My disenchantment with NOW

Have you ever been in one of those relationships in which you slowly realize that it wasn’t working out, even though you share many of the same basic values and when you first started the relationship, it almost seems as though you were never meant to be separated? As painful as it might be, you know that ending the relationship is highly neccesary, yet, you still spend restless night thinking about the decision, because it affects the very life that you’ve lived.
That’s now I currently view the National Organization for Women – at least at the national level, anyhow, and since a NOW member and state president who I looked up to asked about my disenchantment, I figure it’s time I clear the air, keeping in mind that we can all disagree, yet still work on the very foundation of what we believe in.
My biggest problem with national NOW is that it seems as though it’s simply not doing enough. Yes, while I understand NOW’s mission statement, as a third-wave liberal feminist (with a sprinkle of 2nd-wave ideologies), I feel as though NOW is not extended its arms enough, to reach out to every woman who might need empowerment, and take on sexist ideologies and practices that have poisoned our societies.
As I got back from Iraq, I’ve been spending a lot of time going up and down the coast, visiting immigrant communities, and even in New York City, there seemed a lack of reproductive centers in those immigrant areas. Sure, we fight against Tim Tebow and the crap he and his mother spewed, yet what happens when women truly need access to reproductive healthcare, to include abortions? What is the point of fighting for legislations if we are ignoring women in poorer and immigrant communities?

Chinatown in New York City, as an example, has new immigrants who live around its bubble, many who do not speak English and have come into the country either with their husbands or having brought here by immigrant men who have married and brought them here. How are we supporting these women? What can we do to ensure that, in a new country, without a voice, they still get access to reproductive healthcare that “our” women get? How can we empower them with reproductive justice if we do not even know they exist?
We talk a lot, too, about immigration reforms in regard to those South of our border. Yet, what efforts has NOW made to reach out to these immigrant women to empower them through reproductive justice? Simply put, by having the “Press 2 for Spanish” on the phone is not good enough. We need education campaigns to show women that they have options, and just aren’t limited to the choices of their sexual partners and what they want. When has NOW spoken out on this?
But internationally, things look even more bleak. With systematic practices of misogyny taking place across the world each day, oftenin the Global South, where women are burned, acid thrown on their faces, for simply appearing to be impure or rejecting the advances of a suitor, NOW instead chooses to take on David Letterman. With millions of women dying each year in the Global South because of the lack of maternity care, NOW instead chooses to engage the privileged Mrs. Tebow, whose 30-second spot, whether it is aired or not, does little to help those milllions of other women, who do not even have choices.
Simply put, NOW isn’t taking on enough of the issues that are important to women. When I think of NOW, I no longer think of an organization for women, but rather, privileged, college-educated women (and dare I say mostly white). While all women need and deserve empowerment in the patriarchy, putting one group of women above another is simply unacceptable, as it ignores the intersectionalities of race and gender.
But there are also other things that have made me uneasy about NOW, mostly from an ideology framework: In taking on David Letterman, NOW made his lover out to be the victim, citing that Letterman exploited her, using his power. You see, I get it. I get that, often times, women do get exploited by their bosses, but I also get that there are many times, whether the power is in age or position, relationships of equal, where women freely consent and choose to be in such relationships, are possible.
By making this woman into a victim without her asking it to do so, NOW not only takes away her power of choice and voice, but also uses her as an ends to a means of ending unequal relationships, without having asked her to do so, or having her asked it to do so. How is that hornoring women’s choices? Pro-choice, NOW needs to learn, extends to more than just abortions, but also personal decisions – include those dealing with sexuality, women make. NOWl, it seems, fails to realize this.
Then, there is also the problems with Shelly Mandell and Marcia Pappas in the 2008 elections. To be completely sure, Mandell and Pappas are free to choose whichever feminism makes the most sense to them, but I disagree with them both on their politics. The problem, though, is that by being in leadership positions, both Mandell and Pappas, no matter how much emphasis they put on their individuality, speak for the organization overall, and to be honest, I am not sure I’d want to be associated with local presidents who make the political statements and decisions they did.
In all, NOW is still extremely important to me. It was where my feminism began. It was where I made many friends, fell for feminism and loved it so deeply I know I’ll never leave. Yet, I also know that siometimes we grow out of relationships, and now, more than ever, I no longer that fluttering heart and a feeling of affinity when I think of NOW. I sure hope that changes, because NOW was my first love within feminism, and it’s a love I hope, never ends.

