Does NOW Have Bigger Fish To Fry Than Ralph Lauren & David Letterman?

NOW has made headlines lately by speaking out against Photoshopped models and Letterman's indiscretions. A question: doesn't the 43-year old women's rights organization have better things to do?

NOW's vice president told Radar today that the now-infamous Ralph Lauren/Filippa Hamilton ad made her want "to burst into tears." She continued,

What I would like to see is an open apology to her and also affirming ads to women of all shapes and sizes and a statement that these women are beautiful. Certainly apologies are due to her personally. But what I'm really concerned about here is the message that that has sent to millions of pre-teens, daughters, mothers sister – women around the country and the world.

Last week, NOW criticized David Letterman, issuing a statement that read, in part,

As 'the boss,' he is responsible for setting the tone for his entire workplace — and he did that with sex. In any work environment, this places all employees — including employees who happen to be women — in an awkward, confusing and demoralizing situation. [...] The National Organization for Women calls on CBS to recognize that Letterman's behavior creates a toxic environment and to take action immediately to rectify this situation.

NOW's president Terry O'Neill also called out Roman Polanski's supporters, saying, "making excuses for Roman Polanski is dangerous talk." But some are asking whether NOW is focusing too much on big media stories, at the expense of issues that affect women more directly. In an AP interview, O'Neill brushed these questions aside, saying,

Men behaving badly is exactly the problem in this country. It's not a diversion - it's at the core of why women are unequal, why they are kept in second-class citizenship.

She adds,

We're living in a time when women who put themselves forward as leaders are subjected to vicious misogynistic attacks - it's very analogous to sexual harassment in the workplace. The message to other women is, 'Stay in your place.'

Ending sexual harassment is certainly an important goal for any feminist organization, but O'Neill overstates the case a bit when she says, "The question is whether the atmosphere in that workplace was poisoned by that lord of the manor, where everybody is made to understand that the women are there for sex and the men are there for work." While Letterman's involvement with employees was problematic, nobody's suggesting that the atmosphere on the show was anything like this. And in a time when, as the AP's David McCrary points out, the issue of healthcare reform has real and immediate consequences for women, NOW may be spreading itself a little thin.

I'm really of two minds about this. On the one hand, I obviously work for a website that has criticized both David Letterman and Ralph Lauren, and I think a fair working environment and accurate representations of women in advertisements are both worth fighting for. I also tend to get annoyed when people are too restrictive about what constitutes a feminist issue — it can be just a way of dismissing women's legitimate concerns, of telling us not to get our panties in a twist. At the same time, not every feminist organization have to talk about every feminist thing, and NOW has a pretty clear statement of priorities on its website. Its six core issues are "Advancing Reproductive Freedom, Promoting Diversity & Ending Racism, Stopping Violence Against Women, Winning Lesbian Rights, Achieving Constitutional Equality, [and] Ensuring Economic Justice." Criticizing Letterman's conduct could maybe be a way of "ensuring economic justice," but there are many more direct routes. And while taking Lauren to task could be a form of "promoting diversity," I can think of some stronger ones.

Again, it's not that Lauren and Letterman don't deserve a tongue-lashing. It's just that delivering said lashing may not be the best thing for NOW. As the self-proclaimed "largest, most comprehensive feminist advocacy group in the United States," NOW has real clout with policymakers in Washington — clout that may be weakened if the organization gets involved in too many arguments outside its core mission. And O'Neill's claim that "men behaving badly is exactly the problem in this country" is just simplistic, not the kind of statement we need from someone in a position to help solve the country's real problems. If anything, NOW's willingness to get involved in the Letterman and Lauren scandals seen like an attempt to piggyback on high-profile stories. But this piggybacking could end up hurting women if it makes NOW seem unfocused. Commenter Pantra said it best: "NOW needs a better PR person."

Exclusive: National Organization For Women Demands Ralph Lauren Apologizes To "Too Fat" Fired Model [Radar]
Women's Group Blasts Letterman Over Sexual Affairs With Staff [CNN]
NOW's Top Six Priority Issues [NOW]
NOW's New President Takes On Men Behaving Badly [AP, via Yahoo News]
NOW President Terry O'Neill Calls Polanski Furor "Dangerous Talk" That Could Set Back Women's Rights [NOW]