Monday, Jun 15, 2009 7:16 PM UTC

Change feminists can believe in?

Age and race play an unprecedented role in the campaign to replace retiring NOW president Kim Gandy

A young, black candidate who promises diversity and change faces off against an older, white candidate who, for many, represents preservation of the status quo. Sound familiar? Well, despite the obvious referent, it also describes the current campaign to replace Kim Gandy as president of the National Organization for Women (NOW). The group will elect a new leader at its national conference in Indianapolis, which begins Friday.

Gandy, who is stepping down after eight years of presidency, is endorsing Latifa Lyles, who has spent the past four years as NOW’s Vice President for Membership. At 33, Lyles would be NOW’s youngest president. She and her supporters argue that Lyles’ age and race — she’s African American — will help the organization connect with two demographics it sorely needs help reaching: younger women and women of color. “It’s hard to ignore the fact there’s been a generational shift in the country, and an organization that doesn’t recognize that is living in the past,” Gandy told the Associated Press. Lyles has also won the support of Feministing’s Jessica Valenti, who for many represents the new face of feminism. “NOW has done amazing work over the years. But younger feminists, online feminists — we haven’t had a lot of connections with them,” she said. “When you think of NOW, you think of white middle-class feminism — 70s feminism … A lot of younger women are tired of seeing the same kind of leadership over and over.”

Lyles’ competition is Terry O’Neill, a 56-year-old white activist who held Lyles’ position at NOW between 2001 and 2005. O’Neill’s endorsers include Patricia Ireland, Gandy’s predecessor and one of NOW’s highest-profile past presidents, and another of the group’s current vice presidents, Olga Vives. “There is a role that requires us to take unpopular stands and push on our friends,” Ireland told the AP. “That’s what I think Terry really gets. She’s the one I believe will be very willing to use a wide array of tactics — not just traditional letters and e-mails, but also engage in civil disobedience, organize fasts, be at some congressman’s district office.”

Frustratingly, while the AP article describes O’Neill’s platform — and specifically her emphasis on grassroots activism and direct action — it barely touches on the changes Lyles promises to make, choosing instead to obsess over her identity as a young, black woman. A quick glance at Lyles’ campaign Web site, which she shares with a like-minded vice presidential ticket that calls itself the “Now’s the Time” team, reveals more salient information: “It is time we join our legacy, our stature, our traditions, and our networks with new technology and new voices to emerge as the unparalleled social justice movement that we are,” writes Lyles, who is making use of Facebook and Twitter in her campaign. The site also posts a selection of Lyles’ recent media appearances, in which she’s discussed everything from sexting and single-sex education to Don Imus’ revolting attack on the Rutgers women’s basketball team. 

While I would never argue that youth, diversity and technology alone make for a robust feminist movement, it seems to me that NOW is in dire need of a candidate like Lyles. As Valenti said in her AP interview, it’s very difficult for young feminists to relate to a movement that can’t embrace technology. A glance at NOW’s poorly designed, difficult to navigate, pink-and-purple Web site — which doesn’t even incorporate a blog, a message board or any other form of online community-building feature  — pretty much says it all. The nation’s largest and most visible feminist group should have a massive online presence; now.org should be a hub for women’s news and a lively forum for grassroots organizing and debate.

O’Neill’s willingness to engage in hunger strikes and other forms of civil disobedience is admirable, but it isn’t what 21st-century political change is about. The young people who played such a large part in President Obama’s election used the Internet to raise money, spread news and quickly plan the massive rallies that would have taken their ’60s forerunners months of painstaking work. If NOW continues ignoring these tools — and alienating the young women and minorities who should represent the organization’s future — it will never again be the vital movement that started the feminist revolution 43 years ago.

UPDATE: Former NOW president Patricia Ireland — or someone claiming to be Patricia Ireland (and writing articulately) – has written into the letters section with her take on Berman’s blog post:

How strange to read criticism of National NOW’s website and its status quo in general, but then a recommendation that the incumbent, Latifa Lyles is the solution! Latifa is one of the current officers and represents the status quo in NOW. She is running on her record – which has been to have NOW function like a traditional inside-the-Beltway organization. For those of us who are concerned that the retreat to backroom meetings and insider politics will backfire and hurt women’s rights, the choice is clear. Terry O’Neill will have a wider array of targets in her sites: yes, government, of course, but also Wall Street and Wal-Mart, the media and the military,religion and familiies…all the institution that shape women’s lives. And she vows a wider array of tactics to hold our friend and our foes accountable to improve the lives of all women — women in poverty, lesbians, women with disabilities, women of all ages, races and ethnicities.