- The Washington Times - Monday, June 15, 2009

NEW YORK (AP) | After years on the defensive during the George W. Bush administration, the National Organization for Women is elated to have a president sharing many of its goals. Yet NOW heads into its own leadership contest - a sharp contrast of age and race - mindful of the need to energize its ranks.

Kim Gandy, a former prosecutor, is stepping down as NOW president after eight years leading the feminist battle against many Bush-era policies.

The election to succeed her, set for NOW’s three-day national conference starting Friday in Indianapolis, is an unusual clash of generations and an opportunity for activists to confront some of the challenges facing the feminist movement.

Delegates will be choosing between Latifa Lyles, a 33-year-old black woman who has been one of Ms. Gandy’s three vice presidents, and Terry O’Neill, 56, a white activist who taught law at Tulane University, who was NOW’s vice president for membership from 2001 to 2005.

Ms. O’Neill most recently has been chief of staff for Duchy Trachtenberg of the Montgomery County Council, who sponsored the county’s transgender anti-discrimination law.

The two have waged a polite campaign but are aware of the contrasts. Ms. Lyles would be NOW’s youngest president ever; Ms. O’Neill one of the oldest at the start of a term.

Ms. Gandy speaks respectfully of Ms. O’Neill, but she has enthusiastically endorsed Ms. Lyles.

“It’s hard to ignore the fact there’s been a generational shift in the country, and an organization that doesn’t recognize that is living in the past,” she said. “Latifa’s youth is not a detriment, but an advantage … She’ll take NOW to a different level.”

Yet one of NOW’s three current vice presidents - Olga Vives - is backing Ms. O’Neill, as are former NOW President Patricia Ireland and many other NOW regional leaders. Both contenders expect the election to be close, and both are promoting themselves as best able to bolster NOW’s membership.

“We are not the strongest grass-roots movement we can be - we both agree on that,” Ms. Lyles said. “The question is how we deal with that.”

Noting that she contrasts with NOW’s mostly white and over-40 membership, Ms. Lyles said she could help give NOW a new image of youth and ethnic diversity that would appeal to younger women and reinvigorate the broader feminist movement.

“The profile of NOW is just as important as the work we do,” she said. “There are a lot of antiquated notions about what feminism is.”

Ms. O’Neill, in turn, says she has the edge over Ms. Lyles in regard to grass-roots organizing and membership recruitment.

“I keep hearing, ‘Terry, I want to see more activism in my community,’ ” Ms. O’Neill said. “The press releases, the media exposure, invitations to the White House - these are excellent things, but they’re not enough. The grass-roots are not personally engaged.”

Ms. Ireland, NOW’s president from 1991 to 2001, says she is backing Ms. O’Neill - and serving as campaign treasurer - based largely on an assessment of the candidates’ tactical skills.

“There is a role that requires us to take unpopular stands and push on our friends,” Ms. Ireland said. “That’s what I think Terry really gets. She’s the one I believe will be very willing to use a wide array of tactics - not just traditional letters and e-mails, but also engage in civil disobedience, organize fasts, be at some congressman’s district office.”

However, Jessica Valenti, a prominent younger feminist who has been following the NOW campaign, says her contemporaries would be far more excited if Ms. Lyles triumphs.

“I never paid attention to a NOW election in my life until I knew Latifa was running,” said Ms. Valenti, 30, founder and executive editor of the popular blog Feministing.com.

“This could be the moment where NOW becomes super-relevant to the feminist movement again,” she said. “NOW has done amazing work over the years. But younger feminists, online feminists - we haven’t had a lot of connections with them.”

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