Lyles exposes the disillusionment over Obama’s promise of change that lies just under the surface of the leftist political party. The fact that the liberal membership of NOW was unwilling to take a chance on Lyles, who promised leadership in Obama’s pattern, indicates an erosion of support for the U.S. President who ran on a promise of “hope and change.” The outcome of the NOW election indicates problems within the grass-roots base of the Democrat Party. O’Neill’s victory spotlights fissures in the bulwark of support for the President just months into his presidency; the honeymoon is over, and he faces real problems enacting the rest of his agenda. The base of the Democrat Party is no longer solidly behind Obama’s programs; NOW’s rejection of Lyles indicates that the feminists are not interested in moving in a more radical direction. Lyles would have taken NOW in an even more extremist direction on the central issues of abortion, quotas, “equality,” and “justice.”
With the election of O’Neill, who has a record of achievement on women’s issues and already has a national reputation, the so-called “women’s issues” will be revitalized without being associated with Obama’s radical agenda. That is not to say that O’Neill won’t push hard left on policies. She has a strong record of organizing local activists, and she believes that the NOW agenda is a “moral imperative.” She has the passion and drive to engender new impetus for the previously moribund organization. She ran on a platform of feminist clichés and myths, but she gives those tired old slogans new urgency:
· “As long as women earn between 78 and 58 cents for each dollar paid to white men, we are not equal.”
· “As long as some women lack access to reproductive health care, including birth control and abortion services, justice is not ours.”
· “As long as women account for only 16 percent of Congress, 16 percent of governorships and 19 percent of the top cabinet posts, we do not have political parity.”
Apparently many of those who voted for O’Neill thought that being outside Obama’s circle brought more leverage to NOW than being in his camp. No one should think, however, that the organization is moving away from its social justice and abortion agenda.
O’Neill promised that under her leadership NOW would “set the direction for the future” of women’s rights so that “all women have equal rights and enjoy parity in every facet of society.” She also pledged to “place social justice for women at the center of political discourse” [emphasis mine]. Patricia Ireland, former NOW President and one of its highest profile leaders, supported O’Neill because she would “be willing to use a wide array of tactics” including “hunger strikes” and engaging in “civil disobedience.”
If she is smart enough to keep Lyles’ team involved in NOW’s leadership, O’Neill can capitalize on her own experience with inside-the-beltway politics while utilizing the Lyles’ team to bring in fresh new faces and ideas, high-tech improvements, and a younger, more diverse profile; the combination could be the best possible outcome of the election. If she cannot hold the organization together and mentor those who are challenging the “old guard’s” leadership, NOW is in for even more hard times and their days are numbered.