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With Shift to L.A., Feminist Majority Builds on Momentum

Organization looks ahead to greater influence on public attitudes and national policy.

January 16, 2002|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The leaders of the Feminist Majority Foundation have decided to stop fudging the issue of the new address in their future. The building that will house the foundation and its newly acquired Ms. magazine is on Beverly Boulevard between Olympic and Pico boulevards, and there's just no West L.A. about it.

"We've decided to say it loud and proud," says foundation board Chairwoman Peg Yorkin. "We're moving to Beverly Hills."

At first glance, Beverly Hills seems an unlikely spot for a building that one foundation official calls "a new international center of feminist research and activism." Beverly Hills is known for many things, but being a hotbed of the women's movement is not one of them. Yet in a way, in a very Angeleno way, it is quite fitting. Beverly Hills remains an address that symbolizes success, social validation. And in the past year or so the Feminist Majority has experienced both.

For 15 years, the group has labored successfully in many areas--protecting abortion clinics from potentially violent protesters, increasing the number of women in elected office and law enforcement, and reaching out to university students. But two of their highest-profile campaigns have been for the legalization of mifepristone, the pharmaceutical abortion alternative known as RU-486, and ending the atrocious treatment of Afghan women by the Taliban.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday January 17, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Feminist Majority--A story in Wednesday's Southern California Living gave the incorrect location of the Feminist Majority Foundation's new building. It is on Beverly Drive.

Less than two years ago, the FDA approved mifepristone. And in recent months, the specter of the shrouded and silent Afghan women has become a symbol of the inhumanity of our newest enemy. The foundation played a key role in persuading the Clinton administration to refuse to recognize the Taliban as an official government, but their efforts to increase political pressure and provide humanitarian aid were, for the most part, ignored.

Then the World Trade Center fell and suddenly, after seven years of trying to make the government and the country aware of the dangers the situation in Afghanistan posed, foundation President Eleanor Smeal suddenly found herself a sought-after expert, explaining the history and policies of the Taliban to everyone from local newscasters to National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

In subsequent weeks, as the Justice Department struggled to contain the anthrax crisis, the government once again sought the foundation's advice. For years, abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood centers had been receiving threatening letters containing white powder. They had developed emergency plans and protocol, which they now offered the government officials.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, in a November news conference, declared such clinic attacks "domestic terrorism." Since then, the FBI has also begun referring to assaults and threats against abortion clinics as domestic terrorism; the secretary of state has said women's rights are a human rights issue and even President Bush decried both the treatment of Afghan women and terrorist attacks against abortion clinics.

Then, at the end of last year, the foundation announced that not only had it acquired the 30-year-old Ms., but that it was moving the magazine from New York to Los Angeles. With the magazine comes Gloria Steinem. By gaining her, the foundation--and Los Angeles--now have two of the movement's biggest players. Smeal is widely recognized as its most dynamic and effective lobbyist, and Steinem remains its most familiar and respected leader.

Popular culture has also mirrored the group's increasing visibility. "The Shroud of Silence," a documentary about Afghanistan partially funded by the foundation, began appearing on television in past months; films and plays dealing with life under the Taliban soon followed. On NBC's "The West Wing," feminists ruled for a whole episode in which press secretary C.J. Cregg argued--with speeches that could have been written by Smeal--against the funding of a military base in a country that oppresses women. Perhaps not since the Supreme Court upheld Roe vs. Wade in 1973 has the women's movement had such a presence and impact on American policy.

"I don't think we've ever affected foreign policy before," said Yorkin. "But if we had not prevented the U.S. from recognizing the Taliban, think of how much worse this all would be."

Technically, the Feminist Majority is a Washington-based organization, and the staff in the D.C. office is twice as big--28 to L.A.'s 12--but the L.A. office has been much higher-profile, mainly because the foundation has learned how to work the town. When early efforts to draw attention to the plight of Afghan women foundered, Yorkin and foundation Executive Vice President Katherine Spillar convinced then-board member Mavis Leno to spearhead the campaign. With an initial million-dollar donation, and occasional guest appearances by husband Jay, Leno got more attention for the cause in a few months than the organization had gotten in years.

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