NOW president faces a challenge from black member seeking change

July 02, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Greenville, S.C., attorney Efia Nwangaza wants to become the next president of the National Organization for Women.

Her "Everywoman NOW" slate is challenging incumbent Patricia Ireland and what Ms. Nwangaza describes as NOW's dominance by white, professional women.

The election is scheduled tomorrow at the group's national convention in Boston.

"It's time for a philosophical change," says Ms. Nwangaza, who has served on NOW's national board for three years and been a member for eight.

"There's a failure on the part of the current administration to recognize the feminist movement's need to address racism, homophobia, economic injustice, class bias, environmental destruction and religious intolerance, as well as sexism, and to address these issues in a genuine and substantive way."

Ms. Nwangaza, whose speech is firm, fast and at times ferociously determined, often uses such abstractions to describe her vision of feminism and where she wants NOW to go next. But she can take a concrete route, too.

She says, if elected, she will extend racism training begun at the last board meeting to include staff and chapter leaders, move the membership record system "into the 21st century" and improve services to membership.

At last year's national conference, Ms. Nwangaza says, she was behind the "put up or shut up resolution." It required NOW to take meaningful affirmative action from the state chapter level up.

However, according to Ms. Ireland and a NOW press representative, NOW's board is one-third women of color, as is almost half of its political action committee and 14 members of its national staff of 32.

"The fact we have women of color on both tickets speaks volumes about the openness of leadership," says Ms. Ireland, an attorney who directed NOW's Project Stand Up for Women and helped design its Global Feminist programs. "It's been an exciting period of strengthening that commitment. I'm real comfortable and confident with our work to dismantle racism and classism."

Ms. Ireland's slate, Sisters United for NOW, retains herself as president; Kim Gandy, a grassroots organizer and attorney, as executive vice president; Rosemary Dempsey, an attorney and lesbian rights activist as action vice president; and Karen Johnson, a health care professional and African-American, as secretary. Ms. Ireland has been president since Molly Yard stepped down in 1991.

Ms. Nwangaza's Everywoman NOW slate includes herself, an African-American, for president; Patricia Lassiter, an abortion clinic director from Gainesville, Fla., who is a black lesbian, for executive vice president. Also, Linda Osten, a restaurant manager from Norwich, Conn., who describes herself as a working-class, white lesbian feminist, for action vice president; and Kathleen Wilson, a representative for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission from Pittsburgh and an African-American, for secretary.

Ms. Nwangaza says she was approached more than a year ago by "white, progressive members" of NOW asking her to run for office, and this request was then supported by the Women of Color Caucus on NOW's board.

Candy Kern, current state coordinator of NOW, said the state organization is backing Ms. Ireland. Of Ms. Nwangaza, she said that "even though she has had the opportunity to participate in state and local organizations, she hasn't in two years."

The wave of feminism that began in America in the 1960s has been regularly accused of being an upscale, white women's movement to the detriment of others' needs.

Ms. Ireland acknowledges: "There's always been criticism out there. But to a large extent that criticism ignores reality. To say the feminist movement has been white or middle class ignores the contributions of women of color and women of color's organizations."

Ms. Nwangaza sees it differently.

She says the current leadership has "acted in the patriarchal, messianic way NOW says it deplores." And adds, "The Everywoman NOW team is committed to substance."

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