Cover Story

Worse now than ever

With low turnout, lesbianism, and lefter-wing politics, NOW conferees cling to the fringe

Issue: "Worse NOW than ever," July 24, 1999

in Beverly Hills - Shortly after I forked over the $85 registration fee and asserted in writing that I was not a member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the on-site registrar for the group's 1999 National Conference issued me a blue badge. Yellow for members, blue for non. I had barely hung it around my neck when a friendly feminist named Barbara recruited me for door duty. "We're a little short of volunteers right now," said Barbara, who screened entrants at the conference's main venue: the Hilton Beverly Hills International Ballroom, scene of the annual Oscar nominees' luncheon and the Golden Globe Awards. "Can you help check credentials at the door?" Smiling a little inside, I agreed. (I later smiled a lot inside when I waved NOW president Patricia Ireland through.) Barbara, who confided that she'd been a NOW activist since 1976 and had helped Ms. Ireland ascend the organization's throne, tutored me on the finer points of credential-checking: "Make sure everyone has a badge." Positioning me, along with Karen, another volunteer, on opposite sides of the double-door's wide frame, Barbara then held up her hands thumb-to-thumb like a movie director to view the effect. "When people check credentials, I don't like to have them actually blocking the entrance," she explained: "Because, you know, we've been symbolically blocked from so much." So began a weekend populated with the perennially oppressed members of NOW. But not too many members, as it turned out. Despite its location in Beverly Hills, a major tourist destination, the four-day conference drew only about 800 attendees-slim pickings for a group that claims half-a-million members. Titled "Images of Women in the Media," the July 2-5 event was heavy on politically charged "workshops," which provided a handy forum for chronically offended feminists (like the attendee who was incensed that the in-flight magazine she'd seen while traveling to the conference had featured a male baseball player on the cover, rather than women's World Cup soccer). Also featured: a left-wing conga line of speakers from politics and entertainment: actress Tyne Daley (Cagney & Lacey); freshman congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.); screenwriter Pamela Gray (A Walk on the Moon); and Sheila Kuehl, probably the conference's most dynamic speaker, and the first out-of-the-closet lesbian elected to the California state house. While it's well known that NOW embraces lesbianism, few realize that the organization is awash in a Romans 1:26 subculture. At the Beverly Hilton, female couples held hands in the ballroom and strolled arm-in-arm through corridors, wearing rainbow buttons with the slogan, "Ask and I'll tell." More than half the contents of the purple vinyl conference packet issued to each attendee was devoted to gays and lesbians; two-thirds of the material displayed on the only information table inside the International Ballroom was lesbian-oriented. And at least half the entertainers on tap were lesbians, including a male-bashing "slam poet" named Alix Olson. Ms. Olson ascended the stage following a rousing speech by NOW co-founder Aileen Hernandez, a septuagenarian feminist whose denunciation of capitalism sparked cheers from an audience seated, ironically, in an elite hotel that exists to serve the unabashedly capitalist entertainment industry. Following a standing ovation for Ms. Hernandez, Ms. Olson shambled up on stage. Star-struck, she smiled and shook her head, obviously overwhelmed by the legendary Ms. Hernandez, and, well, just the edgy cachet generated by this radical feminist gathering. "We are so cool!" she gushed. Ms. Olson then rapped from memory a pair of vile, divisive, male-hating, profane creations she called "poems." In her first poem, penned, she said, for her grandmother, Ms. Olson portrayed herself as a witch who swoops down on her broom to dismember men and make a stew of their vital body parts. In her second number, she fantasized about eradicating all males from her lineage (an interesting trick) and giving birth to herself aided only by women. Both poems were littered with crude references to the female body. When she finished, the entire audience sprang to its feet, applauding wildly and shouting for an encore. "These women are involved in feminism for a reason," says former NOW national press secretary Amy Tracy, who converted to Christ and later switched sides in another way: She works for Focus on the Family. "There's so much brokenness among the women in NOW. Through activism, they're responding to the pain in their lives. They