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What to do NOW?

The National Organization for Women convenes its annual conference this weekend in Bethesda against the backdrop of a presidential race that, according to NOW President Kim Gandy, has been underlined not only by one woman's historic campaign but also by an extraordinary amount of sexism. Gandy, who's serving her second term at the helm of the feminist advocacy group, talked with The Sun about those and other topics. She lives in Silver Spring with her husband and two daughters.

Your theme for this weekend's conference is "No Capes, No Masks, No Boundaries: Feminist Super-Women Unite!" What does that mean?

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It's a recognition that women are a lot like the superheroes in the comic books in that we are breaking down barriers. We're taking care of people, we're taking care of our families and our kids, and often without much recognition.

We wanted to focus on the challenges that women face and how we're overcoming those challenges. [Speaking at the conference will be] women like Lilly Ledbetter, who, when she found out she was being paid less than all of the male managers at Goodyear Tire, she pursued the case all way to the Supreme Court, and now there's legislation in her name, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act. ... She will tell you that she's doing it not for herself but to make sure other women who work hard, as she did, aren't shortchanged by their employers. When you earn less during your working life, it also means your pension is lower, your Social Security is lower; it has ramifications your whole life. ... And there's women like Barbara Hillary, who learned no African-American women had ever been to the North Pole, and she decided she was going to do it. ... She reached the North Pole last year at age 75. ... There are women like that speaking all through the weekend.

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In the presidential race, a woman came closer than ever this year to clinching a major party's nomination. What does Hillary Clinton's competitive race show you about progress women have made in this country, at least politically?

Hillary Clinton's race put to rest one question: Are women qualified? Will a woman be seen as capable of being president of the United States? That was a question in people's minds until this race. There's no question we still have sexism. There are still some people who wouldn't vote for her because she's female. But we clearly have passed a threshold. ... The next threshold will be when women running for higher office get equal treatment.

Media sexism has been cited as a factor in Clinton's loss. Did you see sexism in the media during the primary campaign, and did it ultimately affect the outcome?

It's very hard to say whether it affected the outcome. There was an enormous amount of sexism. She was called a bitch, a witch, shrill, cackle, cleavage - all words that come to mind - and, what was it, thick ankles? There were comments made about her that would never ever be made about a male candidate. The question remains whether these kinds of sexist attacks galvanized women even more on her behalf. The fact that that kind of sexism was so commonplace and so little remarked upon bodes ill for the progress that we've made as a society. I have teenage daughters, a 15-year-old and one turning 13. They watch this kind of treatment of women, and without discussion in the household like we have, perhaps they would think that's just normal, that women who run for office should expect to be called bitch or witch or be compared to the ex-wife standing in front of the courthouse or the scolding mother or a crazed stalker. She was repeatedly compared to the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction. ... I didn't expect it. I didn't. I expected a little bit. I expected some. But I didn't expect this level of venom directed at her from people in the mainstream media. I expect it from the fringe Fox News types, sure. But from NPR, from CNN, from NBC and MSNBC, no, I didn't.

How are women handling the disappointment of Clinton's loss? Where do you go from here?

An awful lot of women are still very disappointed. It doesn't surprise me, but it seems to surprise a lot of people. I don't know why people would think women would "just get over it," quote-unquote. This has been a lifelong dream for many women, and some of them [women in their 60s and 70s] feel this was their last opportunity to break through that ultimate glass ceiling. They believe this loss means they themselves will never see a woman in the White House. There literally is a grieving process. You could almost follow those five stages of grief and see it being played out. That doesn't mean women are not going to support the candidate that is strongest on women's rights. Barack Obama is head and shoulders above John McCain when it comes to issues that [affect] women's lives ... but he needs to seek that support. He needs to talk to women. He needs to ask for their support the same way Senator Clinton did. She did not take the women's vote for granted. She sought it. It was the first time in a long time that we've been talked to by a candidate who wasn't talking down to us.

So Barack Obama is the best candidate for women?

