Nation's Largest Feminist Group Changes Guard

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Members of the National Organization of Women (NOW), the nation's largest feminist organization, has elected Terry O'Neil as its new leader. The longtime feminist and lawyer beat Latifa Lyles, 33, an African-American, who was also vying for the job. Katherine Spillar, of Ms. Magazine, and Robin Gihvan, of The Washington Post, talk about the changing of the guard at NOW and the future of the women's rights movement


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama is the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will conduct the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Sessions himself appeared before the committee when nominated to the federal bench back in 1986. We'll talk about what happened then and if that matters now. That conversation in just a few minutes. But first, a leadership change at the nation's largest feminist organization got us thinking about the state of the women's movement.

The National Organization for Women, or NOW, gathered this weekend for its annual conference and elected a new president. Terry O'Neil is a 56-year-old attorney who has been serving on NOW's board for many years. She beat out a 33-year-old, Latifa Lyles, who, had she prevailed would have become the youngest president in NOW's history and the second African-American to hold that post. But we thought that we would take the opportunity of this changing of the guard to talk more about the state of the women's movement and what that actually means to women today.

So we've called two prominent journalists who write about women and the world we live in. Katherine Spillar, executive director of Ms. Magazine and executive vice-president of Feminist Majority Foundation. She was at the NOW conference this weekend. Robin Gihvan, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist writes about fashion and culture for The Washington Post and one of her recent articles caught our eye. It was a piece about First Lady Michelle Obama and what her ascent and the way she's doing her job says about the representation or lack thereof of successful black women. She's here with me in our D.C. studio. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. KATHERINE SPILLAR (Executive Director, Ms. Magazine): Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

Ms. ROBIN GIHVAN (Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist, "The Washington Post"): Thank you.

MARTIN: Katherine, let's start with you because you were at the meeting. If you'd just tell us a little bit about the election. We're hearing that it kind of echoed the Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton contest, a change versus experience dynamic. Would you just tell us a little bit about the election and why do you think that the NOW members chose Terry O'Neil?

Ms. SPILLAR: Well, I think it was a very exciting conference and a very hard fought election. I don't think I would agree that it was the difference between age and youth or - in truth both tickets had very young people in their 20s and 30s as well as more experienced and older members as well. So I'm not sure that's how it broke down and frankly the conference had all age diversity. That's the one thing about the feminist movement that is so remarkable is how intergenerational, from very young to very old. In fact, at Ms. Magazine, we always talked about the psychographic versus the demographic of the feminist movement.

MARTIN: So what do you think tipped the balance in Terry O'Neil's favor? Why do you think the members chose her?

Ms. SPILLAR: Oh, it was a very close election. More than 400 voting delegates, the difference between the two tickets was eight votes. So I'm not sure - it was who got there to the conference. It was in Indianapolis, in the middle of the country. So I don't really think that there was any one thing that tipped this election. In fact, both tickets were talking about basically the same agenda that lies ahead for the feminist movement.

Everything from pay equity to full reproductive rights to early childhood education publicly funded and getting Sotomayor confirmed to the Supreme Court. So in truth there was very little difference and it was a tough election, very close. So it really was who got their voters there.

MARTIN: And finally Robin, I haven't forgotten about you but I just want to push Katherine on just this one point. You know, people have been debating since NOW's inception about the degree to which it actually represents American women and what women want, but to the degree that it does, let's just posit that does. What are the priorities of this organization going into this next phase? And I also just in reading the 0 both candidate's position papers, you know, one of the arguments that they made is that it's a different ballgame when you have an administration which is perceived to be more attuned to the goals of your organization, it poses perhaps a different organizational challenge. So what you would say the priorities of the leadership and the organization are going in to this next phase of its history?

Ms. GIHVAN: Well, the priorities are very clear - getting stronger laws that make sure that women are not discriminated against in the workplace, whether it's pregnancy discrimination, going for paid family and medical leave, full comparable work, pay equity. The whole fight around reproductive rights is not over. In fact, there was in every plenary session the fight for reproductive justice was emphasized including fighting back against this violence against abortion providers, and the recent murder of Dr. George Tiller.

Political empowerment was a constant theme throughout the conference. Women's political empowerment including in the judiciary. Equal marriage, much discussion around what are the next steps in strategies especially in California where we now have equal marriage outlawed again. It does pose an interesting question - what do you do? How do you organize in a period where you have a friendly White House? President Obama is strongly in support of women's rights. And you have a Congress that's more with you than in any recent past.

How are we going to keep pushing for those gains? And so there was great discussion about an inside strategy as well as an outside strategy. And I can tell you that great consensus that you don't give up the outside pushing, pushing because we've got to hold the feet to the fire of those who are with us politically because our opposition to these issues is quite strong. But at the same time celebrating that we have a seat at the table and a strong voice for women's equality and have people we can actually work with now to figure out how do we move ahead to full equality?

