Kansas key in women's movement, NOW president says





The Wichita Eagle

Kansas is crucial to the women's movement in America, the newly elected president of the National Organization for Women said Saturday in Wichita.

The recent assassination of Wichita abortion provider George Tiller was "hugely traumatic" to women not only in Wichita and Kansas but around the country, said Terry O'Neill, who took over as the national NOW president this week.

O'Neill, a lawyer and former law professor from Maryland, delivered the keynote speech at the 2009 Conference on Women's Rights, hosted by the Kansas National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.

The conference at the Unity Church of Wichita, 2160 N. Oliver, focused on grassroots organizing, and on political and legislative action. It drew about 80 people.

Tiller's killing "was a very rude awakening to what we may be facing right now at this moment in the history of our country," O'Neill said.

Women feel what she called "a truly remarkable combination of optimism and outrage," she said.

The optimism comes because they finally have a friend in the White House in Barack Obama after seeing their efforts for women's rights pushed back since the election of Ronald Reagan, she said.

The combination of outrage and optimism can fuel change at the community level across the country, O'Neill said.

Women already feel the brunt of a broken health care system because they tend to hold part-time and low-wage jobs. And now, because of efforts to close clinics around the country and other factors, more than 80 percent of the country doesn't have access to an abortion provider, she said.

"It's harder today to find a safe, legal abortion than it was in 1973, the year that Roe versus Wade was decided," O'Neill said.

She called that an outrage that reveals a failed society.

Having friends in power like Obama and former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, now the Health and Human Services secretary, is not enough to make real and lasting change for women, O'Neill said.

That must come from working together in local communities.

Kansas, with NOW chapters only in Wichita and Lawrence, needs more chapters, she said. She urged the Wichita chapter to adopt a chapter in Johnson County, where there is none.

"If we don't have grassroots in the women's movement, we're really just another interest group like the Chamber of Commerce, struggling to get a seat at the table with elected officials. And that is not a real movement," O'Neill said.

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