The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.59/No.29           August 14, 1995 
Now Conference Focuses On Elections, Affirmative Action  

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Defending affirmative action, support to Democratic Party candidates in the 1996 elections, the rise in right-wing groups, and campaigning for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution were some of the main issues discussed at the annual conference of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Some 700 delegates and guests participated in the plenary sessions, workshops, and other activities held here July 21-23.

The day before the conference opened, the board of regents at the University of California voted "to remove race, religion, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin" from criteria for admissions by 1997 and in hiring and contracting by 1996. This was one of many attacks on affirmative action that participants discussed how to resist.

"We're going to be protesting full-blast, at every board of regents meeting, until the decision is reversed," said Janice Pemberton from California. Participants from around the country snapped up buttons and placards reading "Support Affirmative Action" that the NOW members from California sold.

"We're planning a march and rally for affirmative action September 8," said Ruth Wyman, a student at the University of Illinois in Champaign. "We see what's happening in California. If we don't mobilize now, it will be too late."

How to defend affirmative action
In the workshops and discussions on conference resolutions, different views were put forward on what affirmative action is and how to defend it.

Several speakers referred approvingly to the July 19 speech by U.S. president Bill Clinton in which he criticized those who would end entirely affirmative action programs. At the same time, White House officials stated that Clinton would soon require federal agencies to eliminate or reform any program that includes quotas or creates "reverse discrimination."

"Clinton gave a strong speech for affirmative action," declared NOW president Patricia Ireland in her main address to the conference. "I'm proud of him and I'm proud of you for making sure he did it."

One participant in a workshop asked, "How do you answer when white men say affirmative action is taking away their jobs?" Her question was echoed by many others.

Kathy Rogers, executive director of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, responded, "We need to explain that affirmative action is for qualified people only; otherwise businesses couldn't function."

"In 1982 I got a job in an ironworks along with four other women. That was because of quotas," said Lea Sherman from Brooklyn, taking a different approach in the discussion on a proposed resolution on the issue. Supporters of affirmative action should answer the right wing by supporting quotas, she said. "They are the teeth to affirmative action."

Affirmative action does not just benefit women and minorities, contended Amy Husk, a laid-off garment worker from New York City, in one of the plenary sessions. The labor movement "should defend affirmative action as part of a fight for jobs for all," she said. "Affirmative action strengthens the working class as a whole, including workers who are white men, because it puts us in a better position to unite. At the same time we need to fight for a shorter workweek with no cut in pay, a higher minimum wage, and international solidarity."

Equal rights amendment
Extensive discussion at the conference focused on a campaign for a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women. Ireland laid out NOW's perspective of getting the ERA passed by the year 2002 by "moving more of us into public office. We need to get more feminist candidates in the pipeline," she said.

Delegates debated whether to present the original wording from the 1972-82 ERA fight - "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the U.S. or by any state on account of sex" - or a new version barring "discrimination on account of sex, race, sexual orientation, marital status, ethnicity, national origin, color or indigence." The new wording was eventually adopted as a working draft.

Another topic of discussion was answering right-wing politicians and groups. This mostly focused on the Republican Party and the 1996 presidential elections.

Participants in a workshop titled "Rise of right-wing violence" debated how to respond to militia outfits, antiabortion terrorists, and other ultrarightist forces. Eleanor Smeal, one of the workshop presenters and president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said women's rights activists need to work with various police agencies to combat these organizations.

One participant spoke against giving greater powers to the cops, noting the history of government spying and disruption of political organizations, including NOW.

Smeal replied, "It's an outrage that the militias openly organize to violently overthrow our government. It's treason. The laws are too lenient. There's got to be some law and order."

A workshop on "Welfare and poverty issues" generated debate as well. One participant proposed that NOW counter the propaganda against women who have children while they are receiving welfare. "Poor women should have the right to have a baby if they choose," she said. Another woman argued instead that women on welfare should be educated against having babies "that they can't take care of."

Defending abortion rights
One of the few discussions on abortion rights at the conference focused on bills currently before the Ohio legislature and in Congress that would outlaw D and X (dialation and extraction) abortions. This is a rare procedure for late-term abortions, generally used in cases of severe birth defects or when a woman's life is endangered by the pregnancy. Participants agreed that these bills are aimed at making inroads against the right to abortion in general.

A number of participants were youth who took part in a Young Feminists Summit sponsored by NOW last April, which drew 1,200 participants. A resolution proposing that young feminists conferences be held at least once every four years was debated and referred to the NOW National Board for decision.

Participants in the conference were involved in a wide range of other activities. Cathleen Bonner, a student at Gettysburgh College in Maryland, described how she helped organize a panel discussion last December to speak out against the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 adopted in California. "This law is disastrous for anyone who looks immigrant," she said.

Several NOW members from New Jersey brought their experience in fights against police brutality to the gathering. "Women don't just face domestic violence," explained Isabel Espinosa. "We face brutality from the police, the government, the welfare system."

Espinosa was charged with assault last January by a Jersey City cop after she resisted his assault on her. A couple months later she helped start the New Jersey Committee against Police Brutality after Julio Tarquino died in police custody in Jersey City.

Diana Newberry, from New York City, who is attending the Cuba Lives International Youth Festival in August, said there was a lot of interest in that trip. "About half a dozen people offered to organize report-back meetings for young people going to the festival," she said.

A women's rights march through downtown Columbus during the conference protested the proposed restrictions on abortion rights pending in the Ohio state legislature. The rally drew workers and youth from the area, and several hundred conference participants.

Leaflets were also distributed at the conference for a march planned for August 26 in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the 75th anniversary of women winning the right to vote.

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