Join the Conversation

  • JessicaNOWLV

    Help fix it. As the former state President of Nevada NOW, I can tell you it’s a hell of a lot of work, unpaid and unappreciated. If NOW is important to you, HELP FIX IT. The biggest problem the organization has is people like you fleeing, and leaving Marcia Pappas and Shelly Mandell to take over. Yet, because of the millions of members, the place it has in history, and the unique position it has in Washington, NOW is still relevant.
    Common.’ Do it! I will help you.


    What the hell is this?
    “Chinatown in New York City, as an example, has new immigrants who live around its bubble, many who do not speak English and have come into the country either with their husbands or having brought here by immigrant men who have married and brought them here. How are we supporting these women? What can we do to ensure that, in a new country, without a voice, they still get access to reproductive healthcare that “our” women get? How can we empower them with reproductive justice if we do not even know they exist?”
    You talk about Chinatown like it was the dark side of the moon!
    The people of Chinatown are Americans just like me and you – yes, many of them (but by no means all) speak Mandarin, Cantonese or Fukinese, and yes, most folks in that community are of Asian ancestry.
    But that doesn’t make them people from Mars!
    Oh, and newsflash – they don’t need you to speak for them!!!
    There is a whole network of community organizations in Chinatown – some dating back to the 19th century – who are perfectly capable of doing their own advocacy without some random White person coming in to “save” them.
    And yes, this includes the women of Chinatown as well.
    And they aren’t all new immigrants fresh off the boat – there have been Chinese people in Chinatown since 1780.
    Their was a huge influx of folks after the racist Chinese Exclusion laws were repealed in 1965 – so much of today’s Chinatown community are third or fourth generation Americans.
    But some are new immigrants – and, believe it or not, some of them are women who got on a plane all by themselves (not all Asian women immigrants are trafficked!)
    So you might want to ease back on the paternalism just a little bit.
    Or perhaps read a book about Chinatown or at the very least check Wikipedia before you write about it!

  • Rosie’s Mem

    Good post.
    Any idiot can be an activist by complaining about facebook groups, or getting angry about superbowl ads or what have you. Changing things in the real world is hard, complaining about culture is easy.
    And so it is for every marginal politics – it is easier for university socialists to put on a Che Guevara t-shirt and crack one-liners about Dick Cheney (hunting accident, rofl, Halliburton omgz) than actually get into factories and organise a union. That’s just the way politics is in a leisure society.
    You are a soldier, and you seem to be interested in taking real action in communities. Perhaps that is enough, and you can let others get on with their celebrity politics and cultural critique. Prefer a Protestant rather a socialist road to salvation, if you like ;)

  • Marc

    Given that I grew up in an immigrant community comprising of both Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants, I think I’d have a better understanding of it than you ever will. Do you want to speak of the challenges that they face, or are you just going to continue to take shots and miss?
    Who exactly said these women were trafficked? Certainly not I.
    And, yes, while the community is rich in its diversity of immigrants, the fact that you seem to be ignorant of is that these are tight-knit groups that rarely wander outside of its own community, and the challenges of obtaining birth control as well as learning of a new culture, often render these women powerless and without a choice.
    That, coupled with gender roles often reinforced by their own cultures and the church, among others, are the reasons many women do not have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
    Now, tell me, how many Planned Parenthoods do you see in these neighborhoods? How much progressive activism do you see taking place in these neighborhoods? Of course, you wouldn’t even know the answer to that, because, guess what? You didn’t grow up in it.
    And expand your mind – I am not just talking about Chinatown for the sake of Chinatown – there are many other immigrant communities who face the same challenges. It looks like YOU’RE the one who needs to do a little reading, or, at the very least, take a trip.
    You see – I grew up seeing these challenges, I saw my cousins being brought down by traditional gender roles. I saw the lack of outreach to people who just recently came to America. I saw young women’s potential being limited simply because they are women, and I saw brides who came to America, not through being trafficked, but by men who married them in other countries, to bring them to America, not speaking a lick of English and only getting the support from local religious institutions, which, as you well know, isn’t exactly feminist.
    You can read all the books you want, but unless you’ve got the lived experiences, you’re in no position to call anyone else out.
    AND – do you have anything positive to contribute, other than bringing up random facts and taking shots?

