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National Organization for Women Turns 50: Building an Intersectional Feminist Future

About 500 women and a handful of men gathered in Washington, DC, to celebrate achievements and address the need for intersectional activism.

Long considered the province of white, middle-class career women, NOW's leadership seems eager to reach out and make connections with disparate activists. (Photo: Joe Brusky / Flickr)

Dr. Brittney Cooper, assistant professor of Gender and Africana Studies at Rutgers University and a co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective, does not mince words.

“There are real schisms in feminist movement building,” she told approximately 500 people at the 50th anniversary conference of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in late June. “Black women my age, mid 30s, don’t get along with white feminists that well. If we’re lucky and if we vote, we’ll have the first woman president in November, but Hillary Clinton has a dubious history. Black women have seen the impact of the incarceration policies pushed by the Clintons. We also understand that we have to confront white nationalism when it shows up.”

Cooper’s talk — delivered after she accepted the Olga Vives Award “to honor a woman who has demonstrated leadership on issues specifically impacting women of color, immigrant women, women with disabilities, and/or LGBTQIA individuals and communities” — received a standing ovation, even though many in the largely white, middle-aged crowd wore pro-Clinton tee-shirts and buttons. It might have been a tense or awkward moment — after all, NOW was one of the first national organizations to endorse Clinton — but it wasn’t, and despite the attendees’ near-universal support for the Democratic nominee, there was a general consensus that change happens from below and that vigilance and activism are necessary regardless of who sits in the Oval Office.

The recognition that laws and lawmakers do not necessary presage change at the grassroots reflected a shift in the organization’s focus and indicated the adoption of an intersectional politics — recognition that racism, sexism, homophobia, heterosexism and classism operate in tandem, rather than in isolation. This notion, developed three decades ago by feminists of color, served as a common thread in every address and conference workshop and linked seemingly disparate issues, from racism to sexual violence and union busting to immigrant-bashing, to the rights of trans people to the fight for a $15 or higher minimum wage.

The array of issues discussed at the 2016 confab was a far cry from the positions espoused by NOW in its earliest years and indicates a shift in organizational priorities. Long considered the province of white, middle-class career women, many progressive feminists and women of color have written NOW off as indifferent (and perhaps even hostile) to the issues impacting low-income communities, sexual minorities and immigrants. But after five decades of work, NOW’s leadership – and the many plenary speakers and workshop facilitators invited to speak — seem eager to reach out and make connections with disparate activists. While it remains to be seen if local NOW chapters will do the necessary work to make intersectional organizing a reality, or if national NOW can reshape itself and cede leadership to others by offering open a forum for open dialogue and self-critical conversation, the conferees took an important step toward inclusion and greater diversity.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

The three-day NOW event was part celebration, part sober reflection on the struggles ahead, and part development of a Strategic Action Plan to guide the organization’s work over the coming year. Each of the organization’s 550 chapters committed to three priorities: promoting reproductive justice and opposing state and federal legislation to limit access to abortion and contraception; activating members to push for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment; and a newer priority: organizing to publicize and end the sexual abuse to prison pipeline, a system that funnels thousands of female victims of sexual assault — the majority of them of color — into the criminal justice system.

During a panel on the topic, Michele Hamilton, Chair of NOW’s Dismantling the Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline Committee, offered one scenario to illustrate the problem. In it, a 15-year-old girl sends her boyfriend several naked pictures. He forwards the photos to his male friends and the boys immediately start to taunt the young woman at the senior high they all attend. Humiliated, embarrassed and angry, she begins skipping school. Since truancy is a crime, after a few days, workers from Children’s Services show up at her home and order her to return to class. She does — but the harassment continues and she decides to arm herself with a box cutter for protection. School officials find the weapon and she is suspended. In many locales, she would also face criminal charges and stands a good chance of landing in juvenile jail.

“Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1977, a student should be able to find someone to talk to in her school about feeling unsafe,” Hamilton said during the panel. “But in schools with zero tolerance policies, the first issue, her safety, may never be addressed because the administration will only focus on the fact that she was caught carrying a weapon.”

And that’s not all. Hamilton adds that as a result of not being allowed to explain why she missed school or carried the knife, some girls will engage in self-harm or turn to alcohol or drugs.

Not surprisingly, the pipeline impacts Black and brown girls hardest, with girls of color six times more likely to be suspended from school and referred to the courts than Caucasians. “Girls of color are punished for displaying the symptoms of trauma,” Hamilton added, and although every school or school district is mandated to have a Title IX coordinator to help students in this type of situation, many do not have one.

Hamilton recommends that districts be investigated to see if a coordinator exists — and if no one has been appointed, urges community members to organize a campaign to force school administrators to comply with the law. If someone has been designated, that person’s name and contact information needs to be widely publicized so that students and their allies know where to take their complaints and problems. She also suggested that parents and education activists push for elimination of zero tolerance policies so that teachers and staff can ask questions and determine what’s really going on when a student acts out.

