Did Palin supporters swing the NOW election?

After Terry O'Neill is voted president, questions arise about the group's pro-life members

Topics: Broadsheet,

Last week, I posted about the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) exciting 2009 election, which pitted 56-year-old white activist Terry O’Neill against NOW’s 33-year-old black vice president for membership, Latifa Lyles. Considering NOW’s challenge to reinvent itself for a new generation of feminists, it was hard not to see the echoes of Obama in Lyles’ candidacy, not just because of her age and race but also the opportunity for change she offered in her commitment to technology and diversity.

But last November’s history did not repeat itself at NOW’s national conference in Indiana this weekend. O’Neill won the election by a slim margin (some say eight votes). In a statement, NOW’s president-elect said that she was “honored and eager” to lead the organization. O’Neill also told a personal story:

My experience with domestic violence, as an abused wife left me humiliated and embarrassed. I only began to talk about this publicly five years ago as I realized that to keep quiet was to continue the abuse. I want to empower women and telling my story does just that.

While Lyles had the support of NOW’s current president, Kim Gandy, in the election, the organization’s past president Patricia Ireland endorsed O’Neill. In a letter posted on Broadsheet last week, Ireland argued that O’Neill was the true candidate of change, maintaining that, as NOW’s current vice president, Lyles is largely responsible for the group’s uninspiring work in the past few years. A blogger at Reclusive Leftist — who was overjoyed with Saturday’s results — agreed, denouncing Lyles as Gandy’s “hand-picked successor” and calling Gandy and Eleanor Smeal (past president of NOW and founder of the Feminist Majority Foundation) “dishonest Obama-enabling hacks.” (As if that weren’t dramatic enough, she also suggested that “if life were an Akira Kurosawa movie” Gandy and Smeal “would commit ritual seppuku in public to atone for the grave dishonor they did to the feminist movement.”)



Meanwhile, Viva la Feminista blogger Veronica Arreola, who supported Lyles, says O’Neill (who is pro-choice) owes her election to pro-life feminists. She writes:

The Sarah Palin supporters swung this election. The election was certainly close enough — less than 10 votes separated the two slates. Then again, if Latifa’s supporters had been able to bring just a handful of additional supporters, we’d have an entirely different picture to discuss. The Palin people out organized us, plain and simple.

The inclusion of pro-life feminists in NOW has been a sticking point for the organization (“*big ass sigh,*” Arreola writes when introducing the topic). NOW is and has always been a pro-choice organization, and as someone who’s spent some time in the pro-choice movement, I have seen “Feminists for Life” infiltrate women’s groups. The results are always the same: Progress on every single reproductive rights initiative slows to a halt. But Arreola welcomes the contingent, strange bedfellows though they may be:

As a student of feminist history I can’t help but think of all the other times when the movement was at a cross-roads, especially when it was pitted as an “old regime versus new generation” battle. We go thru these periods, we battle each other and even with all our bruises, we end up going forward anyway.

And so O’Neill now bears the challenge of uniting feminists young and old and of all races, ethnicities and sexual orientations. If she makes it a priority to value and solicit the contributions of all women — not just the middle-aged, middle-class white ones who dominate NOW’s core membership — then she may still bring the change that many felt Lyles represented.

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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