  • Comrade Kevin

    My advice to you is this–
    A year and a half ago I moved to Washington, DC, and began attending a long-established Quaker meeting–the oldest in the city, in fact. At first I was summarily ignored and discounted by regular attenders. This chilly reception really upset me and I wasn’t sure where to proceed from there. I was treated as though I was completely invisible by almost everyone. But I kept sharing vocal ministries during service and eventually my remarks touched a nerve.
    Other members who knew about these sorts of problem for a long time followed my lead and kept the meeting as a whole talking about issues such as these. Attenders and members my own age drew inspiration from what I was saying and began feeling more compelled to take a larger role in the meeting itself and in so doing forming their own groups to take on the problem.
    Still, there are still many in attendance who find the thought of change, reform, or anything different from the status quo as threatening, and they have made some rather sarcastic, condescending, and otherwise unhelpful remarks in the middle of service. Yet, these have become less frequent with every passing week and I feel confident that what I started all those months ago may finally be bearing fruit.
    The larger the organization, I recognize, the more challenging it is to make any headway, but I offer this story as proof that, though confrontation is inevitable in situations like these, sometimes the tide begins to turn with enough force of will.

  • Erin

    I’ve been pretty disenchanted with them as well, but because I think they focus on the wrong things, and lately haven’t been backing up their opinions with actual knowledge and facts. I live in New York, and NOW was one of the chief lobbying organizations against NY’s attempt to legalize no-fault divorce. Currently, NY is the only state in the union without no fault, which means that if you don’t have “grounds” (cruel and inhumane treatment, infidelity (although infidelity is almost impossible to prove under NY’s legal definition and standard of proof), or abandonment for 3 years or more) you basically cannot get divorced unless you’ve been legally separated, living in separate domiciles, for one year or more. (I got divorced in NY 4 years ago so I’m speaking from my experience.) In sum, NY requires couples to jump through some serious hoops to get divorced, which translates into many women not being able to afford it. NOW effectively killed NY’s efforts at no-fault divorce through a scare/smear campaign of e-mails saying that, if no-fault were instituted, men would run to the courts, get quickie divorce decrees, and escape having to pay alimony and child support. This evinces a clear lack of any understanding on the part of NOW of the legal system in New York, or of divorce/family law in its entirety.
    Although no-fault had its problems when it was first instituted in California in the 1970’s, the proposed no-fault legislation would not have allowed a divorce to be final until matters of alimony and child support were set. As far as child support is concerned, women can sue for it regardless of marital status anyways – it’s argued in an entirely separate court than divorce is, and you don’t need to have ever been married to collect from your childrens’ fathers. So I was a little shocked that NOW, which had previously shown itself to be a fairly informed organization, would take such an uninformed position and run such a Tea-Party-esque scare campaign.

  • sillyrabbittrix

    Thank you, Jessica. This is the same message I tried to address with Marc on a previous thread this week, which can be found here:
    I thought it went well, but then he posted this here. Despite good intentions, I feel pointing fingers at a grassroots organization does no good if you are not willing to participate in it and make the change you wish to see. National may have it wrong sometimes, but the value of this organization at state and local levels is priceless. We have state chapters in almost every single state – that is a lot of feminist change (I can tell you in my state we have had a HUGE impact on legislation here), and additionally, is more feasible than you think to work your way to the state level provided you are interested in working to get there and your values wholly align with NOW. After that, run on a National slate yourself and make those changes at National as well!
    Although I do not think any organization deserves to be above criticism, I also do not see how these complaints are much different from those of any other organization – you will have “imperfect members” in any organization, and some of them will be leaders. It makes no sense that in a grassroots organization, however, to say that because of those individuals, I am going to quit – when instead you can work to become one of those leaders in the organization and change what you feel isn’t working for the organization in its favor.
    This probably isn’t all that tactful, but I want to point out that I don’t see Marc threatening to leave feministing when they often have some of the same problems he complains about with NOW. I could point out a few examples in Marc’s post that have been said about this site and those running it. But I digress.
    I think the biggest problem I see in this post is half of it is complaints about specific people in the organization. NOW as a whole is incredibly awesome. Don’t leave because you don’t like a handful of people in it, even if they are in leadership positions. They do not make up all of the leadership positions or even half of them. This grassroots organization is what we make it – don’t make it about Marcia or Shelley. Make it about the principles, values, and goals of NOW.

