National Organization for Women prepares for Detroit convention

At 22, Jacqueline Steingold couldn't get birth control. It was 1964, she was single and her doctor wouldn't prescribe it unless she had a husband to approve it.

By 1975, Steingold was a probation officer in Detroit, working among men who told nasty jokes and kept pictures of scantily clad women in the office. She did the same job as they did, but for less money.

"All that culminated into anger and frustration and then - what are you going to do about it?" said Steingold, 65.

Steingold didn't know what feminism was, but she decided to find out in 1977, when the National Organization for Women held its 10th convention in Detroit.

She joined the group, rallying for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment; she's now president of the Detroit chapter.

NOW returns to Michigan Friday for its annual convention. About 600 members are expected for events through Sunday at the Hyatt Regency in Dearborn.

At 41, NOW has had successes but finds itself in what some call a post-feminist era, where some early gains have been diminished and younger women have their own idea of what's needed to achieve equal rights.

"There's been a lot of ups and downs since 1977," said NOW national president Kim Gandy, "but it's a heck of a lot better."

She called childcare and flexible work schedules the "great unfinished business" of the women's movement.

NOW claims 500,000 members today, including some men. Michigan has 4,000 to 5,000 members in 16 chapters statewide, officials said.

Looking back, many say the movement produced mixed results.

The political gains are highly visible: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is a contender for the Democratic Party's 2008 presidential nomination. Rep. Nancy Pelosi is the first female speaker of the U.S. House. Michigan has a female governor - Jennifer Granholm, who will address the NOW convention at noon Friday - as well as a female U.S. senator and two women in the U.S. House.

Women are no longer an oddity in the workplace, and today some husbands opt to stay home with the kids.

Girls believe they can be anything, but on average, women still don't make as much money as men. In Michigan, women make 69 cents for every $1 made by men, compared with 75 cents for women nationally, according to the Center for the Education of Women at the University of Michigan.

The ERA - a big issue in the late 1970s - was never ratified, though it is reintroduced annually in Congress.

"We still have so many things we have to do," said Renee Beeker, president of the Michigan NOW chapter. "Change is slow."

Before the women's movement spread, women primarily cared for their homes, husbands and children. But some weren't happy about it. They wanted to work and make as much money as men. They wanted college educations and girls sports programs with funding equal to boys teams.

And they got it - mostly. Millions of women entered the workplace. By 1976, 31 percent of women with infants worked, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today it's about 55 percent.

Women now make up close to 60 percent of all college students. Title IX, banning discrimination in academics and athletics, passed in 1972.

But there were women who were perfectly happy running a home while their husbands ran corporations. Among many, feminism became a dirty word and the rift between working and stay-at-home moms began.

"We thought they were nuts, wanting to go out there and slave like men - we're women!" said Ida Brown, 62, who has never worked outside the home.

Long-term, though, some women grew disillusioned. It seemed that they'd been sold a bill of goods by the feminist agenda, and they missed the happy home where dad earned the bread and mom baked it.

Recent surveys show a trend toward women opting out of the workforce.

In 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau said the percentage of working moms with infant children dropped from a record 59 percent in 1998 to 55 percent. It was the first significant decline since the bureau began calculating the measure in 1976. In 2006, there were 5.6 million stay-at-home moms.

"I'd literally come home from work with paperwork to face housework," said Wendy Sidlow, 42, who quit her job as an accounting supervisor three years ago to stay home with her children, 5 and 8.

"Nothing got done right, and I was running myself ragged, " she said.

Over the years, the internal conflicts among women were joined with external setbacks.

States chipped away at abortion access after the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that ruled that laws against abortion violated a constitutional right to privacy and it affirmed a constitutional right to an abortion.

Michigan is among states requiring a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion. Federally funded abortions are no more. And pharmacists can refuse to prescribe the morning-after pill if they have a religious objection.

"I think most women out there just have no idea at the level of assault" on reproductive issues, said Gandy, NOW's president. "People really felt that birth control rights were unassailable."

Wages for women are still lower than men's. In Michigan, women earn $32,600 per year on average, while men earn $42,600, said Erica Williams, policy analyst for the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Child care, especially employee- sponsored, is still scarce. And domestic violence - primarily perpetrated against women - is still not a top legislative or legal priority.

"What we're seeing now is kind of a stagnation," Williams said. "The last improvements we need to make are going to be the hardest."

Perhaps when the movement needs them most, some women aren't so sure they need a movement.

A 2005 CBS News poll of American women showed that 45 percent said that there was no longer a need for the women's movement, though they credited it for making their lives better.

"I've never been treated worse because I was a woman - not that I know of at least," said Jamie Sherman, 21. She's entering her senior year at Michigan State University in the fall. "I wouldn't describe myself as a feminist."

To combat the disconnect, NOW is "constantly trying to reach out and say, how can NOW be more relevant? How can NOW help you?" Steingold said.

The organization also still struggles to find its place among African American and Hispanic women.

"African Americans are hesitant about getting involved," said Dianne McMillian, 57, an African American and a two-year member of the Detroit chapter. "They don't think NOW is for them."

Steingold and other NOW members see the differences as a distraction from issues affecting women.

On average, women fight poverty, the lack of health insurance and violence more often than men. About 12 percent of Michigan's female population is poor, compared with 9 percent of male residents. And 14 percent of the state's women don't have health care coverage, compared with 6 percent of men, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

"You can't pick a field where we're at parity," Steingold said. "It's still a white, male world. There is still much work to do."