What Now? Terry O'Neill for NOW President

As NOW members prepare to choose a new president, they must ask themselves: what is NOW's purpose and role in these ostensibly progressive times?

This weekend, members of the National Organization for Women, NOW, will elect a new president and team of officers to lead the organization for the next four years. The mainstream media and even Salon.com have identified the choice in only the most superficial terms, as a twenty-something African American versus a fifty-something white woman.

But much, much more is at stake, and the outcome will have an impact far beyond NOW's membership.

Only one of the leaders vying to become the new NOW president is running on the promise of restoring NOW's prominence and rebuilding NOW's activism by taking NOW back out into the streets and into the public eye. Terry O'Neill vows to use a broader array of tactics to improve women's lives from lobbying to non-violent civil disobedience, blogging to picketing. O'Neill also has a broader list of targets in her sites: government to be sure, but also Wall Street and Wal-Mart, education and religion, the military and the media... every institution that shapes women's lives, including our roles in our families.

O'Neill's opponent is part of NOW's current administration and 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.

What happens in NOW affects progress for women far beyond the organization. NOW is synonymous with the feminism in popular culture, if not in reality. Cartoonists draw women in NOW tee-shirts to denote they're feminists. Elizabeth Hasslebeck demands that NOW defend her honor when a Playboy.com writer lists her as one of the conservative women he'd like to "hate f**k."

These are tough times for feminists. We join progressive people here and around the world in celebrating the hope and promise of President Obama's election. The Democrats are finally in charge of Washington, DC. But all is far from well.

Dr. Tiller's brutal murder was followed later that same week by President Obama's disturbing appointment to a senior level of Health and Human Services of a woman who opposes women's reproductive freedom. G. Gordon Liddy says he hopes Supreme Court cases don't come up during Sonia Sotomayor's menstrual period, and a syndicated cartoon shows her hanging as a piñata. Governor Palin's 14-year-old daughter is objectified and sexualized by David Letterman.

As NOW members prepare to vote for their national officers, they must ask themselves: what is NOW's purpose and role in these ostensibly progressive times?

During the early months of the Obama administration and the new Democratic Congress, NOW's leaders seem to have been relishing their new roles as "friends" of the administration. Certainly, they once again have access to the White House and are invited in for meetings and ceremonies. But how does that access pay off for women? It won't if we don't have an outsider strategy to strengthen the insider role.

NOW has a rich tradition of being an activist organization willing to push the envelope. When then-nominee for Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders was attacked for her views, for example, NOW organized protests outside the Senate office building -- while other women's groups waited in line to watch the confirmation hearings being held inside. When anti-abortion thugs blockaded women's health clinics, NOW chapters were the first to organize clinic defense teams.

NOW has always been the one group that women could count on to take action to improve women's lives. NOW has historically been willing to hold friends and foes alike accountable and to keep up the public pressure for women's rights.

Terry O'Neill and her team offer more than hope; they offer a concrete plan to fight at all levels of government but also in the streets to win for women's rights. NOW needs to reinvest in and reinvigorate its grassroots. And Terry O'Neill is the candidate who is willing to dig in and make that happen.