Allendra Letsome

(WOMENSENEWS)–At this time last year, 24-year-old Erin Matson, in her second year as the youngest state chapter president of Minnesota NOW, spent hours on the phone persuading the national executives of Walgreens, the state’s dominant drugstore chain, to change their pharmacist-refusal clause, which pertains to all forms of birth control.

Around that same time, Latifa Lyles in Washington, D.C., was elected membership vice president at the National Organization for Women, and, according to her official bio, became the group’s youngest national officer at 29. NOW’s three other national officers are in their mid-40s or older.

Earlier in 2005, 26-year-old Allendra Letsome, co-president of Maryland NOW, testified before the Maryland House of Representatives to condemn a proposed fetal rights law. Letsome and other advocates argue that such bills, making the homicide of a “viable” fetus a separate crime, creates inroads against abortion rights. Letsome’s argument that the loss of the fetus should only be considered as an “additional aggravating factor” was ultimately unpersuasive and the bill became a law in May 2005.

Today all three will be in Albany, N.Y., as featured speakers among other women under 30 at NOW’s third Young Feminist Summit, which will kick off the venerable advocacy organization’s annual national conference weekend. NOW also celebrates its 40th anniversary.

Later in the weekend, former NOW presidents Eleanor Smeal and Patricia Ireland will be leading workshops on faith and feminism as well as Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark Supreme Court case legalizing abortion.

Folk singer Ani DiFranco will perform at the conference and will be presented with NOW’S annual Woman of Courage Award for her commitment to activist causes. NOW founder Betty Friedan, who died in February, will also be honored.

Setting the Feminist Agenda

For many of the 800 women registered to attend from 550 NOW chapters across the country, voting on proposed resolutions that set the organization’s agenda for the coming year–on issues such as abortion rights or same-sex marriage–is the main order of business.

Workshops will also be offered on topics such as global feminism, educational equity and the risks of breast implants.

“I’m really looking forward to meeting people and networking,” Matson said. “It’s this big stew of people committed to equality. It’s incredibly energizing.”

Some state chapters subsidize travel expenses for participants. NOW recruited young women for Friday’s program through e-mail alerts to its campus contacts.

Matson sees the weekend as an opportunity for NOW to form a cohesive vision on the emerging issue of pharmacist refusal.

Last year, when faced with the prospect of a pro-choice demonstration outside a store in St. Paul, Walgreens’ executives struck a compromise with Matson. Pharmacists could still refuse to fill birth-control prescriptions, but women were guaranteed in-store access either from another pharmacist on site or else the store would arrange for the prescription to be delivered from a different location. Matson sees it as a partial victory and wants NOW to push for legislation that would protect and ease women’s access to birth control.

“State chapters have been addressing this issue,” Matson said, but “this is the first time to address this as a large group.” Matson will be telling her story at a workshop on fighting for reproductive rights at the state level.

Firing Up the Next Generation

In another workshop, Lyles will talk about how she fought the privatization of Social Security as a public policy associate for the Older Women’s League, based in Arlington, Va. She hopes the workshop will fire up young women’s interest in issues they could be facing in the decades ahead: universal child care, Social Security and tax credits for caregivers, and paid family medical leave insurance.

Letsome, meanwhile, would like NOW chapters to do more to help women in the sex trade, slave marriages and forced servitude. Taina Bien Aime, executive director of Equality Now, a New York City-based human rights organization founded in 1992 to combat human trafficking, is the weekend’s keynote speaker. Unlike this gathering, which addresses an eclectic array of issues–human trafficking, caregivers’ rights, access to birth control–the last Young Feminist Summit held in 1995 in Arlington, Va., focused exclusively on ending violence against women.

Over 1,200 people attended and formed grassroots action plans for their local communities. The weekend ended with a rally in Washington, D.C., to promote the protection of the Violence Against Women Act, first passed in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000 and 2006.

The 2006 law approved $4 billion over five years for programs that aid victims of domestic violence–an 18 percent increase over the 2000 law. But lawmakers are not expected to fully fund the domestic violence programs authorized in the 2006 law when they dole out money for fiscal 2007.

Letsome said NOW recently changed its bylaws to mandate that in every even-numbered year the annual conference should be themed, which is why another Young Feminist Summit is being held this year.

“The idea for the summit came from the young women themselves,” said NOW President Kim Gandy, referring to members of the NOW Young Feminist Task Force, formed in July 2003 to advise on the priorities of young women within the organization. Each member is under 30 and was appointed by Gandy.

The Young Set Arrives

Some of the youngest members of the task force are 15-year-old Auretnisse Santos, a member of Bronx NOW in New York, and 17-year-old Liz Funk, a writer and columnist from Voorheesville, N.Y.

Santos is working on starting a NOW chapter at her high school. Funk focuses on what she sees as the media’s destructive portrayal of women in her blog, written for Albany’s Times-Union, a daily paper. In July and October 2005, Funk organized protests and postcard campaigns against MTV for “exploiting Generation Y.” She said the music channel reinforced “confining gender roles” by celebrating hyper-macho rappers.

Jessica Valenti, the 27-year-old executive editor and founder of the blog,, which Valenti says has 15,000 to 20,000 readers per day, will also be at the summit.

In the workshop, “Blog NOW, Vote Later,” Valenti will talk about the benefits of stronger links between her online forum and NOW.

In November 2004 the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics proposed discontinuing its Women’s Workers Data Series–which provided vital information on the status of women’s labor force participation–due to a lack of demand for the numbers. posted an entry on it almost immediately. NOW responded in mid-January 2005, with a post on its Web site that called on members to write letters to the Labor Department to urge them “to keep collecting data on women workers.”

“Imagine we had been collaborating, we probably could have moved a lot faster on that,” said Valenti.

In June 2006, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said it would continue the Women’s Workers Data Series after organizations including NOW lobbied to keep it going.

In the same way that NOW can learn from individuals such as Valenti, Gandy hopes that newcomers at the meeting “will learn from other young women the power of taking action as a group.”

Jeanine Plant is a freelance writer based in New York.

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For more information:

2006 NOW Conference Homepage

“Betty Friedan Woke Women From Mystique of Sleep”

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