There's no question that John McCain would be an absolute disaster for women. From his opposition to women's reproductive health care, to his opposition to birth control, to his opposition to family planning, to his opposition to contraception, he voted against laws that would prevent discrimination, against equal pay. The list really is long. Barack Obama's positions are very good. He is supportive of family planning, pay equity, helping women and families with the ability to balance their work and family lives. ...

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In popular culture today, there's an intense focus on celebrity pregnancies, often very young stars, some who aren't married. What message, if any, does this send to young women?

I'm not sure how much young women absorb from Hollywood in terms of teen pregnancy and risky behavior - although I do see that they take in a lot of messages about body image and how women are supposed to look. And considering how much they seem to internalize the expectation of extreme thinness, it's worrisome to me as a mother that they might also be accepting some of these other messages, that it's no big deal to be a mother at 16. Anyone who's a mother at age 16 will tell you it's a very big deal.

What, would you say, are the most significant things women today still struggle with in this country?

The list is long. I would say because women are the primary obtainers of health care for families, the lack of health coverage hits women particularly hard. They're the ones figuring out whether we buy the groceries we need or if we take the children to the urgent care clinic. That's something that's become an increasing struggle, something that seemed less of an issue 30 years ago. ... Then there's the plight of having less access to birth control and family planning resources. It's much harder now and much more expensive for a woman to limit her pregnancy and plan her family. Being able to plan a family is getting harder because the costs keep going up.

Pay equity continues to be an issue. Women made 59 cents to every dollar a man did 30 year ago. Now it's 77 cents. But in this economy, that last 23 cents makes a huge difference. It's the ability to make a preventive-care trip to the doctor, it's the ability to put a little money in the bank and save, it's the ability to get your child some tutoring after school. Even if women can cover basic needs with 77 cents, they don't have the ability to take care of their families the way they want and need to. Of course, the wage gap is related to discrimination. And to job segregation. Jobs are still tremendously segregated, and jobs held primarily by men pay more than jobs held by women. That's something the new administration needs to address. Why are so few women and girls in STEM careers - science, technology, engineering and mathematics? Those are the careers of the future, where the real money is. And as much as we hear about the boy crisis in schools, in fact, the boys are in the high-earning fields and girls are not.

In those struggles, how would you describe NOW's role?

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NOW's role has from the beginning been to identify opportunities to increase women's equality and to take action and make change. We focus on education, but we primarily focus on taking action. We recognize a problem, we figure out what needs to be done to solve it and work toward that specific solution, whether it's a piece of legislation, an act of Congress, an administrative regulation, a lawsuit or simply convincing a corporation it's in their best interest to do right by their female employees.

Has abortion been moved from the front burner?

Abortion continues to be a very serious issue. It's something we continue to work on; it's becoming less and less available. But the issue of access to birth control has now moved onto the stage. Groups who fought in recent years to make abortion unavailable are now fighting to make birth control unavailable - particularly the birth control pill. Now the fight to keep abortion safe and legal and available is sharing the stage with the fight to keep birth control safe and legal and available. A number of states have legislation or ballot measures pending that define a fetus as a person from moment of fertilization. There are some kinds of birth control that can prevent implantation [of a fertilized egg], and in their opinion, that's the same as abortion. There's a whole campaign now saying, "The pill kills."

What does being a feminist mean in 2008? Is the term still relevant?

I don't think the definition has changed. I looked it up years ago. I should probably look it up again to make sure it's still the same. It said feminism is a belief in the social and political equality of women. Very simple. Very straight. It hasn't changed. That's all it needs.

There's no question there's a concerted effort by Rush Limbaugh to say feminism is something other than what it is. But that's been true of a lot of things that Rush Limbaugh misrepresents. ... I guess we could call ourselves something else, create a new word instead of the one that's been around for a few hundred years, but I'm sure he'd go to work on that one as well. Remember Rebecca West, a [young woman] in 1916? She said, "I don't know what a feminist is, I only know that I'm called one whenever I say or do anything that distinguishes me from a doormat."

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jill.rosen@baltsun.com



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