Lastly, Hamilton suggests that activists take steps to support expanded mental and physical health care for those stuck in the juvenile legal system. This is critical she says, referencing a recent study, conducted in Florida, which found that incarcerated girls who received mental health services were 37 percent less likely to return to lock-up.

“The policy of suspending, expelling, arresting and detaining girls, especially girls of color, for violating conventional norms of female behavior, subjects thousands of young women to punishment rather than the equitable education they deserve,” Hamilton concluded.

The workshop, a scant 75-minutes long, left many topics unaddressed, but by making the pipeline a national priority, local NOW chapters have an opportunity to deepen the conversation and put intersectionality into action, developing a concrete plan to combat racial disparities in sentencing for prostitution and other perceived offenses. In fact, it gives them a chance to contest the racism at the core of sentencing since the reality is that low-income women of color — whether trans, queer or heterosexual — typically end up in jail for solicitation at far higher rates than their white sisters. In addition, the policy opens the door to revisiting the still-contentious issue of sex work, a debate that pits those who see it as purely exploitative against those who argue that it can be a valid choice for the women who make it.

Sexism Drives New Feminists Into the Movement

Seventeen-year-old Hannah Wyatt, who will be a senior at Washington, DC’s Woodrow Wilson High School in September, addressed a different disparity – school imposed dress codes that apply to girls but not boys. Speaking on a panel that brought older and younger feminists together, Wyatt detailed the way female students are hassled, and sometimes sent home, for wearing shorts, mini-skirts or crop tops.

“This spring the administration started sending girls home for the day for violating the dress code. This got students wondering what was behind the dress code in the first place. We want to know why there is structural inequality since male students are never sent home and the administrators and staff never ask them about their clothing choices, or probe whether they’re trying to look hot or sexy,” Wyatt said. More than 200 students from Wilson, male and female, participated in a recent online chat and Wyatt hopes that they will form a high school NOW chapter come fall. “If we’re successful I want to expand into other DC public schools,” she said.

That dress codes remain an issue in 2016 and appalled most conferees. At the same time, they took time to celebrate advances.

Celebrating Incremental Victories

Kim Gandy, NOW president from 2001-2009, reminded the audience that in 1970, there was an 8:00 p.m. curfew for women at her college, Help Wanted ads were separated by gender, and employers were free to publicly refuse to hire women since there were no laws barring discrimination based on gender. There were no provisions guaranteeing women access to an equal education; abortion was not yet legal; and the term sexual harassment did not exist. “We called it going to work,” Gandy quipped. “It was just life.” Prosecution for rape was virtually unheard of, and the concept of marital rape had not yet been articulated. Domestic violence was similarly dismissed: If police were called because of battering, they would often walk the man around the block, and advise the woman to try not to piss off her husband or boyfriend. And, while Gandy knows that police still respond differently to domestic abuse complaints depending on one’s zip code, race, and gender identity, and emphasized that the issue still does not get the media attention it deserves, she noted that domestic abuse is now at least talked about as a social problem rather than simply accepted as a fact of life.

[Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that anti-carceral feminists take issue with many of the laws passed to address domestic violence since they have increased the policing of low-income communities, particularly those of color. Furthermore, new laws have led to harsh mandatory sentences, and, in some cases, have resulted in the complainant losing her home or being arrested herself.]

“How incredibly different the world is because of feminist activism,” Gandy said. “The level of change represents something to savor before we go out and take on so much more. Working for change is never a smooth path. We’ve made big progress but there is always more to be done.”

Few would disagree, but as Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, professor at the University of Maryland and author of nine books including Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, reminded the conference, “We need to be cognizant of the fact that there are cycles of visibility and invisibility in social justice work.”

This leads to frustration, of course, since change is often slow and rife with backsliding. That’s where self-care, as well as the celebration of victories, no matter how small, come in. After all, organizing has to be fun or activists will burn out and stop engaging.

That said, it’s also important to step back, assess what went wrong over the past half century, and begin to do the listening necessary to heal the many rifts that have divided women of different races, classes and sexualities. As Brittney Cooper stated, “We need clarity, commitment and courage for the struggles ahead.” She further noted that electing Clinton, a NOW priority, is merely a starting point.

“We have to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to build. We have to determine which women we’re talking about when we speak of women and recognize that we need to fight for everyone or no one gets free. If we mimic corporatist power, we’re lost,” she said.

As Cooper made abundantly clear, NOW’s priorities have sometimes rankled women of color, injuries that will take honest and open-ended dialogue to repair. But if NOW’s Forward Feminism 50th anniversary conference was any indication, the organization is more than up to the challenge.