Somewhere in the bleak midwinter of 2003, I wandered into a squat brick building in the shadow of our state Capitol. In a spare conference room in the building’s basement, I found a room decorated with familiar round signs that I’d seen in rally photos from the late ’60s forward. I noticed a skinny young woman at one end of the table slapping a nametag marked ERIN onto her Riot Grrrl T-shirt. I was in the right place: an open house for new members of Minnesota NOW (National Organization for Women).
There is always a tendency to romanticize, in hindsight, those moments that set major life changes in motion. I wax nostalgic about this two-hour event in St. Paul often, not only as a neat starting point for my activist career, but for introducing me to Erin Matson, current executive vice president of National NOW and a very dear friend. When I remember what it felt like to show up that day, I forget the stomach-flipping anxiety that I almost certainly endured.
Showing up is hard-that’s why so few people do it. Even fewer show up the second time, or the third.
Also present at that Activist Open House were several other women whom I never saw again. Where did they go? To political campaigns that could afford to brew Starbucks, not Folgers? To organizations with a different focus? Back to families, jobs, bills-in short, the minutia of everyday life?
In these pages I’ll admit what no one but my husband knows: There have been more than a few times I’ve returned from meetings determined to quit. Instead of volunteering for Minnesota NOW, I reasoned, I could learn to crochet, to speak Italian, to prepare every recipe in the “Moosewood Cookbook.” The most tragic outcome would be a scorched pan or a tangle of yarn, not the disappointment of my peers, or worse, the frustration of an entire movement.
I suspect the latter might be what prevents so many from volunteering for issues-based organizations like mine-the suspicion that one needs the otherworldly determination of Susan B. Anthony or Rosa Parks to feel like you’re actually getting anywhere. Showing up isn’t easy no matter what coffee is brewing. It’s certainly more convenient to direct cranky and accusatory emails at the person listed online as the organization’s leader, for this can be done in one’s pajamas. No American feminist organization carries more historical baggage than NOW, for good or ill, and the demands to do more, be more, and say more can be exhausting. All the work I’ve done for NOW has been unpaid, a fact which often surprises those who have yet to show up.
When I reply to these electronic brickbats, my initial inquiry is always the same: Are you a member? Only rarely is the answer affirmative. I remind these folks that filling out a membership form is as easy as Googling my name; I do acknowledge, however, that the substantive changes they seek will only occur when they decide to show up.
These changes might not be as world-shaking as the ones wrought by women named Susan and Rosa, but I doubt those two were half as fun at a conference as my friend Erin. Or my friend Barbra, my friend Kristi, my friends Beth (there are two!), my friend Mary Ann, and all those who still, day after day, year after year, show up.
Shannon Drury is the president of Minnesota NOW. She lives in Minneapolis with her family and is a self-described radical housewife.
FFI: Minnesota NOW (National Organization for Women) www.mnnow.org