A sign of the times: NOW organizing a Buffalo-area chapter

Sep 8, 2020

Buffalo is a city with no women representatives on the Common Council, its law and policymaking body. That brought a laugh of disbelief from the head of New York State's National Organization for Women. She said it means the Queen City is prime for a NOW chapter of its own.

"Any city that has no women on its city council must have a NOW chapter. We need to be in Buffalo in 2021," said NOW New York President Sonia Ossorio, who is leading efforts to organize a local chapter.

There used to be a local chapter many years ago, but Ossorio said the time is right to start anew.

"This is an organization that was started in 1966 and one of the things that we want to make sure to do is to be as helpful and advance women's rights as much in the 21st century as we did in the 20th century," she said, "and to do that, we're going to have to proactively be in every corner of the state." 

NOW founder Betty Friedan shown in her New York apartment in 1970.
Credit Anthony Camerano / AP

NOW was founded by Betty Friedan, the legendary activist and author of The Feminine Mystique. It now hails as the largest feminist organization in the United States.

Past presidents include the iconic Eleanor Smeal, who led efforts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, Molly Yard, who helped organize the largest march on Washington at the time to preserve Roe v. Wade, and Patricia Ireland, who helped NOW go global.

Ossorio said the priority today is Nov. 3 and a "Grab Trump By the Ballot" campaign.

"It is surprising how many people are not actually registered to vote and it's people who are outraged about the current situation in our country, about the current president," she said. "What has been happening in this country for the last almost four years now has brought politics into people's lives to a degree that it never was before. People who never considered themselves political now do."

She said there is a particular concern this presidential election about mail-in voting, that it may not count as much as in-person voting. Next legislative session, she is hoping New York will pass an Equal Rights Amendment.

However, she said NOW is also about helping women harness their power on a local level, in communities.

NOW New York President Sonia Ossorio has been knocking on doors as part of the "Grab Trump By The Ballot" campaign.
Credit NOW New York / Twitter

"Laws are beautiful and they tell you what the values are of a society, and if they're implemented right, they change people's lives, but that doesn't always happen," Ossorio said. "You know, values are very much in the budget. Where do people spend their money? I think one of the bigger issues moving forward is the issue of child care and schools and how much money we put into services for sexual assault survivors or prevention for domestic violence."

Ossorio said particular to Buffalo - and brought to the forefront by COVID - is the percentage of minimum-wage or just above minimum-wage jobs here and the disportionately large number of women who are employed in those jobs.

"We've been standing with home healthcare workers, whose working conditions are atrocious. It's mandated often to work 24 periods and they're paid for only 13 hours. They, right now, are having trouble getting enough PPE," she said. "This is a whole population of women, many of them women of color, who are taking care of our families and we need to make sure that we're taking care of them."

Of course, we can't mention NOW without mentioning that its national president of three years resigned last month amid allegations of creating a racist and toxic work environment. A woman of color now heads the organization for the second time in its history and the first time in nearly 50 years.

Ossorio said the internal struggle is "a huge step forward" that reflects the times in which we live - that is, every person, every organization, every company must be held accountable and see things through a racial and gender lens.

More information about organizing a Buffalo Niagara chapter can be found on the website of NOW New York, the largest NOW chapter in the country.