When the National Organization for Women was born 20 years ago, Patti Headland-Wauson was 9 years old.
As she grew up, NOW members were promoting abortion rights, fighting sex and wage discrimination and forming women's health clinics, shelters, study programs and commissions. Some were laughed at or called hateful names, some became disheartened.
But many pioneer feminists still carry on, now joined by younger women such as Headland-Wauson, who is serving her second term as coordinator of the North Orange County chapter of NOW.
Together, they march, register voters, picket or write. They speak out for equality for women in all areas of life and against what they see as new threats to their past progress: apathy, stereotypes and the conservative politics of Ronald Reagan and the religious right.
"There are still a lot of problems. Women still need to fight for our rights," Headland-Wauson said. "The other side," she said, referring to the religious right, "is on the move. If we sit back and let them, we could lose it."
An interpreter for the deaf and longtime feminist who joined NOW three years ago, Headland-Wauson leads a chapter with 250 members--the largest of the county's three NOW chapters. Counting members who belong to the national organization but are not affiliated with a local chapter, there are an estimated 3,000 NOW members in Orange County. Celebrations will be held in October to commemorate NOW's 20th anniversary.
Despite a persistent radical image, "We're a mainstream organization," said Wendy Lozano, co-coordinator of the South Coast chapter of NOW. A recent survey of its membership showed NOW members are "not that much different from other women in Orange County," she said. "More than half the Orange County NOW membership is married, many more live in Leisure World than we were aware of."
Along with a dozen other Orange County delegates, Headland-Wauson, Lozano and Beverly Deal, coordinator of the coastal Bay View chapter of NOW, recently returned from NOW's 20th annual convention in Denver. There they came face to face with "the other side," in this case, members of the National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion group holding its 13th annual convention across town.
Headland-Wauson disagreed with reports calling the scheduling of the two conventions a coincidence. "We decided the location of our conference one to three years back. . . ." She said the other convention was booked later. "It sounds planned to me."
J.C. Willkie, president of the National Right to Life Committee, said the scheduling was "total coincidence."
"When we found out, we tried to change the date, but found out we had a firm contract (with the hotel)," he said. "We were concerned, distressed, not pleased. As it turned out, it didn't make much of a difference."
At their convention, NOW delegates passed resolutions calling for public funding of child care, programs to prevent unwanted teen-age pregnancy and more AIDS research and also reaffirmed their pro-choice stand, calling for legal action against harassment of abortion clinic personnel and a strike force to monitor the activities of some anti-abortion groups.
Abortion rights are NOW's most visible priority, Headland-Wauson said, because the organization must constantly fight anti-abortion riders that are tacked on to unrelated legislative proposals, including tax reform bills. "You can't get away from it. If (legislators) don't want something to pass, they put an (anti-) abortion amendment on it."
She said NOW delegates failed to pass a resolution against pornography because they could not agree on a means of limiting pornography in a way that wouldn't backfire against some feminist publications, such as "Our Bodies, Ourselves," a self-help women's health manual that has anatomical drawings and photographs for teaching purposes.
While political candidates wooed Right to Life delegates in Denver, there were none at the NOW convention. However, Headland-Wauson said she agreed with NOW President Eleanor Smeal, who announced a new era of independence from political parties. "There isn't a party that has consistently included women's rights on their agenda. I don't want to hook into the mainstream political system," Headland-Wauson said. "You can't depend on the established parties as they are."
She called the convention an "immediate charge" of adrenaline and said inspiration from the annual convention gets her through the year. "I live in Orange County. I've got Dannemeyer (William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton)) for a representative. I think, 'How can I do this?' "