NOW Honors History and Forms Feminist Vision at 1998 Women's Rights Convention and Vision Summit

Young Feminists Find Meaning and Inspiration in Rochester


by Ellen Eardley and Rebecca Farmer,
NOW Action Center Press Interns

The drafters of the 198 Declaration of Sentiments (from left): Elizabeth Toledo, Janet Canterbury, Gay Bruhn, Patricia Ireland, Karen Johnson, Kim Gandy, Eleanor Smeal, Patrice Curtis.  Not pictured, Shefali Desai.  Photo by Barbara Hays.

More than eight hundred women and men gathered in Rochester, N.Y., July 10-12, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the women's rights movement and the great strides women have made by writing a vision for the future of feminism - a new Declaration of Sentiments.

These feminists succeeded in their mission. And they celebrated indeed - with words, voice, song, dance, discourse, poetry and laughter.

This year's National NOW Conference, entitled the 1998 Women's Rights Convention and Vision Summit, sought great purpose and promised to be a significant historical event. We, as NOW Action Center Interns, couldn't have asked for a better experience for our first conference.
 
Fifteen Action Center interns went to the convention to learn, volunteer and participate. Upon arriving we were in awe at the sense of feminist community and spirit that had already taken over Rochester. We cheered at the large NOW banner draped outside the hotel. Inside the colors of feminism were in the air as purple, white and gold banners hung above us. We soon realized the excitement of being able to assume that each smiling face we saw belonged to a feminist.  Already, a bond of activists committed to bettering the world was emerging.
 
This feminist spirit flourished at the convention's moving opening ceremonies which embraced the many facets of womanhood. Sylvia Smith, a previous NOW Woman of Courage recipient and leader of the Ongweoweh NOW Chapter, introduced a group of women from the Tonawanda Nation Territory who sang a traditional welcome to visitors. The opening night also featured a dramatic performance of  Sojourner Truth's famous words and the rhythmic poetry of Sonia Sanchez. Sanchez's voice and verse evoked an array of emotional and intellectual responses as she addressed issues such as African slave trade, global feminism and the personal experiences each of us carries as a feminist. The event concluded with waves of laughter rippling through the room as comic Judy Carter showed us the humor in the daily feminist crusade.
 
A rally in Seneca Falls followed the 1998 Women's Rights Convention.  More than 200 activists came to hear feminist candidates and NOW leaders, past and present, speak at the site where the modern women's movement was born.  Photo by Karen Johnson.

Feminist Heroes Featured

Throughout the weekend, featured speakers contributed to the excitement with their vision and reflections on the women's rights movement. Their words played an important part in the visioning process, helping nourish and encourage us for the work at hand.
 
NOW members were honored to hear former Vice Presidential nominee and current U.S. Senate (N.Y.) candidate Geraldine Ferraro. We were ecstatic to be in the presence of this phenomenal woman who serves as a role-model for so many.  "Whatever the vision we leave with today, we will need more women in leadership to take us there," Ferraro said. "Every woman in elected office is a step forward."
 
Former NOW president and founder of  the Feminist Majority Eleanor Smeal roused the crowd with her powerful speech recounting the many victories women have secured since NOW's founding in 1966. Her energy and resolve seemed to invoke the legacy of Susan B. Anthony with the idea that "Failure is impossible!"
 
New York's lieutenant governor, and challenger for the state's governorship, Betsy McCaughey Ross spoke of the positive impact a female governor could have on the state, as well as the importance of women in the political arena.
 
A tribute to the late Bella Abzug reminded attendees of how committed this feminist icon was to women's and human rights and what great achievements she made in public office; a video of Abzug's speech at NOW's 1995 Rally for Women's Lives demonstrated her commanding and effective presence.
 
Other voices of wisdom and inspiration included Barbara Smith, feminist author and creator of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press; former NOW President and writer Karen DeCrow and former NOW Executive Vice President Barbara Timmer.
 
NOW President Patricia Ireland delivered a riveting speech about where we've been and where we're going. Ireland ended with a call to continue struggling as our foremothers did for so many years.
 
