MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The National Organization for Women held its annual conference here last weekend, drawing barely 500 attendees, vs. more than 1,000 in previous years. Little wonder: Once at the forefront of women’s rights, NOW is now irrelevant. After all, feminists have little to complain about these days. The number of female senior vice presidents increased 75% in the past decade. Women now earn 98% as much as men, taking into account education, family status, profession and the number of hours worked. Women-owned businesses are growing faster than the national economy, and women are earning more college degrees than men and outnumber them in graduate school.
So, with the big fights won, NOW passed resolutions on such pressing issues as prostitution (urging harsher penalties for pimps and customers, but effective decriminalization for prostitutes themselves) and the Susan B. Anthony dollar (urging its more widespread use). It held a workshop on workfare, which participants ritually denounced as “slavery.”
One of NOW’s cutting-edge concerns is the rights of “transgendered” people. What are transgendered people? I didn’t know either, so I started asking around. NOW members didn’t seem to agree on a definition; I got answers ranging from “hermaphrodites” to “people waiting for a sex-change operation.” But in the end it didn’t matter, because the NOW resolution entitled “Oppression of Transgendered People” explains that “gender is a patriarchal social construct used to oppress women.” NOW, the resolution added, “honors the right of people to self-identify” their sex.
Excluded from NOW’s notion of radical autonomy regarding “gender,” however, is anyone who yearns for old-fashioned sex roles. NOW’s top priority is waging war on the Promise Keepers, a Christian organization that encourages men to be good husbands and fathers. “The Promise Keepers threaten the status of women as full and equal partners,” fulminated Patricia Ireland, NOW’s president. “Women, lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgendered people are their targets.”
NOW’s descent into utter triviality became clear to me as I watched the delegates debate a resolution called “Promise Keepers Mobilization Project,” whose purpose was to “defeat . . . and expose the Promise Keepers’ misogynist agenda.” The Rev. Ann Larson, a Lutheran minister from Indiana, took the microphone and said that several of her parishioners and colleagues had been “inspired” by the Promise Keepers’ message of personal responsibility and renewal. Accordingly, she proposed to amend the resolution by inserting these words: “NOW expresses recognition of men’s genuine and appropriate needs to bond with each other and their families.”
She was voted down after another delegate cautioned sternly that “a clause like that would be taken out of context and used against us.” This is what it has come to: NOW, an organization that once stood proudly for equality of the sexes, is paranoid about acknowledging that men also have needs. Too many years of living in a feminist dystopia have left NOW insular and inconsequential. American women have raced ahead, and NOW is choking on their dust.