The Women’s Equality Summit and Congressional Action Day, April 8-9, showed the women’s movement stepping up to the plate as part of the growing movement fighting for economic, social and political justice.

Here is some of the flavor of this exciting event:

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), told the summit, “All we worked for, for 35 years, is on its way out unless we are on our way in!”

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said the movement has been accused of starting “class war.” “Don’t cower from that accusation,” she declared. “It is the heart and soul of this great nation that is at stake. Let’s go!” She received a standing ovation.

Kendra Fox-Davis, former president of the U.S. Student Association and now a leader of Grassroots Organizing for Welfare Leadership (GROWL), called attention to the historical connection between the assault on and exploitation of poor women and the degrading of all sectors of women. She said, women must “tell George Bush … ‘ain’t no system gonna walk all over women’s rights.’” The audience jumped to its feet to applaud.

The nearly 500 participants, convened by the National Council of Women’s Organizations (NCWO), represented the breadth of today’s women’s movement. NCWO is an umbrella of about 160 women’s groups, ranging from the African-American Women’s Clergy Association to the YWCA, including such groups as Choice USA, Coalition of Labor Union Women, Girls Incorporated, Hadassah, National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) NOW, National Women’s Political Caucus, National Council of Jewish Women, National Council of Negro Women, and a host of other prominent organizations.

The summit’s five Issue Briefings reflected an understanding that women rise or fall with the larger class and democratic movement: Protecting Social Security; Reproductive Rights; Judicial (Dis)Appointments?; The Bottom Line: Economic Insecurity?; and Rethinking Welfare Reform and the Social Safety Net. I attended two briefings and was impressed with the thoughtful, well-researched analysis and hands-on action orientation.

For example, NARAL Legal Director and General Counsel Elizabeth Cavendish told the Judicial (Dis)Appointments session, “The right wing has had a patient long-term strategy to take the courts back into right-wing hands,” shepherding ultra-rightists through law school, getting them clerkships and paying attention to elections for lower court judgeships. Lower federal and state judgeships are extremely important, she said, because most legal battles end at the district court level.

Sharyn Tejani, legal director of Feminist Majority, warned, “Who becomes a judge or justice in the next three years can determine what rights we have for the next 20 years.” Panelists emphasized organizing, lobbying, getting out votes and “working together across issue and constituency lines.”

At an Election 2002: Women’s Issues and Women’s Votes plenary session, Eleanor Smeal, Feminist Majority president, warned that Bush and the right are hypocritically claiming to support women’s rights in Afghanistan in order to court the women’s vote here at home. “The 2002 election is the reason why women are going to school in Afghanistan today,” she charged.

Notably absent from the summit was mention of the Israel-Palestine crisis and the heightened danger of wider war. Leaders of two prominent groups told the World they are concerned about this issue and are discussing how to respond. “Women are not warmongers,” one leader told me.

The summit demonstrated a deep understanding that women’s issues and working-class issues are intertwined, and that a broad, united and militant political struggle to defeat the ultra-right is necessary to win full equality and rights for women. It also showed that this movement is re-emerging fully energized from the shadow and confusion of the Sept. 11 attacks.

This summit challenges some old notions that pigeonholed the women’s movement as single-issue or strictly middle class. Today’s women’s movement is diverse, multi-class and multi-issued. It is a lively, integral part of the democratic struggle to defeat the ultra-right. The women’s movement, together with the working class as a whole and the movements of the racially and nationally oppressed, is a crucial player in the broad working-class and progressive movement. And, it’s fun to be a part of it!

Accepting a tribute from the summit, Betty Friedan, women’s movement icon, author of The Feminine Mystique and a founder of NOW, captured the spirit: “How exciting it was, and is, to be changing the world!”

Susan Webb is a contributor in Chicago. She can be reached at


Susan Webb
Susan Webb

Susan Webb is a retired co-editor of People's World. She has written on a range of topics both international - the Iraq war, World Social Forums in Brazil and India, the Israel-Palestinian conflict and controversy over the U.S. role in Okinawa - and domestic - including the meaning of socialism for Americans, attacks on Planned Parenthood, the U.S. as top weapons merchant, and more.