"I tell people I'm working for NOW and they look at their watches and say, 'It's 2 o'clock.'" —Aubrey Hall
"They came into office on the basis of fixing the economy and creating jobs... All they've done is decide that our uteruses are worth invading instead." —Jackie Norwich
Aubrey Hall is an exuberant 20-year-old junior majoring in women and gender studies at the University of South Florida. The Tampa native began her schooling as a psych major, and still hopes to work as an academic in public health. But an online class on the female experience in America struck a chord, and she opted the following semester to take another. Now she's majoring in women and gender studies.
Aubrey is also working as a volunteer at the National Organization for Women's national conference, coming to Tampa next weekend. She admits that the feminist organization, which was created in the mid-1960s but truly came of age in the '70s, isn't a household word on campus. "I tell people I'm working for NOW and they look at their watches and say, 'It's 2 o'clock,'" she laughs, speaking with CL at the Marshall Student Center on campus.
But if the organization — and the feminist movement overall — is going to continue to be relevant in the 21st century, it needs people like Aubrey and Jackie Horwich, a 20-year-old USF senior also majoring in women's and gender studies.
Horwich says a class in high school awakened her. She began her USF career majoring in social work, but ultimately decided to focus her coursework and her life on women's issues. And she says what she's learned is that anyone can be a feminist — it doesn't matter what age, or even what gender. "Feminists aren't man-haters," she asserts. "We're about equality, and we want you to understand that."
One of the most persistent obstacles to equality is the lack of pay equity. Horwich says she hasn't seen much of that so far herself in her young life, but believes the bigger issue is the lack of access for women to high-paying jobs. Yeah, there's Oprah and Gaga, she says, but there are still lots of women who don't get the chance to excel in math or science, and thus make it into engineering and other lucrative professions.
Horwich and Hall are two of approximately three dozen USF students with the FSA (Feminist Student Alliances) who have been awarded scholarships by the Tampa NOW chapter for the three-day conference. Based at Embassy Suites Tampa-USF in North Tampa, the conference is expected to attract approximately 600 members of the national group. Workshops will include equality in public office and on corporate boards, equity in male-female relationships, and how feminism can work hand-in-hand with unions.
But perhaps the biggest concern is the onslaught of anti-abortion legislation (64 such bills nationally) that has been passed and signed already this year by newly elected Republican Governors throughout the country — and yes, that definitely includes the Sunshine State.
In Florida alone, the overwhelmingly GOP-led Legislature this spring passed measures that would:
• Put on the November 2012 ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban public funding of abortions — already prohibited by law — and exempt abortion from the Florida Constitution's strong privacy right.
• Exclude abortion from policies obtained through insurance exchanges, which states must establish in 2014 under the federal health care overhaul, although separate abortion riders paid for by policyholders may be offered.
• Require women to undergo ultrasounds before getting an abortion although they can opt out of a requirement to view or listen to a description of the image.
• Make it more difficult for minors seeking abortions to get court waivers from Florida's parental notification law.
• Loosen limits on the spending of money raised from "Choose Life" license plates to facilitate adoption, including letting an advocacy group use 15 percent for administration and promotion
NOW President Terry O'Neill says that strategizing on how to stop "this war on women" will be a major focus in Tampa.
In recent months, Congressional Republicans in Washington have placed a bullseye on Planned Parenthood, calling for the government to wipe out the organization's federal funding, which led PP advocates to emphasize on cable news the cancer screenings, pap smears and other health care-related issues the organization addresses. But their efforts to downplay abortion upsets Jackie Horwich, who says that the organization shouldn't be ashamed to admit that it provides reproductive services, as she bashes Florida Republicans. "They came into office on the basis of fixing the economy and creating jobs and that's not happening. All they've done is decide that our uteruses are worth invading instead."
NOW was formed in 1966 and was a fixture in the news in the 1970s, when the push for an Equal Rights Amendment began to flourish. (That bid is not dead yet. Congress passed the law in 1972 and sent it to the states for ratification, but when the allotted deadline passed in 1982, the ERA was three states short of the 38 needed to get into the Constitution — with Florida one of the states that never passed the bill. Wisconsin Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin has introduced legislation that would drop the time limit.)
At a recent planning meeting, Pasco County NOW member Doris Rosen addressed Horwich and a handful of her USF classmates, saying she hoped that being part of the conference would lead to a lifetime commitment. Rosen has attended previous NOW conferences across the country, and she emphasized the feeling of togetherness that results from such confabs. "When we try to do something, we don't do it just for us, but for all women."
She does admit that, with so many political animals in a room, the meetings can be contentious. "They do micro-manage," she confesses about what happens as resolutions are hammered out, but says it's important work that sets the national policy for the upcoming year.
Aubrey Hall, who was born 18 years after Roe v. Wade, says she can't understand how anti-abortion legislation ever became a priority this year with the unemployment rate so high and foreclosures still rolling in at an epic rate, and says she'll never understand it.
If NOW isn't in the headlines as much as it used to be, leadership contends that they're fighting just as hard as ever on some of the biggest issues in our culture, such as the argument in D.C. over which federal programs to cut in order to get Congressional approval to raise the debt ceiling in early August.
That's the day when the U.S. Treasury says if the debt ceiling isn't raised, the government will run out of money, which some bond directors say would be catastrophic.
Among the most intense discussions are those being led by Vice President Joe Biden, and include Democrats and Republicans — but they're all men, leading the Older Women's Economic Security Task Force to write to President Obama, calling for the concerns of women to be considered in budget talks to reducing the deficit.
"Look, women are 50 percent of the population, and we have quite a few smart, capable wonderful women in this country. For there to be no women at the table is unacceptable," says O'Neill.
USF student Jackie Horwich agrees. "Women make up half the population in America, why aren't we included?" she asks. "Why are we still fighting this fight... it's so frustrating, it's 2011 and we still aren't there. Why aren't we talking about this?"
NOW has always been a political organization, and it's obvious that its members, young, middle-aged and older are political people, which perhaps puts them in the minority of a culture that seems more enamored than ever by celebrity.
Then there are those who believe the organization has seen better days and is searching for relevance.
Maggie Thornton is a conservative blogger based in Tulsa who writes a blog called Maggie's Notebook. In a recent fiery screed, she blasted the group on a variety of fronts, accusing it of putting taxpayer-funded abortions on their agenda, and wrote, "like most groups formed to accomplish big things [civil rights and equality], those things have been accomplished so the agenda has to find other missions to keep going."
Thornton is also among those who believe the organization is simply a haven for liberals, but has no room for anybody else.
But NOW's Terry O'Neill says the organization doesn't sit on its hands when a conservative woman is unfairly attacked, such as when comic Bill Maher called Sarah Palin a "twat" recently. Also she says, they came to the defense of California GOP gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman last year, after an aide to Democrat Jerry Brown, whom California NOW strongly endorsed, called her a whore.
But for all the work that NOW members believe still needs to be done, advances are happening in 2011. Earlier this month, Jill Abramson broke the glass ceiling at the New York Times by being appointed its executive editor, prompting former NOW president (and now Ms. Magazine publisher) Eleanor Smeal to say the hiring "smashes a barrier to women's achievement in print and digital media." Likewise encouraging, one of the local speakers at the conference will be Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor; neither her gender nor her sexual orientation (she is lesbian) has ever been an issue in Tampa.
At USF, students say they're excited to be working with feminists who have been involved in the equal rights struggle for decades. Aubrey Hall says the torch is being passed to her generation. "They fought for us to be in the workplace, so now we're fine tuning to get equal pay in the same jobs... we're trying to fix it a little at a time so it's more equal for everybody."