  • AnatomyFightSong

    There are three Planned Parenthood clinics in New York City. One’s on Bleecker St., one’s in Brooklyn Heights — neither of which are that far from Chinatown. I understand your argument about the insularity of the community (and the general need to reach out to immigrant populations and women of color) but this particular point confuses me a bit.

  • lucierohan

    Marc doesn’t owe you or NOW his membership. I think he was very respectful in this post and he pointed out that NOW is still important. But Marc removing himself from one out of many activist orgs does not constitute fleeing or laziness. Feminists don’t have to be in the same clubs to work together.

  • Anna

    hi greg and marc–
    your responses are getting VERY personal when its safe to say you dont know who the other person really is and where they come from… it is not fruitful to continue dialogue in this way, all it does is fire people up and distract from the real issues at hand.
    lets try to steer clear of any assumptions of our readers.

  • Marc

    Actually, I am renewing my membership, but let’s be clear: just because I am a feminist and Shelly and Marcia are feminists, I neither have to like or respect them. Their times have past. It’s onto a new generation of feminist who take on multiple issues.
    This post and our conversation happened at the same time. I still hold the same positions as we discussed, but it doesn’t mean I am going to run away from NOW. It needs changing, and I hope to stay and change it.

  • Marc

    And how do women who don’t speak English obtain services? Do they even know what the services are?
    Simply having the services available isn’t enough, and anyone who has studied the problems of immigrant women know that often times there is a distrust in those who are not from the community. It’s a problem that needs fixing from both the inside and outside, but until we start reaching out to these women, we’re doing them a disservice. In fact, we’re not doing anything for them at all. To us, they are invisible. They and their problems don’t even exist.
    We can’t go through life assuming that every one has equal access as we do. It’s called checking our own privileges.

  • rebekah

    my only problem with no fault divorce is that it means several problems for women getting their child support. Because my mom wasn’t able to file that her husband beat her on a daily basis the court basically did not grant her the money necessary to maintain both my brother and sister in counseling, which she can’t afford to pay for on her own, and still put a roof over their heads. If we fix those kinds of things than I am totally in support of the laws, but otherwise I agree with NOW

  • lucierohan

    This is so fucking ridiculous and infuriating. Thank you for sharing. How could a feminist org take such an anti-feminist position?!

  • southern students for choice

    Just to give an example of how one can take a more radical and helpful position than the default which a lot of progressive organizations tend to give by reflex (as the term implies, “knee-jerk liberal”), we had a online discussion recently with some people supporting a simplistic (or tangential, depending on how you look at it) response to polls showing massive misunderstanding by large proportions of women AND men of basic concepts of contraception and communication difficulties regarding contraception.
    They argued for better sex education and universal health care while we argued for more funding for public health clinics, the old-fashioned health departments and the like who provide reproductive health care and basic primary care to so many relatively poor people, especially in the inner city and rural areas where few doctors have offices (and where “universal health care” would make less difference, because even if your insurance is subsidized or free, it doesn’t help very much if there is no doctor near you willing to offer their services to you).
    It’s a lot more sexy/trendy/politically popular to support vague concepts like universal health care than to argue for more funding going directly to public health services, but the latter could make more of a difference even if the former could easily be achieved. If you want to increase funding to public health services, simply increase their budget or help them open new clinics. Increase funding to Medicaid or Medicaid waivers for family planning services. You’ll also address “sex education” concerns better than arguing over changes in a curriculum which high school students will only be exposed to for a few hours a year, while better-funded community health services will reach and more profoundly affect more people, including of course people not in or no longer in high school.
    Leaving aside any criticism of NOW or specific communities, that’s an example of how one can find specific policies to support which national groups or more mainstream activists may not be so much actively supporting, but which a dedicated individual activist (like you, the reader) or motivated small group (like ours) could research and pursue on one’s own.