07/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

After a Coup d'Etat at NOW, the Future of "Feminism"

It's not personal, it's business. Revenues have been decreasing at an escalating rate in all business lines. Major losses in the main subsidiary have been financed through intercompany borrowings. Despite the financial hemorrhage, management has been taking salary increases. A bankruptcy filing could be imminent. Is this Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers? No, this is the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Some may think that NOW is an organization which has become obsolete, that women's advocacy can move forward without this remnant of the second-wave of feminism. But that is missing the point. The success of national women's organizations such as NOW is as important to women's advocacy as it was for Wall Street to have Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley find their financial footing.

Last weekend, a major coup d'etat occurred at NOW's election conference in Indianapolis. One attendee described the conference as "the nastiest election conference I've ever attended." Another added: "People I had worked with for years refused to greet me or even recognize me in the hallways of the hotel." When all was said and done, after 417 delegate votes had been cast and counted, the underdog slate headed by Terry O'Neill had taken over the reigns of NOW by a mere eight votes. This despite NOW's established leadership endorsing, actively supporting, and utilizing hardball tactics (including the disqualification of LA Chapter delegates) in support of their hand-picked slate of candidates.

What went down in Indy? Ahead of the election conference itself, a group of long-time feminists who were upset with the direction that NOW had taken decided to organize a resistance. One such feminist, Dr. Lynette Long, pulled NOW's old tax returns. Dr. Long's research revealed that NOW's membership, which reached 500,000 at its zenith, is currently closer to 60,000. Yet, the conference and election itself were mostly a symbolic gesture and the turning of a page. The damage to NOW has been done over decades.

Ask a target audience on the soccer sidelines what they think about NOW. Jenna's mom says: "Yeah, I joined after college a couple of decades ago, but then totally lost interest." Katie's mom says: "Their issues just don't resonate with me." Zoe's dad says: "I'm concerned about my teenage daughter, but there's no place for me at NOW." And the polls show the same -- just 20% of those surveyed consider themselves "feminists," and only 17% want their daughters to be.

A whole lot of folks will look back and try to decipher what has caused the downturn at NOW. Yet, the answer is quite simple: the organization stopped representing its constituents. Management became insular and lost touch with the folks, so the folks moved on with their busy lives. Management became like a clique with strict rites of passage including being liberal and pro-choice. As management increasingly focused on issues that divided their members, they didn't hear the decades-long patter of 440,000 footsteps slowly walking away.

This is not dissimilar to what occurred on Wall Street. There too, management lost track of the basic tenets of customer focus and service. Management instead relied on excessive financial risk through esoteric financial tools which took management further and further away from their customer base. It was only a matter of time.

And just as Wall Street lifts itself from the ashes of ruin, now, so is the women's movement. While Wall Street rises with the help of TARP, the Next Wave gets underway courtesy of the sexism in the 2008 election. Wall Street got aid from Henry Paulson -- the Next Wave got invigoration from David Letterman. The CEO ranks of Wall Street were merged and reshuffled; a new slate of leadership has taken over NOW and a new national women's group has been formed. Wall Street will be forever changed, as will the women's movement.

And thank goodness -- it's about time. Because we've come a long way, baby, yes, but the 2008 election showed us that sexism is alive and thriving in this country. Women have made great strides, but just beneath the surface, where eyes cannot discern, the roots of sexism and misogyny have been left to grow unabated. The roots flourish in our media, our schools, our workplaces, even our political parties.

And in 2008 we reached a nadir. For Wall Street it was the collapse of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. For the women's movement, it was the sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin.

As the Next Wave of "feminism" is ushered in, women's advocacy can learn a thing or two from the lessons of Wall Street. The success of national organizations such as NOW and The New Agenda are just as critical to the way forward for women's advocacy as it was for the stock market to see Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley shore up their capital base.

That at first may seem counter-intuitive. After all, thankfully, there are thousands of single-issue women's organizations that have enjoyed tremendous success. Prominent and successful groups champion women's issues such as fair pay, safety, and representation in business and government. These organizations have enjoyed successes; yet the women of this country have only come so far. Women still make 78 cents on the dollar of what men make; one in four women are still victims of assault at the hands of intimate partners; women's representation in government has stalled and in business management is moving backwards. It seems that despite the noteworthy work at these issue-specific groups, making progress is still so incredibly hard.

There is a solution -- and it's right here, right now, at this moment. We have, for the first time in decades, the impetus and outline for the Next Wave. And the success of this Next Wave is in everybody's interest. The underpinnings of the Next Wave is to make our country better, not for ourselves, but for the future. So when we turn to the next generation, we can say: "When you run for political office you will be judged on your merits. When you go to your first and last job you will get a fair shake and a fair wage. When you go to high school, you won't have to be afraid of bullying and sexual assault. And most importantly, you will have mentors and role models in your life each step of the way."

This is the message that will start to win back the 440,000 who left us because they felt that their voices were not being heard. Sure, we can look down our noses at the PTA moms and the softball dads who left along the way and insist that we don't need them -- but we do. We need unity. We need messages that will bring back the masses as the Next Wave begins. We need to focus on the issues that unite us, not divide us. We need national organizations that can excite and inspire. We need these national organizations to form alliances and fight for all of us.

And in fact, our collective success depends on it. When mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbors come back to us, we will finally have the groundswell of support needed to make this country better for the next generation. And we can do this. We simply need unity and alliances. We need to ensure the success of our national organizations in cultivating the Next Wave. We want the 440,000 and then some all to come back. And once they are back, the rest will take care of itself.