NOW Conference Calls for Feminist to Take Charge of Politics, Law, Media

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

Beverly Hills, CA (CNS) - The National Organization for Women held its annual meeting in California July 2-5, and conference attendees called on entertainment executives to produce more feminist characters and fewer shows like "Ally McBeal."

The success of Ally McBeal, a popular fictional character, recently prompted Time magazine to ask "Is Feminism Dead?" in a cover story featuring the waifish, mini-skirted television lawyer. Noting that the McBeal character likes men, thinks sex is about more than recreation, and wants to get married before having a child, Time asked if she represented a repeal of the more radical elements of feminism.

The force behind the conference was NOW's president for the past 10 years, Patricia Ireland. In a decade that saw more women elected to Congress, nominated for the Supreme Court, and even graduating from college at a higher rate than men, Ireland maintains she has steered the group away from an "us vs. them" anti-male orientation to a position as a force for progressive politics that embraces homosexual rights and a radical economic agenda.

Some speakers on the "Is There Feminism In Hollywood?" panel could not resist a few digs at unreformed members of the other gender. Pamela Gray, screenwriter for the film A Walk on the Moon complained that she faced hostility when she wanted to include feminine subjects in the movie.

As an example, she said that when one of the movie's characters has her first period, Gray wanted to include a scene with a lingering, close-up shot of the effects of the girl's menstruation. But the film's producer, Dustin Hoffman, forbade an extended scene.

"Dustin is wonderful, but he is a guy," Gray said. "You will see some menstrual blood, but not enough."

During her talk, Gray belittled the commercialism of the film industry and implied that she wrote screenplays with a larger goal in mind: Bringing men into line with the progressive agenda by feminizing them. She painted Hollywood as hostile to her agenda, and said that progressives in Hollywood would have to be more covert.

"One of the best ways to be a successful feminist in Hollywood is to not tell anyone what you are doing," she said. "When I have men walking out of my movie crying, that makes me happy."

Gray also wrote the screenplay for the upcoming film, Fifty Violins, starring Meryl Streep and is now writing the sequel to First Wives' Club.

The NOW conference included several speakers who claimed success in their fields while championing feminist causes. The line-up of speakers included actress Tempestt Bledsoe of "Cosby Show" fame, Tyne Daly of "Cagny and Lacey," U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), and several members of the California Assembly.

Meenakshi Seshardi, an actress from India, delivered some of the boldest comments. When Patricia Ireland prompted her to criticize the American entertainment industry and American life from her cultural perspective, she instead praised the freedom and order found in the United States. Seshardi said that in India, when actresses get married, they lose much of their work because of a different attitude toward marriage there.

"In the West, marriage is a relationship. You go out and look for a partner. As you know, in India marriages are often arranged. It can be a transaction where you try to get as much dowry or as many offices as you can," she said.

Conference speakers continually stressed the importance of political action to the assembled crowd. Among the panels at the conference was one that contained state and local politicians who encouraged the hundreds of women in the audience to run for public office, or at least contribute to a "sister's" campaign. Ireland solicited money for NOW's political action committee and stressed the importance of the 2000 election, especially for state legislatures which will redraw district lines after the census results and affect election outcomes for the next decade.

The most passionate speech concerning electoral politics came from Sheila Kuehl, the first openly homosexual person elected to the California legislature. Noting that there was a cultural gap between feminists and the middle class, she nonetheless maintained that through networking and organization, the women's movement can alter politics, which she said carries a special importance above economic or cultural influence.

"The fact that the law expresses a certain majority morality makes it a very important thing for us to capture," she said.

NOW member groups passing out literature at the conference gave concrete examples of what Kuehl means by taking over majority morality. NOW subgroups included women campaigning for abortion on demand, and for proportional representation. Another group distributed flyers calling for NOW to rescind its formal disapproval of sadism/masochism.

"Women have a right to do what they want with their bodies. That is what we all believe in here," one feminist said.