The presence of these extraordinary women reminded us of the change that we can bring forth, as individuals and as an organization. The speakers awakened a dynamic spirit of activism that lies within each of us, which we channeled into our work toward drafting a vision statement for the next millennium.

Sharing With Sisters

The convention offered many opportunities to get to know other NOW members through more informal activities. The Political Action Committee Auction was a chance to socialize and contribute much-needed financial support to the NOW PACs. Eager to be entertained while supporting women in politics, activists filled the room and emptied their pockets.
 
At the Victory 2000 Reception, attendees met NOW activists who are candidates for various political offices this year. Our united strength surely spurred on their campaigns to enter into the male-dominated political arena.
 
Throughout the weekend, convention-goers got their creative juices flowing. Vision Roundtables offered time for open discussions on topics such as movement history, media and feminism and grassroots strategies. Skills Building Sessions provided hands-on, interactive training that gave participants new tactics and ideas to use in their chapters and communities. Caucuses afforded a time to share, discuss and explore specific issues.
 
An area of special interest to us is the place of younger women in the feminist movement, which is why we attended the Young Feminist Caucus. Arriving at the meeting space, we were enthused to find a room full of young faces -- ranging in age from pre-teens to late 20s. The caucuses were like a retreat within the convention, where the group's interaction was more intimate and focused.  Because of their concentration and focus, the caucuses were especially productive and empowering. 

Creating Our Feminist Vision

At Seneca Falls, less than 50 miles from Rochester, our foremothers gathered 150 years ago for the first Women's Rights Convention ever. Oustanding activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglass laid out the path for others to follow, marking this area of the country as the beginning of the organized feminist movement.  Perhaps the most important work of that convention was the Declaration of Sentiments. This landmark document examined the status of women in 1848 and looked toward a more equal future that would include the right of women to vote, to own property, to pursue higher education and to participate in various trades and professions.
 
At the 1996 National NOW Conference a resolution had been passed that recognized the importance of possessing a clear vision as the women's rights movement enters the 21st century and called for a Vision Summit to be the primary focus of  NOW's national conference in 1998.  For two years, activists had been brainstorming in our chapters, states and regions, and inside our own minds. Here, in Rochester, the time had come to put this work on paper.  As the weekend progressed, the vision continued to evolve and take shape.
 
All of us at the convention had the opportunity to add our voices to the vision. In Vision Working Groups participants created the core of the statement. Participants divided into groups of ten and brainstormed their own ideas about NOW's top values, concerns and strategies. Each small group came to consensus on which ideas they felt should be contained in the vision statement, and shared this with the larger group. The collective ideas of all the Vision Working Groups were finally channeled to the writing committee.
 
The writers included national board advisors Smeal and Janet Canterbury, Vision Committee Co-Chairs Gay Bruhn and Patrice Curtis, Shefali Desai, action center intern, and the four national officers. This committee worked all night compiling the responses from the Vision Working Groups into a first draft of the document. The final day of the convention was set aside for the refinement and completion of the vision statement, with all attendees present.  The committee formally presented its draft, and Ireland read aloud the document, entitled the 1998 Declaration of Sentiments.  Conference-goers responded by rising to their feet with thunderous applause.
 
After the initial excitement subsided, we began discussing the draft. Delegates had the opportunity to voice concerns about the document and offer amendments- some of which were incorporated into the document.  After several hours and much deliberation and compromise, delegates voted on a revised 1998 Declaration of Sentiments. As the declaration was approved, activists cheered, hugged, smiled and cried. Possibly the most exciting part of the vision process was the opportunity for all to sign their names to the 1998 Declaration of Sentiments. Signing our names into history, the convention was complete.
 
Perhaps it was something in the air, or the diverse community of activists putting aside their differences to achieve a common goal. Perhaps it was the banners adorning the walls which proclaimed our victories and our struggles or the welcoming sea of feminist faces. But something about the 1998 Women's Rights Convention and Vision Summit moved us tremendously. We felt embraced by the loving, activist spirit that flourished. We were both intellectually and emotionally stimulated. Our first national conference fueled the feminist fire within us.
 


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