know they have a need, but they don't have a concept of what it is to know Christ." NOW as an organization rejects Christ with both hands. On Friday morning, Melinda McLain, an ecumenical lesbian reverend, sat behind the ballroom information table. She was explaining to a companion the pattern on the ministerial stole that hung from her shoulders. "This woman I know who does quilting came up with the sun, moon, and stars pattern instead of plain white," said Ms. McLain. "I like it because it works for pagans, Jews, whatever. And," she added, grimacing with distaste, "there's not too much Christian imagery." Her companion laughed knowingly. Ms. McLain later opened the NOW conference with an obligatory spiritual moment. Studiously avoiding Christian references, she launched the evening plenary by beating a tom-tom. She was accompanied by two fellow feminists, one shaking a rattle, the other a "rain-stick." Equating the thudding tom-tom with a heartbeat and the rain-stick with water "which is so powerful it cut the Grand Canyon," Ms. McLain then asked the audience to "go within you and beyond you, to that which is spirit, which is sacred, which is divine in the way you understand it." Such emphasis on individualism extends beyond the spiritual. Fractious concepts of race, social structure, sexual orientation, and even sexual practice polarize NOW members, creating a galaxy of dissonant factions. In the conference exhibit area, standard-issue liberal groups like the National Abortion Rights Action League and Americans United for Separation of Church and State parked alongside their more revolutionary cousins: the socialist-feminist junta Radical Women, for example. Founded in 1967, the group advocates the destruction of the current American economic, political, and social structure, and cites Cuba as one possible replacement model. At another exhibition booth, a klatch of lesbian sadomasochists stumped for something they called the "S/M Policy Reform Project." Apparently, the "SM-Leather-Fetish" lesbian members of NOW feel "marginalized and misunderstood" because of a 1980 NOW policy that excludes sadomasochism from the pantheon of lesbian "rights." The Reform Project is demanding that NOW rescind the policy, which calls sadomasochism a "premeditated structure for violence." It is on issues like violence against women (including domestic violence), equal pay, and workplace discrimination that NOW has made legitimate gains in the name of "equity feminism"-that is, the quest for a "level playing field" with no special favors for either sex. But NOW's success in achieving its equity agenda of the 1960s and '70s forced the organization into an identity search that today pits its ideology against its image. As NOW tries to face down conservative ascendancy by building coalitions with feminist and homosexual-rights groups more radical than itself, its politics skew ever further to the left. Meanwhile, the public's perception of the group is in sharp decline. That perception has forced NOW to try and stretch one foot back over into the American mainstream-if only cosmetically. At a July 3 conference session, Patricia Ireland announced the January 2000 launch of a PR campaign designed to "reposition ourselves and broaden our image." An ad agency had studied the public's opinion of NOW; Ms. Ireland reported the results: "While there were many very positive adjectives like courageous, persistent, active, and politically savvy," she said, "there were also things like unyielding, pushy, abrasive, unfocused, [and] cult-like." Ms. Ireland then unveiled for conference-goers a series of TV spots that attempt to paint NOW as a group filled with everyday women. As video rolled on a wide screen, a warm, female voiceover reassured viewers: "In a lot of ways, our 500,000 members are a lot like you." Of course, the ad script didn't mention that at least three of the "everyday women" in the spot were NOW national officers. Which may illustrate NOW's flawed understanding of the mainstream American woman, a concept also made evident by issues NOW did not consider important enough to include in the conference agenda. Children, for example, were never mentioned in the workshops as a natural thread in the fabric of femininity-only as objects of litigation, oppression, or feminist child-care initiatives. NOW's bid to build mainstream appeal points up its desperate struggle for cultural relevance-a struggle one conference speaker may have acknowledged accidentally. On the first night of the conference, spurred on by cheers, California Assemblywoman Gloria Romero thrust a militant fist into the air and proudly exclaimed: "Don't let anyone deny that feminism is dead!"

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