By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
The new president of the National Organization for Women, an activist from Montgomery County, said yesterday that the country's largest women's group needs to return to the basics of the movement.
"Without grass-roots action at the community level, we don't have a movement," said Terry O'Neill, a 56-year-old former law professor who won a four-year term in NOW's top job by just eight votes in Saturday's election in Indianapolis.
O'Neill, of Bethesda, defeated 33-year-old Latifa Lyles of the District, who was endorsed by outgoing NOW president Kim Gandy. O'Neill, a former NOW vice president for membership, said she expects to resign from her job as chief of staff to Montgomery Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg (At Large), a former president of the group's Maryland chapter. The women met at a NOW rally on Capitol Hill in 2000.
Some observers said O'Neill's narrow victory over Lyles underscored a generational struggle in the 600,000-member advocacy group.
While both candidates pledged to continue NOW's fight for economic security for women, a single-payer health care system, same-sex marriage and reproductive rights, O'Neill campaigned to reenergize what she called an outsider strategy of "tapping into energy and outrage" felt by grass-roots feminists across the country over "the ground we lost" during the Bush administration.
She said her opponent emphasized more of an insider strategy of lobbying lawmakers and the White House to get things done. "We have a friend in the White House after eight years of being pushed back," O'Neill said, referring to President Obama, "but while legislative issues are very important, they are about incremental gains."
"What Terry understands is that for the organization to flourish and remain a strong voice, we've got to be engaged on every level," Trachtenberg said yesterday. "People wanted a return to basics." She said women struggle every day with economic security rights in Montgomery County, where a recent study by the county's commission for women found that the median income for women there is 71 cents for every dollar that men earn. "Things have changed, but not that much."
Lyles, an African American, emphasized a new image of youth and diversity that she said would appeal to younger feminists. NOW, which was founded in 1966, has a mostly white and over-40 membership. O'Neill is white.
Lyles also had pushed to expand the group's reach through the Internet. "I felt she would have taken the organization to a different level technologically and reach out to new communities of feminists," Gandy said. Lyles was traveling yesterday and could not be reached for comment.
O'Neill said she became a community activist when she lived in New Orleans and joined a campaign in 1991 to defeat David Duke, the white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, in his campaign for Louisiana governor in 1991. She ran for NOW membership vice president on Gandy's ticket when Gandy ran for president and moved to the Washington area, leaving her teaching job at Tulane University.
When O'Neill was 22, she said, her first husband beat her after a dispute. She soon divorced him and moved in with her parents in New Orleans. "I was very lucky to have somewhere to go," she said.
She said she and her second husband divorced amicably a few years ago. Her 18-year-old daughter just graduated from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. "I'm a single mom, but my ex is a single dad," O'Neill said.