MARTIN: And speaking of celebrity, Robin, your piece - your recent piece about Michelle Obama in The Washington Post style section, and you wrote time and again observers grasped for adjectives to describe Obama's combination of professional accomplishment and soccer-mom - sorry, maternalism. And one of the things that I'm struck by is the fact that one thing we know is that Michelle Obama is wildly popular…

Ms. GIHVAN: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: …right now, which is remarkable given the fact that she came in from so much kind of criticism during that campaign.

Ms. GIHVAN: Right.

MARTIN: So, thing one. But thing two, there also has been a subtext. On one hand people are celebrating the way she's doing the job, the fact that she is in that job. But there's also been the subtext of, is that all there is? I mean that here's a woman who's so accomplished in her own right and now she's planting the White House garden, which is nice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And describes herself as mom-in-chief. And of course she did - she was a major player in signing - The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed. It was the first piece of legislation signed by the Obama administration but there are still those people who say, gee, is this a step forward or a step backwards to have somebody who has taken on - who is African-American but taking on such a traditional profile in doing the job?

Ms. GIHVAN: Well, I think that that's definitely true. And I think one of the things that's happening is that people are adjusting to the idea of what it really means for this African-American woman who has this extraordinary resume but also has this softer side and how she represents that publicly. And I think for a lot of women there is this sense of disappointment that she's not out there, sort of waving her resume around and being this kind of powerful professional woman.

But I think there are other women, particularly black women, who are really happy to see that she's showing this other side of who they are, which is the softer side, this more feminine side, this nurturing side, this non-angry side. Because that had become the caricature that she'd had to deal with during the campaign, that she was this angry black woman.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Robin Gihvan, Pulitzer Prize winning fashion editor at The Washington Post, and Katherine Spillar editor-in-chief of Ms. Magazine. We're talking about the state of the women's movement today and what Michelle Obama represents as kind of a part of that movement. So what do you think, Robin? And I know that that's kind of a tough question but that's kind of what you do is take the big picture…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: …and make it something we can all just talk about. What do you think Michelle Obama, and the way she is doing her job represents as part of the continuum of the woman's movement? And then Kath, I'm going to ask you the same question.

Ms. GIHVAN: Well, I mean, one the things that the women's movement has always talked about is this idea that ultimately what - they want for all women is to be able to make choices for their lives, the choices that are appropriate for them. And I think for a lot of women, particularly for African-American women, the choices were much more narrow because their lives in many ways were not fully in their control.

So the problem now, I mean, that I tend to see is that there is this undercurrent that there are the correct choices that you are supposed to make. That your - there is an assumption that if you've been given or you've created for yourself the opportunity to go to these Ivy League schools and to have the six-figure salary and to be in the boardroom, to have a seat at the table, to in fact run the table, that that should be your priority. And so I do think there is this kind of back and forth struggle that basically says, how can you not make the decision that people have worked so hard for you to be able to make? How can you make this decision to be this mom? And one of my colleagues at the paper actually has written quite eloquently about this idea that for black women, the choice to solely focus on the maternal side of themselves is a really unique and wonderful choice to be able to do that and not to have to work outside of the home.

MARTIN: On the maternal side and the community activism side - that kind of the volunteer side because certainly Michelle Obama is very active in bringing attention to the things that are of interest to her. Katherine, we only have a couple of minutes left to go. What about you? Did you - and I understand this is kind of an amorphous question, but do you think that the members of NOW want to see something different from what Michelle Obama is doing now? Want to see something different from her than what she is doing? What do you think they want from her?

Ms. SPILLAR: Well, I don't get the sense at all that they want anything different than what she has set this course in her life at this moment. In fact, I think, what she is going to bring to the discussion is long-standing issues of how do you balance work and family? And what does society need to provide us our early childhood education and paid family and medical leave. And I think President Obama himself too is going to provide a different model for involvement in his children's lives and sharing the responsibilities of family.

I think, it's a remarkable time and exactly at the right time because these are the very issues that women have been struggling with, especially women with fewer resources, is how do you make ends meet and do everything you need to do to raise a family and to be out there earning a leaving? So I think it's a remarkable time and she is such a strong and articulate advocate on these issues. It's going to be exciting to see what happens.

MARTIN: Well, we have to leave it there for now, to be continued clearly. Katherine Spillar is executive editor of Ms. Magazine and executive vice-president of the Feminist Majority Foundation. She joined us from member station KUT in Austin. Robin Gihvan is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, fashion editor at The Washington Post. She was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome back to Washington. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SPILLAR: Thank you.

Ms. GIHVAN: Thank you.

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